Small-town, seaside charm abounds in Cape May, N.J.

A few days after our family trip to Cape May, N.J., I can still smell the salty, sea air and feel the cool, ocean breeze on my skin.

I am no stranger to the beach; I grew up in Queens, within an hour’s drive of Long Island’s popular shores, took yearly trips to Virginia Beach as a kid, traveled to the beaches of the Carribean and the Middle East, and, more recently, spent many summers at the more northern points of the Jersey Shore.

Cape May N.J. has a lot of what you might find in any beach town, small shops selling ice cream, souvenirs, or beach gear, restaurants on the water and a walkable pathway that runs along the edge of the beach. However, what makes Cape May stand out is the charm of the town.

Cape May N.J. is dotted with beautiful Victorian homes and quaint shops. In proximity to our hotel, was just one small grocery store, and I can’t recall seeing a single chain restaurant or major retail store. Of course, this could make living in Cape May year-round challenging, which I can’t speak to, but if you enjoy an escape from the hustle and bustle of busier areas, a visit to Cape May may be right for you.

Cape May has a variety of hotels, B&Bs, inns, motels, and vacation rentals to choose from. After a bit of research and budgeting, my husband and I chose to book our stay at The Grand Hotel. We liked the location of the hotel, the availability of rooms with a small kitchen, and the positive reviews we had read about the property. I should note we booked our July trip back in January, which saved us a bit on the cost, and ensured we would have a place to stay. Cape May books up fast, so regardless of where you plan to stay, you would be wise to reserve your room(s) as early as possible if you plan to travel during the summer.

Check out the slideshow below for some pics from the hotel (including what it looks like when a messy family is living there for a few days).

Our hotel was located across the street from the main Cape May beach, so of course we we enjoyed the easy access to the sand and water. I am unsure if it was just a product of a recent storm, or typical conditions, but it is important to note the water ranged from being too dangerous to go in beyond the shore, to swimmable, with great caution. Personally, I like the challenge of wave jumping, and if you have kids who can handle it, this is a fun thing to do together, however guardians should be vigilante, especially with small children.

My husband and eldest enjoying some beach time.

For a different beach experience, we headed over to West Cape May to explore Sunset Beach and search for the famed Cape May “diamonds.” Sorry, you won’t find the real deal at this beach, these diamonds are actually pieces of clear quartz that are mixed in amongst the beautiful rocks and pebbles that line the shores of this unique beach.

Be sure to bring a container(s) and watch your kids’ faces light up as they search for the diamonds. I was amazed by how much my children got into the search, and noticed kids of all ages and adults were happily scouring the beach.

Avoid getting too engrossed in your “diamond” search you, or you may forget to look up at the breathtaking sky over the water. There’s a reason this beach is called “Sunset Beach.” Even on the slightly overcast day we visited, the sun setting over the water was majestic.

How could you not be awed by this incredible place?

Another fascinating aspect about Sunset Beach is the remains of the S.S. Atlantus, which you can see in the photo above. According to information posted on the sign at the beach (image below), the S.S. Atlantus was an experimental concrete ship built during World War 1. The ship was proven too heavy for practical use. In 1926 the ship was intended to be used as a ferry dock, however, in June of that year a storm hit causing the wreckage you see today.

My family was fortunate to visit another Cape May landmark, the Cape May Lighthouse. Built in 1859, this important beacon is fully operational and open to the public for visits. My kids were rock stars climbing up the 199 steps to the top, and we all enjoyed looking out from the observation and catching the beautiful views of Cape May below.

Families should use caution when attempting to climb the stairs, and I would not recommend this for children under the age of four, or for those with difficulty with gross motor skills. I will also note the lighthouse is not accessible for those who are unable or have difficulty with walking/climbing, and tall folks should be mindful of low ceilings. If the climb is not right for your family, there is a museum on the grounds.

Climbing up the 199 stairs and rewarded by this view!

As we saw with the lighthouse and other landmarks, the people of Cape May care deeply about their town’s history. Just walking along the streets of the town is like traveling back in time. I loved strolling by the beautiful Victorian homes and wondering about the lives of those who have lived in them in years past.

While you are exploring the town, you can’t miss the Washington Street Mall, an outdoor shopping square filled with shops and eateries.

The Washington Street Mall was super cute.

When we travel, my family prefers to make/eat most of our food in our room, as we find this generally easier with kids, and gives us more time to explore the area, however we did dine out a handful of times and was very pleased with our experiences.

Two standouts were Rusty Nail and Mad Batter, both located in the heart of Cape May’s tourist/vacation area.

We visited Rusty Nail for dinner on our last night at Cape May. I had the foresight to make a reservation, and I am glad I did, as there was a line for walk-ins and a substantial wait. If you are thinking of giving this restaurant a try, I highly suggest you make a reservation, you can always cancel if you change your mind.

Rusty Nail, which is located on the property of the Beach Shack hotel, is popular for good reason. Tables are spread around sand that kids are welcomed to play in, while musicians provide the chill vibe you want on a summer evening. The food was tasty, and, combined with the service and atmosphere, made for a wonderful dining experience.

After we checked out the next morning, we headed over to Mad Matter at the Carroll Villa hotel. Unlike Rusty Nail, this restaurant does not take reservations, so I imagine, on weekend mornings, the wait can be especially long. We went on a Monday, and did have to wait about twenty minutes for a table, which was manageable.

I can’t speak to the whole menu, as our family all got the same thing: Pancakes!!! They were fluffy, delicious and huge. In retrospect, I should have split and order or two, but hey, that’s what leftovers are for. Definitely was a great way to close out our visit to Cape May.

I would be remiss not to mention Morey’s Piers, in Wildwood, N.J., as this popular destination is a short drive from Cape May. When booking our trip, we debated whether we should stay there as opposed to in the heart of Cape May.

I know many people love Morey’s, however, for me, I thought the area was overrated. I have been to several boardwalks in my life, and Morey’s has the usual games and fare you would find along any beach. Yes, Morey’s has rides, including a few large coasters, but again, nothing that is truly unique. That said, our kids enjoyed our visit there and the food we had was better than expected. My feeling is, if you are traveling with kids under the age of two or three, I don’t think the hassle and overstimulation of Morey’s is worth it. For preschool/elementary kids, Morey’s can be fun, just be mindful that they will want to do EVERY carnival game. I imagine tweens and teens will be happiest here, as there are enough thrill rides, and you don’t have to worry as much about them getting lost in the crowds.

On our next visit to Cape May, I hope our family gets a chance to explore the zoo and maybe take a ride on the ferry to check out Lewes, Delaware. I have no doubt we will return and I look forward to sharing about our visit.

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