How to Spend a Perfect Weekend in New Jersey’s Cape May

An insider's guide to the East Coast's best kept summer secret

July 27, 2022 7:05 am
From fresh seafood to gorgeous beaches, here's everything you need to know about Cape May
Cape May's embarrassment of summer riches.
Hooked Up; Lokal; Congress Hall;

Two hours from Philadelphia and three from New York, Cape May has everything you need in a summer weekend getaway — impeccable beaches, incredible restaurants, that deep-tissue massage you’ve been putting off — and some of what you never expected, including rich Black history and winemaking climate comparable to France’s most famous region.

Red and Yellow Cabanas on the beach in Cape May New Jersey
The beach at Congress Hall

Where to Stay

Cape May is one of America’s original seaside resorts, and the hotel stock can sometimes feel like it hasn’t changed much since the 1800s. Fortunately in recent years, the scene has leveled up, driven by a new generation of travelers looking for modern alternatives to the town’s Victorian bed-and-breakfasts. One example is the Lokal Hotel Cape May Micro-Resort, opened by young hoteliers Chad and Courtney Ludeman, whose hospitality brand originated in Philly (from which the couple and their two sons relocated back in 2018). The property, situated less than a block from the beach, splits the difference between a traditional hotel and a vacation rental. Like the Ludemans’ other properties, it operates on an invisible service model, without a front desk, valet, restaurant, etc. The amenities, meanwhile, go beyond a standard hotel: branded Yeti beach kit, in-room bar, bocce set, charcoal grill and ice maker by the saltwater pool. And the airy studios and two-bedroom apartments have a refreshing design whose grounding in minimalism, neutrals and natural materials manage to both honor and subvert the coastal aesthetic. The couple honored one important Cape May tradition, a handsome double-decker front porch furnished with comfortable chairs and lined in potted seagrass that rustles in the ocean breeze. If you do nothing else but sit there all weekend and listen to the sea, we’re not mad at ya.

Clams cooking
Local clams sautéed in white wine and garlic at Hooked Up
Hooked Up Seafood

What to Do 

DAY 1: Surf

Despite its name, Cape May is not really a cape but a teapot-shaped island bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Delaware Bay and the inlet that links the two. Downtown occupies the spout of the pot, with the body filled with the neighborhoods of West Cape May and Cape May Pointe, farmland, vineyard, marsh and wildlife sanctuary populated by ospreys, turtles and, in September, masses of migrating Monarch butterflies en route to Mexico. This guide gives the best of both sides of greater Cape May (with a dash of the neighboring Wildwoods), with a day focused on the water, and another on land.

Start with breakfast at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, an iconic diner chain (est. 1962) at the southern shore. Grab a table on the shady, horseshoe-shaped patio and go with our patented order: the crisp, malty waffle covered in warm strawberry compote and ringed in whipped cream, side of griddled ham drowned in maple syrup, bowl of tots. Head over to Lokal, a five-minute walk along the Beach Avenue, and pick up your beach tags from Chad and Courtney — they’re available via text — before settling in to pass most of the morning and afternoon snoozing on the sand and bodysurfing in the ocean. This is why you’re here, and you’re not getting out of your bathing suit today. 

When you’ve finished your book/nap/surf sesh, take a short drive to Wildwood Crest, the town just across Cape May Inlet, and refresh with a Brandywine Valley Coffee Roasters cold brew or a vanilla soft-serve beaded with plump Jack Rudy cocktail cherries at Turtle Gut, a smart new café on Sunset Lake, a wide, placid stretch of the Intracoastal fronted by a sunny lawn unspooling along the shore. Across the street Lakeview Docks, rents wave-runners (or if you’re feeling more low-key, kayaks and SUPs) by the hour. Jet across the water and around tidal islands, between sailboats and lazy pontoons moving like mentees, then dry off in the park for and early dinner at the very best place to eat in all of Cape May County, Hooked Up Seafood. Over the last couple summers, Michele and Bill Bright, a longtime commercial fisherman, have been slowly passing the torch of their acclaimed kitchen trailer on the Wildwood docks to their four kids, Tess, Sara, Sam and William. At umbrella-topped picnic tables, they serve what they and their network of Jersey fisherfolk catch: tuna, swordfish, mahi, John Dory, grilled, blackened or seared, with two sides, including local corn, killer fries and lacy buttermilk onion rings. Fair warning: Hooked Up will ruin you for all other seafood restaurants at the Jersey Shore.

You’re having dinner early to both beat the crowds and the sunset. Shoot off the island and back onto the mainland, swinging by Gusto Brewing Co. the idiosyncratic North Cape May brewery, for freshly filled crowlers of tropical Slam Poet IPA or spicy Cool Hand Lucas ESB. (You brought your Lokal Yeti, right?). Bring the beers to Sunset Beach, a bayfront crescent home to the wreck of the SS Atlantus, an experimental WWI-era concrete ship whose stern juts out of the water 150 feet offshore. Locals and tourists gather at this beach nightly to watch the sun slowly sink below the horizon, while gulls perch on the shipwreck and dolphins dive so close it feels like you could swim alongside them. Crack a beer, enjoy the show.

Crabs in a bucket
It doesn’t get any fresher than the crabs at Hooked Up.
Hooked Up Seafood

DAY 2: Turf

The most storied address in Cape May is Congress Hall, a grand daisy-yellow hotel whose history goes back to 1816. You can’t miss that sense of history as you pass through its heavy doors into the jungle-green lobby and grab a coffee and pastry in the Tommy’s Folly café before settling for a massage at Sea Spa. This isn’t some huge resort spa with a hydrothermal plunge pool circuit and six types of bespoke body wash. Just a handful of treatment rooms and the most vigorous, athletic massage at the Shore.

Make your way out of the spa and wander down the Washington Street Mall, the town’s shop-lined pedestrian thoroughfare, on Jell-O legs. Among the stores hawking replica lifeguard sweats and seashell tchotchkes, the racks at Galvanic, Sunflower Boutique and Willow & Stone carry strong menswear, from Puma collab hoodies to quick-dry swimwear and cashmere sweaters befitting a rakish mariner. Or maybe you just need a pound of vanilla-nut from the Original Fudge Kitchen? At the end of the Mall, it’s a couple blocks to the year-old Harriet Tubman Museum. The museum not only documents the famed abolitionist’s time in Cape May, where she worked and helped lead enslaved people across the Delaware Bay and up the Underground Railroad to freedom in Philadelphia, but also Cape May’s deep and often overlooked Black history.

The museum is just a block away from Big Wave Burritos, a sun-washed spot with cannon-sized burritos and rice bowls. Get lunch to go and bring it back to Lokal to catch some prime afternoon pool time; you can get some sun and (more) relaxation in before getting ready for dinner at Beach Plum Farm, an idyll of organic agriculture, pastured animals and walking trails through savanna and swamp in the west end of town. But first, drinks — and something to blow your mind: The warm summers, ocean-cooled evenings and sandy soil of Cape May County is strikingly similar to the wine-growing climate of Bordeaux. So on the way to Beach Plum, swing into one of the local wineries for a bottle — say, a bright young Albariño from Cape May Winery or Turdot Vineyard’s watermelon-pink 100% Merlot rosé — to BYOB to dinner, which begins promptly at six with mocktails in the tranquil herb garden.

Rob Marzinsky, a former 76ers chef who relocated to the Shore a year ago and veteran head farmer Christina Albert put on one ticketed, communal, al fresco dinner a night, featuring the best of what’s growing on the farm at any given moment. If you’re lucky the menu will include richly spiced, Beach Plum pork meatballs and supple panna cotta drizzled with freshly harvested honey and strewn with flowers and herbs. Blissfully wandering the darkened farm after dinner, to the soundtrack of crickets and wind-ruffled trees, does it even occur to you that you didn’t even see the ocean today? Maybe not. As you’ve learned, Cape May has way more than just waves to offer.


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