The month of May brings Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. With vacation budgets shrinking, many folks are opting to use their free time for day trips or long weekend jaunts. They’re on the lookout for close-to-home destinations, easily accessible by car, that offer all the qualities of a great vacation: a little bit of history, cultural options, outdoor fun, shopping — and great places to sleep and eat. From Massachusetts to New Jersey, we’ve scouted out nearby areas that fit the bill. So pack the car and the kids, and roll out for summer fun!
Seaside landmark: The Cape May Lighthouse, built more than 150 years ago
Photograph by Nelson Sirlin
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CAPE MAY New Jersey
Known for its Victorian “painted ladies” and spotless beaches, this historic resort town has an atmosphere all its own.
By Shannon Gallagher
As a kid I spent many a Christmas break in Key West. Although I could not partake in the Duval Street debauchery that has made the continental United States’ southernmost city infamous, I was enraptured by the funky beach community and its unique, not-quite-island vibe.
Cape May, New Jersey’s southernmost destination, has the same quirky ambience. Though it more closely resembles the geography of other Northeastern summer hot spots like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, or Montauk, there’s a decidedly everyman feel to this tiny oceanside community, and the best part is, it’s only a four-hour drive away from the Hudson Valley.
The trip to Cape May is relatively painless, and you’re talking to someone who has spent her adult life trying to avoid New Jersey highways at all costs. About halfway down the Garden State Parkway the surrounding development all but disappears, and surprising glimpses of water make you almost forget you’re in Jersey altogether. Nevertheless, by the time you reach Exit 0 you’re glad to know “Reality Stops Here,” and it does. Driving into Cape May is like stepping through the rabbit hole into a Frankie and Annette beach party, but circa 1900. Famous for its “painted ladies” (Victorian houses decked out in three or more fanciful colors), Cape May has a spooky, dollhouse feel that — when combined with the salt air, sand, and sunshine — gives the place an undeniably offbeat charm.
Shore points: The Cape May area’s many charms include colorful Victorian-era homes (left) and the Mad Batter’s sunny dining area
I stayed at the Carroll Villa, an Italian villa-style hotel built in 1882 and located less than a block away from the beach. Harry Kulkowitz, who bought the business in 1976, added the building’s now-famous awning when he opened the Mad Batter, a three-squares-a-day restaurant that occupies most of the first floor. Today, Harry’s son Mark runs the bed and breakfast with his wife Pam. Under their direction the creaky old hotel has gotten quite a facelift, including eclectic new wallpaper throughout and a few suites with modern décor (like the Wizard of Oz suite). While it has maintained its Victorian charm, the historic inn now offers all the fluff we digital age people have come to expect, like flat screen TVs, refrigerators, and private bathrooms (for which they had to sacrifice 13 rooms, bringing the total to 21). “We are constantly trying to figure out a way to connect modern and Victorian,” says Kulkowitz.
The heart of the Carroll Villa is the Mad Batter. “It’s sort of like Cheers,” Kulkowitz laughs. “We like to have a good time. We have a reputation.” That reputation is twofold: not only do they apparently serve the best brunch in Cape May, they are a local favorite all year-round, even in high-tourist season. The drink menu features the most extensive selection of fruity martinis I’ve ever laid eyes on. Were I not pregnant I would have had to indulge in one of their many frozen cocktails; the Mad Batter Slammer (a Southern Comfort and tropical fruit concoction) sounded pretty tempting. Brunch was fantastic (as was dinner), and the relaxed, festive atmosphere was half the fun of it. While both menus are pretty classic, there are a number of seafood options, especially the jumbo lump crab dishes that practically scream “fresh and delicious” right from the page.
Cape May’s collection of horseshoe crabs and the boardwalk in nearby Wildwood also garner attentionCrab photograph by Lena Bernatsky. Wildwood photo courtesy Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority
Well-fed and rested is a fine way to approach a day in Cape May. While there is plenty to see (and buy) just strolling about town, having a car is helpful to get to some of the more far-flung sites. Sunset Beach, with its legendary sunsets, is also home to the wreckage of the Atlantus, a concrete ship built during World War I that became stuck on a sandbar just 150 feet off the coast. Here, beachcombers can also find Cape May “diamond,” pieces of quartz crystal littered throughout the sand that can be polished and faceted to resemble an actual “girl’s best friend.” Top off the day with the Summer Evening Flag Ceremony, held every night at dusk between Memorial Day and Labor Day. A group of children (the spots are sometimes reserved a year in advance) lowers Old Glory and folds it military-style as a recording of Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” plays in the background.
Another good coastal spot is Higbee Beach, a popular wildlife management area (and a former nude beach) known for its horseshoe crab mating ground and exceptional birding. A 199-step climb to the top of the historic Cape May Lighthouse offers one-of-a-kind views. The Cape May Bird Observatory is unparalleled (as many birders might already know), thanks to the sheer volume and diversity of birds in the area.
But if you’re looking for a little action, head back up the Garden State to Wildwood, home to the best boardwalk on the Jersey Shore. The famous attraction is a two-mile stretch of rides (more than Disneyland), carnival games, and all the fast food you would expect. Go during the day and stroll along the Atlantic, or wait for evening to take in all the neon lights. Just make sure you don’t eat too many funnel cakes.
Next stop: Bash Bish Falls and Lenox, Massachusetts