Cape May and Ocean City: The Shore is Back

The boardwalk in Ocean City New Jersey. photos by Elle Rahilly
The boardwalk in Ocean City New Jersey. Photos by Elle Rahilly.

Cape May & Ocean City NJ Still Tempting Visitors

“Stronger than the Storm”

By Elle Rahilly

In 22 years as a Northeast Native, I’d never made my way down to the Jersey Shore, despite the hype. Once Hurricane Sandy hit, I kicked myself for waiting—why not see what the real deal is before it’s truly too late?

I crammed my flip-flops, sunscreen and Oakley’s into my tote bag, and didn’t know what to expect: destroyed beaches? Ripped up boardwalks? Clones of the Jersey Shore cast? Pushing these thoughts aside, I forced myself to keep an open mind.

As my friend Nick and I cruised the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, I squeezed my eyes shut and put on my thick skin, prepared to find a destroyed shore home to distressed communities.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself taken aback by a historic Victorian town’s beauty, surprisingly untouched by the storm. Right as I determined this authentic beauty must be what draws travelers to historic Cape May, I was once again proven wrong.

Queen Anne Tower in Cape May NJ.
Queen Anne Tower in Cape May NJ.

“You Have Sand in Your Shoes, and You Can’t Get it Out”

As I stepped into The Virginia Hotel and admired the antique novelties and marble counters, I felt an eerie atmosphere. My mother warned me of this—historic Cape May is reputed to be one of the most haunted locations nation-wide, especially Jackson Street—which The Virginia Hotel was conveniently located on. Yikes!

Intrigued, I decided to dig deeper. After checking into our room, I ran downstairs and cornered the concierge Christine for a quick history lesson of Cape May.

When I asked her what brings over 50,000 travelers to Cape May each summer, she exclaimed, “Oh gosh, where do I even start?” How about the typical attractions? “We’re anything besides typical here”, she countered, and delved into her take on Cape May as a place that shaped her childhood.

During the summers, whether it be kayaking the Delaware Bay alongside dolphins, bird-watching in the migratory capital of the world, or sifting through the sands of Sunset Beach to dig up the clear quartz “Cape May Diamonds”, travelers leave Cape May “with sand in their shoes, and they can’t get it out.”

Support Your Local

She described a strong local initiative in this tourist hotspot. Locals host events ranging from “Eat Local Week” (taking place in the last week of June) to promote local farmers, to the Cape May, New Jersey State Film Festival (which takes place the last weekend in October), during the “Local Filmmaker’s Week”—an opportunity to promote aspiring New Jersey Filmmakers.

Dinner at Reeds Resort, Ocean City NJ, by twilight.
Dinner at The Reeds at Shelter Haven, by twilight.

Other local events such as the Winter Festival (scheduled the first weekend of December), with a parade that winds throughout Cape May, entices locals to gather and travelers to return, even during the “off-season”.

I arrived at the Cape May Whale Watcher to see what the wildlife was all about. Not only is Cape May the chosen pit stop for 400 species of migratory birds en route to South America for the winter, but also overlooks the Delaware Bay where bottle-nosed dolphins swim.

I had the pleasure of taking the ride alongside natives John Kelly from the Cape May Chamber of Commerce, and Co-Captain Jeff Stewart Jr. Jeff explained how his father, Captain Jeff Stewart Sr., rescued the very boat I was riding on 30 years ago out of Honduras and refurbished it to offer a tour of the Delaware Bay to visitors.

Right off the bat, I could tell that preservation and sustainability was just as important as preserving tourism to the locals of Cape May.

As the boat ventured down the Bay, I watched dolphins flash their sleek bodies above the surface as a show for us spectators. Everyone cheered and cameras flashed—it was a fun crowd.

Nowhere Like Cape May

A smile spread across his face as John Kelly explained how tourism has always been the backbone of Cape May, with Southern industrialists summering here since 1815, making it the first seaside resort in the country.

That hospitality is what made Cape May such a cherished place for locals who can recall many summers on this shore, with those memories inspiring the community to help re-create that experience for travelers who come here from all corners of the world.

John was grateful to grow up in such a renowned town, his involvement in Cape May tourism coming naturally to him from a young age. As he retraced his journeys, John concluded, “I’ve been to many places around the world, and have yet to find a better place to live.”

Evidently, the blast of Hurricane Sandy was no force for the strong bond of the local community down on the tip of the Shore.

A Rich and Haunted History

We spent the remainder of the day exploring the haunted streets of Historic Cape May, filled with Victorian mansions and Trolleys toting around travelers to view the entirely of this town that’s a National Historic Landmark.

The travelers were there to see more than the architecture—Cape May is also home to many African-American churches established by Steven Smith, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, and the only training base for new U.S. Coast Guard recruits.

Wined and Dined with a Twist

After hearing so much about the famous wineries of the Jersey Shore, we capped off our day with a tour of Cape May Winery, another top tourist attraction of the County founded by Toby Craig who summered in Cape May during his childhood, only to make the move permanently in 1978.

Toby and his right-hand man, Winemaker Darren Hesington took us on a tour of all three wine-tasting rooms in the building, starting off the tasting with their signature Barrel Fermented Chardonnay.

As we sipped, they continued to guide us through the four vineyards of the Winery that span over 150 acres. En route to the vineyards we crossed a big outdoor deck, topped with tables for guests to enjoy the sun, quality wine and munch on food brought from home (which is permitted at the winery).

We ended our tour in the production room, where Toby and Darren explained the process from grape vine to bottle. With over 20 styles of wine offered, the production room was bustling.

After sampling one of the local wineries, we landed at the all new Reeds at Shelter Haven in Stone Harbor, NJ, where we enjoyed a fresh seafood dinner alongside a stunning view of the harbor and New Jersey sunset.

Cape May Winery's grape vines.
Cape May Winery’s grape vines. Guests can bring their own picnics to enjoy at the winery.

Ocean City: the Angelic Sister of Atlantic City

Deciding to venture further up the Shore, Nick and I made our way up to Ocean City, soon to find out that it was a dry city, neighboring the sinful Atlantic City. I was curious to find out that, if not the nightlife, what this shore has to offer?

We ended our night on the balcony off our bedroom at our bed and breakfast Inn the Gardens, relishing the view of the famous Boardwalk topped with a lit-up Ferris wheel.

Before I turned in for the night I went downstairs to touch base with Innkeeper Jen Torres, who, true to the Shore’s eco-tourism form, explained how she powers 60% of the main House with 24 solar panels. Jen continued about the local hospitality of Ocean City, noting how all the Ocean City Innkeepers create a strong network that support one another to help “put heads in beds”.

It became clear how much each of the local communities throughout the Jersey Shore help support one another, and in the aftermath of the storm have pulled together to help maintain the experience tourists keep coming back for.

I wished a good night to Jen and her pup Nina, tucking myself in for a long day of Ocean City exploration to follow.

“Remember That Time in Ocean City When…”

The next day I walked the Ocean City Boardwalk and landed upon two local hotspots: Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy and Fudge and Johnson’s Popcorn. Both have been a part of the Boardwalk for decades, and part of neighboring families’ traditions from their start.

Nick and I started with a tour of Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy, established since 1898 with two machines producing around 300 taffy pieces per minute each. I got to taste a bunch of their flavors, from fruit to chocolate based. If that wasn’t yummy enough, they also produce homemade fudge and licorice all in the same shop.

Loading up on Johnsons popcorn.
Loading up on Johnson’s popcorn.

We continued onto Johnson’s Popcorn, where our tour guide Becky explained (and demonstrated) how after 73 years their production team still does everything by hand. With each of Johnson’s four locations on the Boardwalk, their popcorn is more than a tasty treat—it defines memories for those who spent countless summers on the Shore.

Apparently each New Jersey household has a bucket of this caramel popcorn made fresh every six minutes, with Shawnda McGinnis of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce noting on her childhood with a bucket of Johnson’s in her kitchen at all times.

When Becky let us make our own popcorn, I was thrilled to find an option of caramel popcorn made with peanuts—I scarfed it down! She also insisted we stuff our buckets with as much popcorn as we can fit, as this is what all locals do to enjoy the popcorn on the Boardwalk, and still take home a full bucket.

We ended our day in Ocean City with a different type of tour—Bay Cats Nature Kayak Tour. We were taken along the inlets skirting off the shore, and saw a couple of Egrets grazing in the sunshine.

While I was no stranger to kayaking, I’ve never been through such beautiful waters. Venturing out into the Atlantic also gave us an incredible view of the Boardwalk and shore, filled with beachcombers.

A Bonded Community

Everything I anticipated prior to exploring the Jersey Shore was thrown out the window from the minute I stepped foot on the cobblestone streets of Cape May, and kept building all the way up through the rustic Boardwalk of Ocean City. With more than just stunning beaches, wildlife and establishments, what impressed me most was the strong sense of community throughout all counties of the Shore. It’s a sense of bond that I’ve never felt anywhere else.

Despite the effects of Hurricane Sandy, this Shore’s tourism-based local businesses have persevered, with the support of “Jersey Strong” families and neighborhoods.

As the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism Director Grace Hanlon explains, “it’s critical [for us] to support the dreamers, risk-takers, entrepreneurs and go-getters of our community, and it’s the best feeling to promote them.”

I found that was the true gem of the Jersey Shore, and am sure the locals’ drive will uphold the same standard of hospitality and tourism the Shore has prided itself on for years. I’m happy to have made it down, and already can’t wait to head back next year.

Shore Places to Visit:

Taffy maker at Shriver’s Taffy, Ocean City NJ.

The Virginia Hotel
• (800) 732-4236
• 25 Jackson Street
Cape May, NJ 08204

Cape May Whale Watcher
• (609) 884-5445
• 2nd Avenue & Wilson Drive
1218 Wilson Drive
Cape May, NJ 08204

The Rusty Nail Restaurant
• (609) 884-0017
• 205 Beach Avenue
Cape May, NJ 08204

Trolley Tour of Cape May
• (609) 884-5404

Cape May Vineyard & Winery
• (609) 884-1169

The Reeds at Shelter Haven
• (609) 368-0100

Inn the Gardens Bed & Breakfast
• (609) 399-0800
• 48 Wesley Road 48
Ocean City, NJ 08226

Virginia Hotel, Cape May.

Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy and Fudge
• (887) 668-2339
• 9th Street and Boardwalk
Ocean City, NJ 08226

Johnson’s Popcorn
• (800) 842-2676
• 1360 Boardwalk
Ocean City, NJ 08226

The Chatterbox Restaurant
• (609) 399-0113
• 500 E 9th Street
Ocean City, NJ 08226

Bay Cats Nature Kayak Tour
• (609) 391-7960
• 316 Bay Ave
Ocean City, NJ 08226

Cape May County Chamber of Commerce

Elle Rahilly.
Elle Rahilly is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts who now lives and works in fashion merchandise in New York City.

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