Beach Weekend Getaway in Cape May

  • Distance from Philadelphia: 158 miles
  • Best time: April to October
  • Best for: RomanticArts and CultureBeaches

Touted as the country's first seaside resort, New Jersey's charming Cape May possesses a unique blend of history and natural beauty. From Victorian-era gingerbread houses and hotels favored by past presidents to windswept dunes and bordering marshlands, it defies the fist-pumping Jersey Shore boardwalk towns of MTV. In a weekend, you can eat at exceptional restaurants, take in a show, tour historic homes, as well as bike, swim, bird-watch, and hike along white-sand beaches. –By Aaron Starmer

Friday

Cape May Cheat Sheet

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1.Resplendent inns and Atlantic surf meet at Cape May's oceanfront Beach Avenue. Turn inland on Ocean Street to find the open-air, pedestrian-only Washington Street Mall, where dispatchers for Cape May Carriage Company arrange 30-minute tours by horse-drawn buggy.

2.Two blocks from the mall is one of Cape May's most elegant and celebrated restaurants, The Washington Inn, where a "Dinner and a Show" prix-fixe meal entitles you to discounted theater tickets at the nearby Cape May Stage. Leave your shorts and flip-flops at the hotel and tuck into seafood, steaks and chops, as well as an exhaustive wine list—the sommelier selects foolproof flights.

3.Cape May's theater season runs from May to December at Cape May Stage. The diverse program surpasses that of most regional theaters and often features veteran Broadway actors. Recent seasons have included shows like God of Carnage, The 39 Steps, and Time Stands Still for $35 a ticket, a fraction of Broadway costs.

Saturday

Did You Know? The only place in the country that can claim more Victorian homes than Cape May also claims about 200 times more permanent residents: San Francisco.

1.Start the day with alfresco eggs and pancakes on the massive porch and garden of the Blue Pig Tavern at Congress Hall. Outstanding service, teak furniture, and top-notch ingredients make for a refined experience—and you don't have to be a guest to indulge.

2.Familiarize yourself with the wildlife of the local bays, marshes, and beaches with a morning visit to the Nature Center of Cape May on Cape May Harbor. There are interactive programs, exhibits, and viewing platforms for spotting seabirds and harriers.

3.Take your newfound knowledge to the beach. Less-crowded patches of sand are found west on Sunset Boulevard towards Cape May Point. At the road's end you'll find Sunset Beach, a sand-side gift-shop that's the place to procure "Cape May Diamonds"–quartz crystals formed in the Delaware River and deposited on local shores. Crab cakes from the store's grill make for a quick lunch with ocean views.

4.Sunbathe, surf, fish, or hike along miles of dunes and coastline that lie within Cape May Point State Park. Birders can explore the teeming, freshwater marshes and visit the Cape May Bird Observatory. You'll have already spied the 157-foot-tall Cape May Lighthouse at the southernmost tip of the park (and the state); finish your afternoon by taking in the views across the bay to Delaware from the top.

6.Freshen up and then head out for dinner at Black Duck on Sunset. The dishes are highlighted by Asian and Latin flavors and are consistently ranked among the town's best. Just remember to BYOB—you can pick up a on the way at Colliers Liquors, where the staff has great wine recommendations.

7.Open since 1885, the Merion Inn has the town's oldest bar and a reputation for enduring sophistication. Cap off your evening with carefully crafted cocktails like a classic martini and free jazz on most summer evenings.

Sunday

1.A leisurely breakfast of fluffy buttermilk pancakes from the Mad Batter is a local tradition at Carrol Villa. Arrive early or prepare to wait at peak times (they don't accept reservations), but rest assured the meal will be a sumptuous start to the day.

2.Set aside an hour for a tour of the Emlen Physick Estate to see Cape May's Victorian furnishings up close and learn about well-heeled 19th-century coastal living.

3.Fit in another trip to the beach before checkout, followed by a final perusal of the shops at Washington Street Mall, where you can pick up a few souvenirs and some snacks for the ride home.

Where to Stay

With its demure yellow facade offset by a gray mansard roof, stately white columns, and immaculate lawns, the nearly 200-year-old Congress Hall (rooms from $275/night) assures passers-by that if they have the money, they'd be foolish to spend it elsewhere. President Benjamin Harrison would second that notion. He used it as his "Summer White House."

In a town awash with B&Bs, it's hard to differentiate between the old-fashioned and the just-plain-old. The two houses that make up the Queen Victoria (rooms from $200/night) have been welcoming year-round guests since 1980, but were built in 1880s. Their restoration is nearly flawless and the service would please the eponymous monarch.

When to Go

Late April through May represents the yearly rebirth of the town. The first crowds arrive for the Cape May Spring Festival; more follow with the Cape May Bird Observatory Spring Weekend.

Summer is obviously the busiest time of year. Some businesses only open from Memorial Day to shortly after Labor Day. The population increases tenfold and events like the Cape May Music Festival in June keep the inns and bars brimming with guests.

Early autumn brings clear days, smaller crowds, and warm-water temperatures. The Cape May Food and Wine Festival in September marks the end of the resort season for some, while others hold out for mid-October's Victorian Week celebrations.

In December, downtown lights up for the holidays, and carriage rides come at a premium, especially during the Dickens Christmas Extravaganza.

How to Get There

By car from New York: Cape May is nearly three hours from Manhattan. Take the Holland Tunnel and follow I-78W and exit at I-95 S/Turnpike South. Follow New Jersey Turnpike South to exit 11 for Garden State Parkway South. Cape May is the last exit on the Parkway.

By car from Philadelphia: Cape May is approximately two hours from Philadelphia. Take the Ben Franklin Bridge to I-676 S. Continue onto I-76 E and NJ-42 S, which becomes Atlantic City Expressway East. Follow Expressway to exit 7S for Garden State Parkway South. Cape May is the last exit on the Parkway.

By bus from New York: From late June until Labor Day, New Jersey Transit bus #319 from Manhattan's Port Authority Terminal extends its Atlantic City express service to Cape May Transportation Center, with ten to twelve trips daily. At other times, transfer to the local #552 bus in Atlantic City to reach Cape May. Trips take four to five hours.

By bus from Philadelphia: From late June until Labor Day, New Jersey Transit bus #316 operates from seven to nine daily express trips between Philadelphia's Greyhound Terminal and the Cape May Transportation Center, taking three hours. At other times, local bus #313/315 makes five daily trips, taking up to four hours.

Getting Around Cape May: Wide streets and bike lanes make explorations easiest on two wheels. If you can't bring your own bike, consider popping into Shields Bike Rental. A trolley bus from Great American Trolley Company circles downtown from noon–11pm from July to September. Flag it down at any corner and pay a $1 fare.

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