Shoulder Season.

At the New Jersey shore, the height of summer season includes countless tourists, crowded rental homes and hotels, beaches packed with sunbathers, long lines for restaurants, and throngs of people crowding every available gift shop, souvenir store, t-shirt stand, and arcade along the boardwalk. Off-season is far quieter, with many stores and restaurants closed for the winter season, beaches devoid of people aside from the occasional jogger, and empty boardwalks. Shoulder season, that period of time immediately before or after the summer rush, can be a fantastic time to visit the shore. I would define shoulder season in Cape May as that period of time from mid-April to Memorial Day weekend. The weather is pleasant, restaurants and stores are re-opening, nature is coming back to life after a winter hibernation, and while more people are visiting the shore, the summer crowds have not yet arrived.

On a recent weekend in early May, my wife and I headed down to Cape May to enjoy the shore before the endless hordes of tourists descend upon the town. While we started the trip on a day filled with rain and fog, we ended up being gifted with a beautiful Sunday morning filled with blue skies, wildlife, and warm temperatures.

So come along, then, on a journey to shoulder season in Cape May.

Let’s begin:

Shoulder Season

Map of New Jersey, with red pin in location of Cape May.
Our destination? A return trip to Cape May, my favorite shore spot, and the oldest beach resort town in the nation.
View of Garden State Parkway on a foggy day.
We began our drive on Saturday morning through a fog that seemed to blanket the entire state.
View of Delaware Bay on a cloudy day, with beach and wooden-railed path through dune in foreground.
Arriving in Cape May, we found the weather there no better than anywhere else along our drive. However, as a friend said, “Even on a bad weather day, you’re still at the beach!”
Deserted Washington Street Mall in Cape May. Sign in foreground says CAPE MAY with bronze bell hanging beneath it.
This is shoulder season! Stores are open, but crowds are minimal. Add to it some rain, and my wife and I basically had the Washington Street Mall to ourselves. I’ll try to post a photo of this area in July or August… if I can find any parking.
Menu for Cape May Fish Market on table on patio of restaurant.
We arrived a little before noon, so our first stop was to the Cape May Fish Market for lunch.
Lobster roll, french fries, pickles, and coleslaw on plate.
That’ll be a lobster roll on a sea-salt crusted bun for me (pictured) and a lobster roll on a gluten-free bun for my wife. Cape May Fish Market sautees their lobster in butter and serves the sandwiches hot – it’s absolutely delicious. Fueled up, we headed off to our next stop.
Exterior of Emlen Physick Estate on a cloudy day.
After our meal, we walked to the Emlen Physick Estate, a historic mansion built in 1879 during the Victorian Age. The house was designed by noted architect Frank Furness for Philadelphia doctor Emlen Physick, who invested a significant portion of his wealth into building the home (via Wikipedia). While it was my wife’s first visit, I had toured the home five years ago (and you can read that post here).
Collection of silverware and other serving items in glass cabinet.
The butler’s pantry included serving items from Philip Syng, an ancestor of Emlen Physick. Syng was a noted silversmith, whose designs included the Syng inkstand, which was used in the signings of both the US Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution (via Wikipedia).
Canned goods and kitchen items in display case.
A lot of time and effort has been made to re-create the look and feel of the home as it would have appeared in the 1880s, when Emlen lived here. For instance, Butterfly Brand canned food existed prior to 1900.
Classic cook book, open on counter in kitchen.
I even appreciated the vintage cookbook on display in the kitchen, which provides significantly less detail and instruction than modern recipes. None of the recipes in the book offered oven temperatures or cooking times… simply get it “hot” and cook until “done.”
Celery vase on dining room table.
One of my favorite artifacts on display in the dining room was the celery vase, a staple of any upper-class home from a period of time when having celery was a status symbol. If you’re interested in learning more about the Emlen Physick Estate and the Victorian Era, my previous post offers significantly more detail.
Mural of Emlen Physick Estate, Cape May Lighthouse, Trolley Tours, and WWII Lookout Tower, and says CELEBRATING 50 YEARS WITH CAPE MAY MAC MUSEUMS. ART. CULTURE.
Cape May MAC is a foundation that was originally established with the sole purpose of saving the Emlen Physick Estate from demolition. Since then, it has come to oversee the Cape May Lighthouse, the World War II Lookout Tower, and other historic properties around Cape May.
2012 Honda Accord parked in front of vineyard.
Our next stop was for a fun afternoon outing at a local vineyard – Hawk Haven Vineyard & Winery in nearby Rio Grande, NJ.
Table with tasting flights and two glasses. Window in the background looks out onto the vineyard.
Hawk Haven offers tables both indoors as well as in a pair of well-ventilated tents. We opted for seating in one of the tents, and were given a private table with a spectacular view of the vineyard. My wife and I have been coming to Hawk Haven for a few years, and it is one of our favorite wineries in this area.
Plate of fried cauliflower.
Although Hawk Haven does not serve food, they do frequently have food trucks on site. During our visit, Hit the Road Jack was on site, a food truck based in nearby Stone Harbor. Although we were still relatively full from lunch, we made room to try the Buffalo Cauliflower (absolutely delicious!). We take on these sacrifices for you, dear reader, to make sure you are fully informed.
2012 Honda Accord, parked in front of canal. A thick fog hangs in the background.
The next morning, a thick fog had rolled in, reducing visibility to a minimum. In the background should be a shipping channel and the Delaware Bay.
2012 Honda Accord parked in front of Uncle Bill's Pancake House.
Even on a foggy, humid, misty morning, there’s only one way to start your day in Cape May…
Pancakes and bacon on plate, with paper cup of orange juice and styrofoam cup of banana slices on table.
That’ll be a regular order of pecan pancakes for me (pictured) and an order of gluten-free pecan pancakes for my wife from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. As always, it was a great way to start the day!
2012 Honda Accord parked in gravel parking lot.
After breakfast, we decided to get some exercise, despite the foggy conditions. We headed to the South Cape May Meadows, one of our favorite local spots for hiking and birding.
Foggy sky over meadows.
It wasn’t exactly the best lighting for wildlife photography, but as we hiked through the park, the fog lifted just enough for me to take my camera out of my backpack. As soon as I did, nature decided to put on a show!
Fowler toad on sandy path.
This little guy was waiting on the path to welcome us to the park. I believe this is a Fowler toad. Given its susceptibility to negative effects of humans on its environment (for instance, many agricultural chemicals are toxic to them), the Fowler toad is endangered in many parts of the US, and is a species “of special concern” in New Jersey (via Wikipedia).
Canadian goose, with its goslings.
We spotted a Canadian goose with three goslings.
Egret preparing to land in water of small pond.
My wife and I were entertained by this immature egret that kept hopping from spot to spot, seemingly unable to decide where it wanted to forage for its next meal.
Immature egret preparing to take off.
It decided to try again. And again. And again. We never did see it actually find any food.
Egret flying above water.
This much larger egret flew past on its way to search for its next meal.
Egret in flight over marsh water.
Unlike our indecisive friend, this egret flew in purposefully and immediately got to work.
Swan flapping its wings in marsh, while onlookers stand on nearby platform.
The Meadows were unusually busy – there was a high number of birders on hand who had come by to check out the wildlife. Cape May is a major stopping point for birds along the Atlantic Flyway migration route, and so numerous people had come by to catch a glimpse of the spring migration season.
Osprey bathing in marsh, while geese and seagulls are in background.
We saw a commotion in the water, so I zoomed in with my telephoto lens and caught this osprey taking a bath!
Osprey in flight over marsh.
After several minutes of waiting, my patience was rewarded as the osprey took flight.
Exterior of Bella Vida Cafe.
Before heading home, my wife thought it might be fun to picnic at another favorite spot of ours. We picked up lunch from a new restaurant we wanted to try – Bella Vida Cafe in West Cape May, which offers numerous gluten-free options.
View of Garden State Parkway, with clear, sunny skies.
No sooner had we picked up our takeout order than the skies cleared, the fog dissipated, and the sun emerged. Perfect weather for a picnic!
Exterior of Wetlands Institute.
We enjoyed our picnic lunch with a view of Mother Nature at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, NJ. Readers may remember our previous visits to this fantastic wildlife preserve and museum.
Small birds on top of entrance sign for Wetlands Institute.
The sign, and the bird, bid us welcome.
Sandwiches, chips, and drinks on picnic table, with wetlands in background.
Not a bad view to accompany our meal! That’ll be a grilled turkey and ham panini for me and a crab and shrimp salad on a gluten-free wrap for my wife. The food? Delicious! The view? Amazing!
Osprey in nest.
From our table, we could see this osprey sitting in its nest. If you’d like a close-up view of the ospreys in their nests, you can follow this link to see the institute’s webcams.
Grackles in bird nest.
Above our head, we heard a cacophony – the institute had placed several birdhouses which were occupied by grackles. A member of the blackbird family, the grackle is found throughout much of North America (via All About Birds).
Boardwalk through Wetlands, empty of people.
As my wife pointed out, this photo encapsulates shoulder season: beautiful weather, amazing views, and hardly any people. We had much of the Wetlands Institute to ourselves.
Small blue and white birds on wooden birdhouse.
A pair of swallows were inhabiting another nest on the grounds.
Egret in flight.
Egrets and herons have become my favorite birds to photograph, and I was happy to snap photos of this great egret as it flew past.
Tern in flight.
In the past, I’ve paid little mind to gulls and other such shore birds. Spending a lot of time near the shore, gulls are far less exotic than something like a bald eagle or a red-shouldered hawk. This common tern kept dipping and zipping around me, so I decided to give him some photographic attention.
Tern diving into water.
The common tern inhabits coastal areas. To hunt, the tern circles above a body of water and then dives for small fish. I caught this tern as he attempted to snatch some dinner.
Common tern in flight.
Grateful for the attention, the tern swooped back toward me one last time before flying off. On a more serious note, tern are fast flyers and change direction rapidly. Needless to say, I was very happy with the way this shot came out.
Osprey in flight, with fish in its talons.
As we headed back to the car, I snagged this photo of an osprey returning from a successful hunt, a fish clutched in its talons. After a fantastic walk through the grounds of the Wetlands Institute, it was time to get back in the Accord and head home.
Car odometer reading 198390 TRIP A 190.7
After a two hour drive, we pulled into our garage, the Accord delivering us safe and sound to our destination once again. 198,000 miles is now in the books… less than 1,800 miles to the big 200k. Onward!!

Wrapping Up

If you’re looking to enjoy the best of the Jersey shore while avoiding the crowds of summer, shoulder season is a great time to visit. If you are near Cape May, the South Cape May Meadows are open year round during daylight hours, and are free to visit (although donations are appreciated). The Wetlands Institute’s outdoor grounds are also free to visit, although there is a fee for visiting the aquarium and terrapin exhibit. 

Thanks for coming along on yet another journey down the open road ahead!

‘Til next time. 


4 thoughts on “Shoulder Season.

  1. I’d never heard of shoulder season. Makes sense, but I always heard off season. It will be interesting to see if you notice a difference in traffic there this summer because of gas prices and other inflation.

    Oddly enough, I think the Wetlands Institute walkway pic is one of my favorites. It has a beautiful background and the walkway looks new.

    I’m looking forward to a post dedicated to 200k!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, I’d bet money (like, $0.50) that people will economize in other areas so they can still get down the shore this summer. We’ll be down for a while in June – I can report back then!

      If you’re ever out this way, we’ve got to get you down to the Wetlands Institute. It’s a really cool spot. Keep your eyes peeled for 200k – it should be coming sometime soon!

      Liked by 1 person

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