On the New Jersey side of the Cape May-Lewes ferry lies the quaint vacation spot known as a place of antique shops and Victorian bed and breakfasts.
But beyond the obvious amenities, a wealth of attractions and lesser-known sights awaits. WHYY’s Tom MacDonald explored some of those less conventional places and offers this guide.
It isn’t the easiest place to find, but the Nature Center of Cape May sprawls over 17 acres near the Coast Guard Station. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in far South Jersey, said Gretchen Whitman, sanctuary director.
“We are one of several New Jersey Audubon centers throughout the state. Our specialty is environmental education, particularly for children and their families,” Whitman said. “Since we’re here in the harbor, a lot of what we do focuses on marine life and the marine aquatic habitats.
“But we really are a multifaceted nature center,” she continued. “We do programs for all ages, for all different types of subjects.”
Whitman took me into a garage transformed into a student-run marine center.
“Not a fancy aquarium with museum quality stuff, but what’s great about it is the kids are doing this,” she said. “We’ve got students working on this, so it’s a way that they are involved.
On to the marina
As you enter Cape May proper, there’s the South Jersey Marina. The facility has changed with the economy, said marketing director Mark Allen. Once relying solely on business from fishing boats, the marina now services yachts pulling up to fill their fuel tanks.
“One-hundred-fifty-foot plus boats come in here,” Allen said. “A lot of them come here in the spring when they are headed to Long Island Sound, and they come back in the fall when they are headed south to Palm Beach. They come in here, and they pump 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of fuel.”
Since a 2012 fire caused more than $1 million in damage, Allen said it has become a “boutique” marina, offering shower facilities you might find in a mansion and washing machines that send your phone a text message when the laundry is done.
Another new and growing line of business at the marina is scattering cremated remains offshore, Allen said. Fishing boats have started to offer the service since it’s illegal to throw ashes off the side of the ferry, although he said he’s seen people try.
“There’s a certain criteria they have to follow — they’ve got to follow stipulated regulations, of course,” he said. “But burials at sea, they can go out a certain distance, they can take the ashes, they can have the family, have a nice interment at sea. That’s good business for the guys that fish with us.”
‘A spiritual getaway’
On the other end of town, at Cape May Point, you can find a less permanent way to commune with the sea — the Marianist Family Retreat Center. The Catholic center is located in a home once owned by John Wanamaker that served as a summer home for orphans.
Program director Jessica Sherwen said the center offers “spiritual getaways.”
“it’s a chance for families to get away and do activities helping them strengthen their family life and their family faith life,” she said. “You have to get away to just reflect and see where you are and where you are going. We offer those opportunities.”
Brother Al Cook, who has been working at the center for 50 years, calls the place paradise. He recommends that families discard modern technology for a week and reconnect.
“Just as I received the place when I first came, you can’t believe the atmosphere, the history, and the surrounding areas — farms, lakes, ocean, museums,” he said.
Welcoming dogs and an unearthly cat
Most New Jersey beaches won’t let you bring Fido or Spot, with the local exception of Sunset Beach in West Cape May. Dot Capuano, who manages the nearby Beach Shack hotel, caters to people who want to bring four-legged family members on vacation.
“We have fun doggy beer, we have doggy biscuits, we have doggy items on the menu and we also have some pet-friendly rooms as well,” she said.
Cape May calls itself the “Nation’s Oldest Seashore resort,” with a tourist business dating to 1761. Much of the town has a distinct Victorian charm, and maybe a few ghosts.
There’s Elaine’s Haunted Mansion restaurant, which is also a bed and breakfast. Despite Cape May’s long history, her facility’s haunted history is relatively new, said manager Shirley Finney.
“It started when we first took over the building over 25 years ago, people would see ghosts and tell us ghost stories,” she said. “Through the years, there have been hundreds of sightings — guests and customers all telling us their ghost stories. We’ve had different psychic investigators in, and we’re one of the most haunted places they’ve been in.”
The otherworldly entities, according to the say ghost hunters who have visited, include a feline spirit, Finney said.
“We actually had a customer send us a photograph with the ghost cat, you could see the cat as clear as can be. It looks just like a cat, except it’s very light,” she said. “It’s actually on a picture on the wall.”
But she couldn’t quite find that customer’s picture of the ghost cat on the day of my visit. Despite superstitions, the hotel is is expanding to a lucky 13 rooms.