BEACHCOMBING near the pavillion. Cape May, NJ offers lots of nature activities for children to do.
Cape May, NJ: Nature Show of the East
by Christine Lynn Harvey

Cape May, NJ is nostalgically known as “America’s oldest seaside resort” but this idyllic travel destination has a lot more to offer than quaint Victorian bed and breakfasts by the sea. Located at the southern most tip of New Jersey, Cape May has the most diverse species of animal life on the east coast of the United States. The Cape May area acts as a migratory funnel for millions of song, shore and seabirds, raptors and sea mammals each year. The gardens of Cape May are dense with plants that attract many butterflies and dragonflies to the area. New Jersey Audubon (www.njaudubon.org; the birding hotline 609 898-BIRD) offers lectures and nature walks for children and adults every day of the week in several locations throughout the area. The Center for Research and Education located in Cape May Court House, NJ offers native plant gardening workshops on attracting birds and butterflies to your garden while the Northwood Center near Cape May Lighthouse is home to the Cape May Bird Observatory (609) 884-2736. The Nature Center (609 898-8848) on Delaware Avenue near the Coast Guard Station offers “Harbor Safari” and “Beachcombing the Cove” hands-on field trips, marsh boat cruises, as well as bike and kayaking tours.

You can take self-guided tours from marsh to beach at the Nature Conservancy’s Meadows Trail and Cape May Bird Refuge, located on Sunset Boulevard. Higbee Beach, off New England road with trails leading to Delaware Bay, is a butterflying and hawking hot spot. The newly opened Two Mile Landing Unit of the Cape May Wildlife Refuge in Wildwood Crest attracts a variety of migrating warblers, wading birds and nesting shorebirds. For a map to these nature spots, call the NJ Conservation Fund/West Cape May Citizens for Good Government at (609) 884-4778. An excellent little nature pocket guide for helping you identify all the flora and fauna you see here is the Peterson First Guide to Seashores by John C. Kricher.

The waters off Cape May are also home to more than 3,000 Atlantic bottle nose dolphin who come here to breed or give birth during the summer. They’re attracted to the fish trapped by the tip of Cape May and the Delaware River coming together and the safety and warm temperatures of the water. Hundreds of dolphin can be spotted off Cape May Lighthouse and the shore on any given day and whales can be sighted a few miles out into the ocean. A handful of whale and dolphin watching boats dock to the right of the small bridge on Lafayette Avenue (Route 633, the end of the Garden State Parkway) and range between $20-$31 per adult (the lower priced being 2 hour tours; the higher priced, a dinner cruise). On these trips, you’ll usually see some of the following: dolphin, whales, harbor seals, great blue heron, sting rays, skates, gigantic sunfish, loggerhead sea turtles, snowy egrets, kittawakes, pelagic birds, otters, harriers, cormorants, osprey and of course, the mascot of Cape May, the ubiquitous laughing gull.

The town of Cape May is home to Victorian and turn-of-the-century beach resorts that have been converted to upscale bed & breakfasts. The town celebrates a 10-day Victorian Week every October with special house tours, dinners, performances and exhibits on Victorian life by the sea. There are some well-known landmarks to be visited here: Congress Hall, a newly restored grandiose 100-room hotel built in 1816; The Mad Batter (www.madbatter.com), a restaurant/bed & breakfast with excellent cuisine; Aleatheas’, a restaurant inside the Inn of Cape May (800) 582 5933; www.innofcapemay.com) which features wrap-around Victorian porch dining and delicious reasonably-priced breakfast specialties. Try the malted Belgian waffles with whipped cream and blueberry/strawberry topping (a Cape May staple), light fluffy buttermilk pancakes or overstuffed Texas Toast with Grand Mariner marscapone cheese with toasted pecans.

Having tea is a special delight at the Emlen Physick Estate on Washington Street. Built in 1879, this Stick Style mansion, which you can tour, has Dr. Physick’s 1915 Model T Ford Runabout parked on the front lawn. A tea luncheon and elegant afternoon tea is served in the adjoining Twinings Tearoom (608-884-5404). Afterwards, you can browse the gallery shop for unusual tea pots and other specialty tea items. Inexplicable tales of the supernatural abound in Cape May. Since ghosts haunt the places they once loved, and there are plenty of places to love here, you can indulge your interest in anomalous phenomena by going on a ghost tour. Try the Original Haunted Cape May Tour (609-463-8984) or The Haunted Mansion Ghost Tour (609-884-4358).

Accommodations are not cheap during peak season and many travelers opt to stay in the Wildwoods area a few miles out of town. Here you will find the very best of the Jersey Shore: boardwalk amusement and water parks minus the gambling casinos. The path and boardwalk along the Wildwoods shore is ideal for in-line skating, jogging, cycling and power walking. Wildwood is very much like Florida, but without the heat. It’s considered the Doo Wop capital of the world where plastic palm trees and outlandish neon signs have etched themselves onto the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the resorts were built in the 50’s, so it’s like stepping into a time capsule when you come here.

An excellent Polish restaurant is Polonez, an unassuming Polish deli at the corner of New Jersey and West Cardinal Avenues (609-846-9400). The prices and portions are from the 1950’s as well. $7.50 will buy you a huge house salad, beet or cucumber salad, home-made fried sauerkraut with mashed carrots, the main course, dessert and coffee. Try the red borscht soup, meat pierogies, browned pork cutlet with fried egg, stuffed cabbage with light creamed tomato sauce and tender home-made kielbasa. Another great eats place is the Fish Factory on New Jersey Avenue where you can eat in or take out good seafood rather cheaply. Crab Imperial, the steamed clams in garlic butter sauce and 50 peel and eat cocktail shrimp are good choices.

On your way back into Cape May is a popular seafood restaurant called Two Mile Landing Restaurant & Crab Shack. The Crab Shack is your best bet where dockside dining can be had at reasonable prices. A trip to Cape May would be incomplete without visiting The Lobster House, a famous seafood restaurant located at Fisherman’s Wharf on Schellenger’s Road. The wait can be up to 1 1/2 hours if you arrive during regular dinner times. It’s best to save up your appetite and go during the week no later than 4:30 pm when it’s less crowded. The wait in any of Cape May’s restaurants is worth it since the area is the third largest fishing port on the east coast, making it seafood lovers’ heaven.

Starlight Fleet (www.jjcboats.com; (609) 729-3400) in Wildwood Crest offers a two hour dolphin watching tour at 9:30 am with donuts, coffee and juice, a 3 hour whale/dolphin watching tour at 1:00 pm and a dinner buffet sunset cruise/dolphin watch at 6:30 pm. The various cruises tour the back bay of Sunset Lake, Cold Spring inlet, the Coast Guard Station, Cape May City shoreline, Cape May lighthouse, the sunken concrete ship off Sunset Beach, Higbee Beach and the intercoastal waterway. This waterway, which is really a canal, turned Cape May into an island when it was built by the Army Corp of Engineers in the 1940’s as way to protect merchant ships during WW 2. You can see remnants of bunkers and a control tower that were built to defend the Victory Ships that ventured down the Delaware River on their way to resupply the Allied troops in Europe. Most Americans don’t realize that German subs patrolled our nation’s coastline only a few miles off shore. The 1:00 pm Starlight boat I was on cruised 20 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean to view three fin-backed whales. It’s advisable to take an anti-motion sickness medication if you are prone since the waters can get pretty rough and getting sick will ruin your whale watching experience.

Fin-backed whales grow to be approximately 80 feet long and were once called “the greyhounds of the sea” since they travel at speeds of 30 mph. They are a type of baleen whale that was once hunted for it’s oil because it’s blubber is two feet thick. The boat could not get too close to these animals since laws protect them so, their real size eludes you until you hear that two elephants can fit inside one of these creature’s mouths! There’s also a touch tank filled with marine life on board that children can experience with the guidance of a marine biologist. Discounts for these cruises can be found on brochures and coupons in the local papers.

Although it’s about a 1/2 hour ride from Cape May, The Wetlands Institute (www.wetlandsinstitute.org; (609) 368-1211) in Stone Harbor is a great place for children to visit. Check out the exhibit on diamondback terrapins, a unique salt marsh turtle only found on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the US. Each year, hundreds of thousands of turtles are drowned in crab traps or run over by careless motorists. Researchers at the Wetlands Institute have developed a terrapin excluder trap which prevents the turtles from entering the traps. There are also aquarium exhibits, lectures and films on salt marsh ecosystems, a live remote TV displaying an Osprey’s nest, hikes around the marsh, an educational gift shop and a lookout tower atop the institute (so bring your binoculars!). The day I visited, I saw lots of glossy ibis, tricolored and little blue herons, willets, clapper rails and great egrets.

For more info on events in the Cape May and Wildwoods area, check out www.villageprofile.com, the Cape May County of Tourism at www.thejerseycape.net (1-800-227-2297) and www.capemaytimes.com.

All photos and story by Christine Lynn Harvey, publisher/editor of New Living Magazine.

HUNDREDS OF DOLPHINS are regularly sighted off Cape May’s shores every summer.
CAPE MAY BIRD REFUGE where several different kinds of raptors and other birds can be spotted.
CAPE MAY LIGHTHOUSE.
WHALE & DOLPHIN WATCHING near the SUNKEN SHIP, SUNSET BEACH.
ALEATHEA’S AT THE INN OF CAPE MAY offers fine Victorian wrap-around porch dining & incredible breakfasts.
CONGRESS HALL HOTEL: A newly restored hotel that was originally built in 1816 by Thomas Hughes who would later serve in the US Congress, hence the nickname.
EMLEN PHYSICK ESTATE on Washington Avenue serves afternoon tea in the Twinings Tearoom.
WILDWOODS, NJ offers plenty to do. Fitness enthusiasts can work out or walk along the bike path leading to the board walk. Amusement Park seen in the distance.
CAPE MAY MALL: There are plenty of places to shop in Cape May. The "mall" is 2 blocks closed off to traffic.
GURNEY STREET leading to COLUMBIA AVENUE in the heart of CAPE MAY, NJ. where the finest examples of Victorian seaside resort homes can be found anywhere in the US.
THE ABBEY BED AND BREAKFAST INN at Gurney Street and Columbia Avenue offers afternoon tea.
WHALE WATCHING is BIG business in Cape May!
LOBSTER HOUSE RESTAURANT, FISHERMAN'S WHARF. No trip to Cape May, NJ is complete without eating at this famous landmark.
IDYLLIC MAINSTREET USA: The interection of Columbia Avenue in Cape May.
MUTE SWANS are regular visitors to Cape May and are only found on the Northeast Coast of the U.S.