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.
Our destination? A return trip to Cape May, my favorite shore spot, and the oldest beach resort town in the nation.
We began our drive on Saturday morning through a fog that seemed to blanket the entire state.
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!”
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.
We arrived a little before noon, so our first stop was to the Cape May Fish Market for lunch.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Our next stop was for a fun afternoon outing at a local vineyard – Hawk Haven Vineyard & Winery in nearby Rio Grande, NJ.
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.
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.
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.
Even on a foggy, humid, misty morning, there’s only one way to start your day in Cape May…
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!
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.
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!
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).
We spotted a Canadian goose with three goslings.
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.
It decided to try again. And again. And again. We never did see it actually find any food.
This much larger egret flew past on its way to search for its next meal.
Unlike our indecisive friend, this egret flew in purposefully and immediately got to work.
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.
We saw a commotion in the water, so I zoomed in with my telephoto lens and caught this osprey taking a bath!
After several minutes of waiting, my patience was rewarded as the osprey took flight.
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.
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!
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.
The sign, and the bird, bid us welcome.
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!
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.
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).
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.
A pair of swallows were inhabiting another nest on the grounds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.