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Category: Beaches

What’s in your beach bag?

Text and photographs by Kelly Helbig. This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Cape May Magazine

I was born with a plastic beach shovel in my mouth.

Yep – I’m a certifiable beach bum, through and through, born and raised – I even got married on a Cape May beach this year. Just the smell of Coppertone rouses up nostalgia and I’m 8 years old again, covered from head to toe in sand, digging up sand crabs, body surfing from the earliest my parents could get me to the beach (usually 9 a.m.) And we’d stay until 4 in the afternoon. Now that’s a work day I can live with. I can still remember that water-logged feeling I would have in my chest as I scrunched up my tight, sunburned skin once the cold water of the hose hit me. And then the nap that always followed shortly after, no matter how many times I said, “I’m not sleepy, I’m not sleepy attt aaaalllll.”

I just finished working…my first job. I have an hour-and-a-half before my shift at my second job starts. Sun is shining. Sky is clear. I live in Cape May. I have an hour to kill. Is there any doubt? I rise and scream the Beach Bum chant I’ve retorted since Pampers hung out of my beach bottom, “Let’s go to the beach!”  Sure the dishes are in the sink, the clothes overflowing in the hamper, the dogs are…..are… well, they’re somewhere around here, but I live in Cape May! A beach bum living in a beach town! Fearing members of the Beach Bum Cult, upon hearing that I passed up free time and did not go to the beach, might exile me to some remote beachless state like Oklahoma, I leave the chores to a rainy day.

Off I go. No, I didn’t forget anything, silly. I’m a pro at this.  The car is already packed with all my necessities for an hour, a day, a week-long vacation at the beach. Certifiable Beach Bums are always prepared.

What’s in my bag you ask? Good question! I keep my beach bag fully equipped with a frozen bottle of ice water (I never go to the beach without it!), blanket, towel, change of clothes, some deodorant (never hurts!), crackers, gum, book (DaVinci Code by Dan Brown), cell phone, iPod, money, plenty of SPF lotions in all degrees, lip balm (again, I never go to the beach without it!), and, a must-have for all beachgoers, my beach tag (seasonal). It’s more than a beach bag. It’s a survival kit. You thought I was kidding when I said I could be there for a week long vacation?

And then it dawns on me, what do other people pack in their beach bags to survive a day on the beach? I make a note that once I find a parking spot, I’ll walk around on the beach and find out.

I cannot believe my luck as I find a spot on Beach Avenue right next to the promenade. As I deposit my first quarter, I see other beachgoers running to their cars to deposit money into their meters. From May 1 to October 31, every day, from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM, all meters are 25 cents per twenty minutes and only accept quarters. So if you drive, aside from blocking traffic while pulling up next to Cape May’s promenade while you unload your spouse, offspring, and beach paraphernalia and you drive off to find that elusive parking spot, ALWAYS bring quarters with you to feed the meter.

Fifty minutes still left before I’m expected at work. Plenty of time to enjoy the beach! Yahoo!

Walking up the stairs to the promenade, I see the new “Welcome to Cape May Beach” sign. Posted right next to the Welcome sign are Beach Tag prices. I have a seasonal pass ($25) but I stop to see what the prices are for day trippers ($4), 3 day ($9), weekly, ($13 and note these are valid from Saturday to Saturday), and seasonal passes are $25 (if purchased before April 1, they’re only $15).

The beach tag person, Lorraine, waves with a friendly “hello” as she quickly glances me over for a tag.

“Do you have a tag?” she asks.

Do I have a tag! I confidently reach into my beach bag’s inner pocket and pull out my beach tag.

“That’s last year’s tag,” she says with a smile.

My mouth drops. Ashamed, I start kicking at the sand with my big toe and hang my head. Fearing other beach bums might overhear my conversation with Lorraine, I quickly hand her $25 for a new beach tag. With a smile, I whispered, “Thank you.” I make my way over to Vince.

Vince is the young man selling chairs, umbrellas, beach boxes, tents, water, soda, and iced tea on the beach. He looks pretty cool sitting under three green umbrellas. All umbrellas are color coded according to their respective beaches. “How much for an umbrella?” I ask.

“Ten dollars.”

I inquire about chairs ($5), boogie boards ($13 all day), drinks ($1.50), cabanas ($15 daily) and beach boxes ($55 for a week, $90 for 2 weeks, $125 for 3 weeks and $375 seasonal). Vince stresses that, if you want a beach box, call ahead and get your money in by February or March at the latest. The sooner you get your check-in, the better your chances will be to have a beach box at your disposal. I opt not to get a chair today and head down to the water.

Before I do, I reach in my beach bag to grab lip balm and …where is it? Oh this can’t be. OH, MY GOD! I forgot my lip balm!! I panic and look around nervously that others have caught on to my ill-equipped beach bag and are already starting to whisper, “How could she?” and “Did you see what she did?” Well, no need to panic really, I’ll only be here for a half hour. I think it’s time to find out what all these other beachgoers pack in their beach bags – or leave behind?

I spy three beach savvy-looking girls not too far away from me and I walk over to ask them. “What’s in your beach bag?”

Friends Ashley, Justine and Kate, all summer locals of Cape May, are lying out enjoying the beautiful day. These women came well prepared. Ashley has her iPod, water, sunscreen, book, and, “Chapstick.  DEFINITELY Chapstick!”

I feel my neglected lips drying with each passing second.

Justine has her water, cell phone, wallet, change of clothes, lotion, and chapstick. Their friend, Kate, has her iPod, sunscreen, dry tanning oil (same effect as tanning oil, but it goes on dry), water, cell phone, clothing, and a mirror. A girl’s gotta look her best in this heat.

My lips are starting to pull at the corners, seeking some sort of moisture as I walk over to Ashley and Kurt, sitting on their beach chairs with their bags between them. Kurt always has his keys, wallet, sunglasses, cell phone, towel, and lotion.

Ashley, who’s munching on a granola bar, carries a granola bar in her bag, along with her purse, electric sunglasses, Teddy Grahams, water, lotion, towel, and Chapstick. My lips tighten at the mention of this and purposely split to inflict pain upon their unfit owner, me.

Moving on then, I find a familiar family sitting not too far from Ashley and Kurt. Aiden, Heather, Holly, and Dixie, all locals of Cape May, are not only enjoying a beautiful afternoon at the beach, they are also celebrating Aiden’s last day of Kindergarten from Our Lady Star of the Sea School.  Heather, Aiden’s Mom, not only packs for herself, but for Aiden as well. Her bag includes lotion, water, Exit Zero, The New Yorker Magazine, toys for Aiden, beach tag, visors, towels, and keys.

The family loves the beach and they always have a beach box where they store all their chairs and umbrellas, which makes any trip to the beach a lot easier. Aiden, who has been very eager to share what’s in his beach bag, namely his water gun, takes off at top speed as I start talking to Holly.

Holly always, always, ALWAYS has a bottle of frozen water with her, a book, her visor, and her beach tag. And completing the family, Dixie brings a book, money, her sunglasses, and a visor.

Suddenly, I hear Aiden calling over to me. He has run over to his family’s beach box and I can’t quite make out if he is just showing me where it is or is trying to coax me into helping him retrieve more Super Soakers that might be stowed away for safe keeping.

With every word I speak, my lips tighten even more and the tiny pings and pangs remind me that I will never come without my lip balm again.

My time is now down to 15 minutes as I start heading back and bump into Kelly, Zack, and J.J.  Kelly, a local of Cape May, brings a magazine, money, a towel, lotion, and water. Zack is a bit more daring when venturing onto the beach and brings nothing at all, except money.

“I just come with whatever’s on my back!” Zack states proudly.

Zack’s friend from school, J.J., hails from Galloway and, other than his sunglasses and some money, he has the same devil-may-care attitude.

“I bring nothing at all and come with just what’s on my back”.

Die-hard beach bums!

Five minutes before I’m expected at work, I’m getting closer to the promenade and lip relief, when two girls wave me over. They see I have a camera and would like me to take their picture as well. I say sure, as long as I can ask them what they have in their beach bags. Michelle has oil, a radio, and brings her chair.  No beach tag?

“Nope, I just walk right on!” she exclaims.

Her friend, April, also a local, brings her towel, a chair, her wallet, lotion, and, since she drove today, a lot of change for the meter. Usually, she parks far away on an undisclosed street that doesn’t have any meters.

Meter!  I didn’t even think of the meter! I’m not sure which will pain me more: my lips, once I apply some lip balm, or the ticket that I imagine is nicely tucked under my windshield wiper.

One minute left to get to work. No ticket and still time remaining on the meter! Now that is a good day on the beach! I’ll be here again tomorrow, I’m sure of it. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Bathing Beauties: Cape May’s Swimwear History

Miss Philadelphia beach. Sandy Deacon MIller is second from the left. (Click to enlarge)

This story originally ran in the July 2008 issue of Cape May Magazine.

It is 1950, well, maybe ’51. The war is over and optimism abounds. Corsets have gone by the wayside, and designers are creating more revealing swimsuits that hide faults in a woman’s shape. They achieve this by adding stretch-tummy control panels to hold in the stomach and they use bra cups and boning to give bust support. Thus is born the strapless swimsuit.

In Cape May that summer, Sandy Deacon (Miller) was named Miss Philadelphia Beach. She did not win the coveted title of Miss Cape May Beach Patrol that year, but enjoyed the September ball at Convention Hall anyway.

The Skinner Twins, Margaret and Barbara, on Congress Beach in the late 1930s. (Click to enlarge)

“The lifeguards picked a girl to represent their beaches,” Sandy recalled. “We would go down to the Christian Admiral Hotel and have our picture taken. The contest would end at Convention Hall shortly after Labor Day where we would parade out in our evening dresses and bathing suits. I came in third that year.”

A lot has changed in the way we dress for the beach since the ’50s, but think of how much things changed leading up to the “I like Ike” days. Cape May has from its inception been about families coming to the beach. Fortunately for Cape May Magazine those very families have kept their own chronicles of those lazy, hazy days of summer. Many of them have shared their family photos with us and we hope you enjoy them as much as we did. And a special thanks to Don Pocher for sharing his collection of turn-of-the-century postcards with us.

1932. Gladys Wilsey Downs at center, mother of Cape May resident Marjorie Wetherill. (Click to enlarge)

Let’s turn the clock back to the ’30s. Swimwear was getting briefer and more risqué. The backs were often scooped out so that a woman’s tan would show off at night in backless dresses. Little skirts to hide the thighs were popular. But the age of the contour suit and costumes with higher cut legs made a splash when swimming stars like Esther Williams and Dorothy Lamour hit the water with their synchronized performances.

The roaring ’20s ushered in the athletic tank suit, a popular choice for both men and women. The tank was ideal for the “androgynous athletic figure” that characterized the ’20s. The tank featured often unflattering stripes or abstract patterns. Those with less than perfect figures covered them up with wraps. New on the scene was the bathing cap. It was tailor made for bobbed hair and similar to the cloche hat of the same era.

Margaret Suelke and her sisters, Mrs. Patterson and Mrs. Gimmel. 1910. (Click to enlarge)

Now let’s go back even further to the Victorian era when women were covered from head to toe. Women typically dressed in black, knee-length, puffed-sleeve wool dresses. They often had sailor collars. They were usually worn over bloomers. The later Victorian swimsuit outfit was still cumbersome, but more practical than the earlier serge or dark flannel bathing dresses. Edwardian swimsuits were very similar to Victorian styles in that they were still made of wool and included bloomers with an over-dress. The dress was now short-sleeved or sleeveless and was worn with black stockings and laced footwear.

And then there was the Great Cape May Speedo Caper of the early ’60s. According to then Mayor Frank Gauvry the rumors that an ordinance was passed banning speedos worn by men over the age of 12 from beaches simply to reduce the number of gay sunbathers was really not true. “It was the Canadians,” he maintained. “We passed the ordinance after a lot of merchants, residents and visitors complained about the Canadian men who were wearing nothing but a jock strap on the beach.

The women would take their tops off. Now the women eventually got the idea, but the men didn’t. So we had to pass an ordinance.” The speedo ban was repealed in 2005, thus proving that what goes around comes around.

The Best of Cape May 2009

Cyberspace drum roll please as we announce the 2009 winners of the 5th Annual Best of Cape May survey. Every year, winners of the Best of Cape May are determined by online voting. There were 58 categories and awards will be presented to 25 of the winners – many won awards in multiple categories. Voters cast their online picks for 26 days in August, and it was a record turnout for voters. It took us half a day to tally the results!

So now without further ado – the Winners, knowing that this is Cape May and there are no losers. We don’t allow them to cross the bridge. We sent them back to someplace else.

The Best Places to Stay

Best B&B The Queen Victoria

Best Guest House The Columbia House

Best Hotel Congress Hall

Best Campground Beachcomber

Best Pet-Friendly Accommodation Billmae Cottage

Best Kid-Friendly Accommodation Congress Hall

The Best Customer Service

Washington Inn Exterior
Best restaurant customer service The Washington Inn

Best accommodation customer service The Queen Victoria

Best store customer service The Whale’s Tale


Best overall customer service The Queen Victoria

The Best Shopping

Best store for clothing
Caroline Boutique

Best store for beach wear Dellas 5 & 10

Best store for jewelry The Whale’s Tale

Best store for bargains Dellas 5 & 10

Best store for accessories Kaleidoscope

Best gift store
The Whale’s Tale

Best  store for candy & fudge The Original Fudge Kitchen

The Best Dining

Best Coffee WaWa

Best Pizza Louie’s

Best Hamburger The Ugly Mug

Best Sandwich The Ugly Mug

Washington Inn Exterior
Best Fine dining The Washington Inn

Best cheapest breakfast George’s Place

Best brunch The Mad Batter

Best takeout The Lobster House

Best kid-friendly restaurant Uncle Bill’s Pancake House

Best ice cream Kohr Bros.

Washington Inn Exterior
Best overall restaurant The Washington Inn

Best seafood The Lobster House

Best crabcakes The Lobster House

The Best Beaches


Best beach for tanning Steger’s
Best beach for surfing The Cove
Best beach for families The Cove
Best place to escape the sun The arcade

The Best Activities

Best thing to do on a rainy day Shop

Best theater company Cape May Stage

Best movie theater The Beach Theater

Best kid-friendly activity Miniature Golf

Best festival The Lima Bean Festival

Best birding spot Cape May Point

Most interesting tourist spot The Lighthouse

Best area golf course Cape May National Golf Club

Best mini-golf course Ocean Putt on Jackson Street

Best watersports activity Parasail

The Best of Nightlife

Best place for a cocktail The Brown Room at Congress Hall

Best music venue The Boiler Room at Congress Hall

Best nighttime hangout Cabanas

Best overall bar The Ugly Mug

The Best Around Town

Best place to meet people Washington Street Mall

Most likely place to meet a local The C-View

Best Victorian building The Queen Victoria

Most interesting architectural building The Emlen Physick Estate (MAC)
Best history tour Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts
Best ghost tour MAC’s Ghosts of Cape May Trolley Tour

Best water/boat tour Cape May Whale Watcher

Best photo spot Sunset Beach

Best bicycle route Sunset Boulevard

Best Cape May publication or website / Cape May Magazine

Island Surfing

Island Surfing originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s July 2007 issue.


In the days of the ancient kings, when King Kamehameha lorded over Cape Island, the brave men of the Hui Nalu rode hardwood surfboards – alaia – through the breaking swell off Broadway Beach wearing little more than loincloths. Surfboard riding was an ingrained part of Cape Island culture for centuries and when Captain Cornelius Mey first sailed past the tip of the cape, he was fascinated by the slim and muscular Cape Mayans riding the waves, as noted in his logbook…

The Cape Mayans’ most common diversion is upon the Water, where the Sea and surf break on the Shore. The Men lay themselves upon a flat piece of Wood about twice their size; keeping their Legs close together and using their Arms to guide the Plank. They wait until the time of the greatest Swell and then push forward with their Arms to keep on its top. It sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity – the great Art is to guide the Plank so as always to keep it in a proper Direction on the top of the Swell and direct it to avoid any Obstacles.

DSC_1245Maybe that’s not exactly how surfing was born in Cape May, but it sure makes a good story. As far as I can tell, surfing first hit the beaches of Cape May in the early 1960s. The city and its inhabitants were never the same.

Trying to describe the impact of surfing on Cape May is like trying to describe the impact of baseball on America – it’s an incredibly broad topic. Many locals have built their lives around surfing, embracing careers that allow them the luxury of ditching work whenever the surf is pumping. For some, surfing defines their lives, chooses their friends for them and shapes the way they see the world. For others it’s a later-in-life hobby that’s now a passion. Anyway you look at it, surfing, even in Cape May, is nothing short of a religion for its most ardent followers.

Surfing was probably born in the Polynesian culture of the eastern and south Pacific. The exact timeline of when men first paddled into the surf on planks of wood is uncertain, but it’s a good guess that the modern version of surfing was perfected in Hawaii. When Jack London wrote A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki in 1907, surfing’s reputation as “the sport of kings” was cemented. Even today Hawaii remains the spiritual center of the surfing universe.

DSC_1276The birth of surfing in Cape May is just as mysterious but perhaps less romantic. Steve Steger, whom I might be so bold as to describe as a living local legend, claims his father was one of Cape May’s original surfers.

“My dad was one of the first surfers in town,” said Steve. “A guy from California introduced him to surfing. My dad owned a store across from the beach, and he sold sundries. He was so into surfing that in 1962 he made the store into a surf shop and called it ‘Steger Sun and Surf Shop.’ ” Steger even has a stretch of beach at the end of Perry Street in front of his former store named for him; good surfing beach, too.

Cape May’s demographics made surfing a hugely popular sport in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In those days, Cape May was still an affordable town and was filled with families and kids. What Little League was to other American towns, surfing was to Cape May.

“There used to be a lot more kids in Cape May,” said Steve. “If you lived in Cape May you hung at the beach, and if you were at the beach you surfed. We used to walk down the street to go surfing and then walk home. The guys I surfed with were Terry Randolph, Paul Gibbons, Jim DeScala, Joe Gilmartin; that was the four musketeers, and there were a few others. That was my generation.”

Mike Owen was 12 years old when he started surfing. Now it’s a part of his DNA.

Mike Owen riding a tube. Photo by Susie Owen.

Mike Owen riding a tube. Photo by Susie Owen.

“I started in 1970 – I was 12 years old – a kid from Texas taught me. He was a Coastie (U.S. Coast Guard family member). In the 70s surfing was growing; we hit it at a great time. Through high school surfing became who I was, I suppose. I didn’t join sports because you had to drop what you were doing to surf,” said Mike.

The surfing lifestyle is a familiar theme in the surf community. The surfing lifestyle, for lack of a definitive description is simply the need to surf. They call it “the stoke.” It’s got to be some kind of chemical thing in the brain that grabs hold of a person and bends the brain patterns so that there is nothing more important than the right combination of wind, sea, and tide. People build their lives around surfing, and Cape Mayans, being so connected to the sea, are no exception. Mike Owen is hardcore.

“Surfing is my lifestyle. I married who I married because of surfing. I wouldn’t go to weddings because the waves were good. My wife understood that – she surfs. The family understood,” said Mike. “So yeah, surfing is pretty important. It’s what I know. My whole family surfs, my friends surf. Surfing has given me great friendships and taken me on great trips.”

surfing dudes 015

Stephen Coon

Sue Lotozo has the stoke. Sue was a 40-year-old mom watching her daughter surf the Cove at Cape May’s western-most edge and decided she wanted to try it. “My daughter Eliza was learning to surf and she was having so much fun. I didn’t want to be on the sidelines. I stayed away from people at first and it took me awhile to learn, but it’s just so much fun being in the water. I fell in love with it.”

Sue has been known to close up her clothing store on a brilliant autumn day when business is a little slow. She injured herself a few years back – tore her knee up at the Cove – and every time I saw her I’d ask how her rehab was going. There never seemed to be any doubt she’d be back in the water.

“The first time you stand up on a board you think you’re a surfer until you realize you know nothing. The first time is thrilling but there’s so much nuance. Surfing is an ongoing journey, it’s a whole lotta fun and I love being out there with my kids. I’m more in tune with nature, you know? What’s the wind doing today, what’s the water temp, where can I fit this in to my day?”

Stephen “Buckethead” Coon grew up on New York Avenue. He’s hardcore too.

“I used to be able to check the waves by lifting my head off the pillow,” said Stephen. “All I had to do was look out the window; if it was high tide I could see the waves, if it was low tide I had to get up and look. My room was on the third floor, so if I could see the waves from the second floor, it was really good. This was at Trenton Avenue. There used to be a jetty at Trenton and it used to be a good break. Not anymore.”

Stephen and I talked one night for almost an hour about surfing. We talked about the basics like history, changes, good beaches, and surf culture, but what I began to realize was that Stephen’s life is all about surfing. Everything he does revolves around the ocean; whether it is the ocean’s impact on us, or our impact on the ocean, Stephen seems tuned to an oceanic vibration.

november 9 2006 072a copyWe talked about Cape May’s 50-year beach replenishment program, which pumps untold cubic yards of sand onto Cape May’s beaches to keep them from eroding. Stephen’s not so sure it’s a great idea. Even though he was a business major in college he wrote his research papers on surfing: the economics of surfing, the statistics of surfing, the Oedipus Rex syndrome of surfing (okay – maybe not that one). You’ll have to talk to him about the physics of barrier island development, but in a nutshell Stephen claims that all that sand is eventually going to just blow away.

“I’ve studied the ocean and it’s important to keep a long-term view,” said Stephen. “It’s all about doing your homework and being willing to broaden your horizons. Sand bars are shifting and changing.”

Surfing, it seems to me, has a deep connection to the past, and surfers have no problem looking back in fondness. Nobody I talked to was complaining but they all seemed to pine for the days when the water sloshed up under the boardwalk and the jetties stabbed way out into the water. It’s like baseball afficionados who still debate whether the designated hitter is a good idea. Cape May surfers also apparently miss trying to splatter themselves on a wooden piling under Convention Hall.

“We used to shoot the pier,” said Stephen. “The water used to come up under Convention Hall and we used to surf under that. We called it the ‘backyard;’ it was the right that came in from the Stockton Avenue jetty. We jumped off the back of Convention Hall. You had to know where the pilings were. It’s not there anymore.”

“There was a lot less beach back then,” added Steve. “The waves used to be longer.”

Joe Grottola. Photograph by Susie Owen.

Joe Grottola. Photograph by Susie Owen.

“Technology has progressed so much compared to when I started,” said Mike. “For one, it doesn’t hurt to be out in the water anymore. My first wetsuit was just a vest. I was still freezing but I thought that was enough. Jake Lincoln gave us these big thick diving suits. They were so heavy we couldn’t carry them.”

“The kids today just don’t have the access to waves that we had,” said Steve. “It’s not so affordable in Cape May anymore so there are fewer families. They’re all in Lower Township. That extra three miles to the beach makes a big difference.”

But for all the hindsight, some surfers are always looking for that next ride. And whether there aren’t as many kids in town any more doesn’t mean surfing is going to wither away. Jason Reagan is one of the few Cape May surfers who was able to turn pro and make a living surfing. I couldn’t find him for this article but I remember talking to him once and he summed it up nicely.

Jessie Owen riding a wave at the Cove. Photo by Susie Owen.

Jessie Owen riding a wave at the Cove. Photo by Susie Owen.

“Cape May has always had a strong surfing tradition – always had, always will.”

It seems that for many of these local guys, surfing is never a problem. Whether the sand bars change or the beaches get replenished or whether real estate prices change the shape of the neighborhood, it’s still all about the surfing. Generations have found that surfing can be more than a hobby, and more than a passion. It becomes a way of life, a religion almost. Surfing is never a problem. Not surfing? Well now there’s a problem.

“Surfing is such a good clean life,” said Mike Owen. “I met some of the greatest people through my surfing. One of my teachers, Carl Toft, was a surfer, I looked up to him. We had a connection in surfing, and my daughter went through his classes too. He was still around, probably teaching the same stuff. He’s great with kids, had a surf shop too. He’s probably 65 – he’s never stopped. It’s nice to see him out battling the strong current. When I see him it’s an inspiration, I realize I don’t have to stop. I worry that I may have to stop. What am I gonna do if I can’t surf anymore?”

Which beach is THE beach?

beach shots 2006 060

Originally published in Cape May Magazine, July 2006. Photographs by Erin Kirk and Sara Kornacki

Cape May has some of the best beaches in the world. Yup, in the world.

Now before you start rattling off some exotic names from far-off places, think about it: when it comes to accessibility, enjoyability, affordability, agreeability, hard-body visibility, gastro-diversity and eco-activity, Cape May is tops. Truly.

No need for a boat or plane to get to Cape May’s beaches. Sure, everyone wants to visit Maui, or St. John, or San Tropez, but do you have an extra five grand for transportation? Beach tag fees are reasonable on Cape Island and the water is some of the cleanest around. It’s safe, well-kept and the businesses are locally-owned. There’s fishing, boating, swimming, eating, drinking, partying, and yada yada yada. Shall I continue? I think not.

But while the peripherals – the great restaurants, the historic architecture, the cool vibe –are added bonuses that can keep you occupied throughout the year, it’s the beaches – from Lower Township through Cape May Point and up to Poverty Beach  – that are the jewels in the Cape Island crown.

Cape Island is a hoof-shaped spit of land at the southern tip of New Jersey. The Delaware Bay laps the western edge of the island, Cape May City fronts the Atlantic on the southeastern side and the Cape May Canal, built around the time of World War II, cuts the island off from the rest of the mainland on the northside. And in that ten or so square miles of peninsula are beaches as divine and diverse as any coastal area in the states. Let’s start on the bayside.

higbee dog 2Higbee Wildlife Management Area

Higbee Beach is a wildlife management area owned by the state. It’s wild, there are no lifeguards or bathrooms, and it can practically disappear at high-tide. But it’s a great place to get away from the madding crowd and let the dog run loose.

To get there, turn left onto New England Road just before you cross the canal bridge on Seashore Road. Follow New England Road, and please drive slowly as there are kids about and besides, there’s some great open space that commands a slow look. The road dead-ends into the tree-lined and pothole-riddled parking lot.

higbee dog 3Higbee is a great place to take your dog. The beach is bounded by wild dunes covered in native New Jersey scrub bushes like bayberry, Ragusa roses and low pine. But as for amenities, there are none. I think there’s a port-a-john out there but I’ve never used it. And whatever you do, don’t go swimming in the water and for heaven’s sake, don’t go diving around out there. The remains of former industries and people’s past lives are close below the surface out at Higbee and you could easily swim into the remains of someone’s chimney or an old dock or something. With no lifeguards and submerged hazards Higbee’s is not the best swimming beach on the island.

You should also know that Higbee has a, um, colorful, reputation. It’s not a common occurrence, but occasionally someone is arrested on the beach for the crime of being naked. Nudists are drawn there like moths to a flame and some have taken their fight to the courts, attempting to lobby the powers that be to let them do their thing. But alas, going au natural at Higbee remains a crime and the undercover officers (no pun intended) there will make you put your clothes on. They’ll probably ticket you and if you give them cause they’ll arrest you. The rules are fewer at Higbee but don’t go nude.

Here’s the skinny. It’s a great bike ride out to the beach if you’re in the mood. It’s a couple mile ride from Cape May but it’s enjoyable (I suggest the Bayshore route). Get there and let the dog run without a leash but be prepared to meet other unleashed dogs. Expect skeeters and pee before you go there. Marvel at the rugged shoreline and watch the Cape May Lewes Ferry as it steams into port. Contemplate the mystery of the South Voodoo Tree (look for it, you’ll see it). If you go into the woods, check yourself for ticks when you leave.


Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach

Adjacent to Higbee (yet a several mile trek by Bayshore Road) is Sunset Beach in Lower Township. Sunset Beach, as you might guess offers great sunsets every night and is a favorite spot for families and people who simply want to park free and park very close to the beach. There’s a nearby gift shop and the Sunset Grill offers beach fare al fresco.

“I love their crabcake sandwich,” said Jane Ashburn of Lumberville, Pa.

Sunset is a cute spot to sit (there are benches) or stare (there are coin-operated binoculars), fly a kite or take pictures. If you want photos of the S.S. Atlantus, the experimental concrete ship resting offshore (locals simply refer to it as the Concrete Ship), get there quickly, the ocean is claiming its hulking remains. And the nightly flag-lowering ceremony is stirring.

“Sunset is my favorite,” said Jane, who claims to be 70 but looks closer to 55. “I’ve been coming here all my life. I love the guy that makes everybody get up at the end of the day and salute. It’s old-fashioned, it’s patriotic and we need that.”

You might find Cape May Diamonds at Sunset, but you need to know what you’re looking for. There are no lifeguards, the sand is a little rough and it’s not one of the sexier beaches on the island, but it’s worth a look.

“My sister and I always come to Sunset,” said Alyisa Mercaldo, 20, of Green Creek. “It’s just where we like to be. I like to look for diamonds.”

A fun and easy bike ride down Sunset Boulevard to Sunset Beach should be on your list of things to do. Look for Fire Control Tower #23 in the scrub and take a tour.

Cape May Point beach

Cape May Point beach

Cape May Point

I love the point. Quaint, quiet, 99.9 percent residential, unassuming, independent, close-knit and fun loving, “The Point” is a unique spot. It reminds me of some remote seaside outpost; constantly battling with a furious ocean intent on devouring the beaches and driving residents further inland. But Point residents, all six of them (I kid), are fiercely independent and sweep the sand out of the streets every spring and carry on.

The Point, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, has been refurbishing its entire stretch of beach for several years. As a result, the beaches are wider and flatter than they’ve been in years. It’s a much mellower vibe than Cape May City and the beach patrol are a fun, friendly and professional bunch.

“I’m not sure I should tell you about my favorite spot,” said Jen Kopp of Lower Township. “But I like St. Peter’s in the Point. It’s quiet, there’s free parking – it’s my secret spot.”

Not much in the way of amenities in the point and that’s the way they like it out there. Pack a lunch and understand that facilities are very limited.

Cape May Point State Park


Cape May Point state park

A beach replenishment project meant that the park had to add new walkways across the dunes in the park. And a much-debated effort to rid the area of invasive phragmites has cleared large tracts of the park of the unsightly reeds and opened new vistas that haven’t been seen in awhile.

The concrete bunker now sits on dry land thanks to untold tons of sand pumped onto the beach. The beach is free but swimming is still prohibited due to underwater hazards, like railroad tracks and the remnants of World War II gun batteries.

The park is a great place to see dolphins and a walk east toward Cape May is an energizing stroll through the William and Jane Blair bird refuge. There are great facilities at the park as well as rangers. The park is also home to the world famous Cape May Lighthouse and hawk watching platform. It’s a nice place to bird watch or people watch and has picnic and grilling facilities. The clean bathrooms alone are worth the price of admission, which is free.

City Of Cape May

The Cove

The Cove

The City of Cape May has the kind of beaches that the Jersey Shore is famous for: lots of bikinis, plenty of nearby bars, restaurants and shopping, and a long history of beach culture. The nuances of each beach require years of study to fully appreciate. Cape May beaches – the slope, the size, the crowd, the waves – change from year to year. But the surf, sand and sun are the constants that have attracted people from far and wide for centuries.

Cape May requires beach tags and has more rules than other beaches on the island. Go to for a complete schedule of beach times, guard schedules, fees and ordinances. Locals mix with tourists on all the beaches although lots of people tend to return to the same spot throughout a summer season. Don’t worry about anything, just layout your blanket and chill.

The Cove is the king of the Cape May beaches. The gentle slope has made the Cove a family-friendly spot recently and the surfing there is always popular. The Cove is an ever-changing place and the shape of the beach changes from year to year. Some folks think it’s getting a little crowded, but the view is spectacular and the flag lowering ceremony is inspirational. Good sand too. Weekend weddings can be a nuisance, but it’s still a happening spot. Locals – the ones who have a free moment in the summer – often arrive after 5.

Grant Street Beach and CMBP headquarters

Grant Street Beach and CMBP headquarters

“The Cove is my favorite spot, hands down,” said Sue Lotozo, owner of the Flying Fish Studio on Park Boulevard in West Cape May, and a local beach connoisseur. “I like to get there after four when everyone’s leaving and stay until the last shred of daylight is gone from the sky. I like the way it’s ever-changing. One year there’s a giant tide pool and the next there’s an exposed jetty.”

The Cove is a laid-back place.

I like the community of surfers at the Cove,” added Sue. “It’s a nice long ride heading’ down toward the lighthouse. There are a lot of regulars there, just a wide range of people. You wind up getting to know these people just because you like to surf the Cove.

And the Cove offers plenty of natural attractions as well. Sue describes her walks along the water edge as a “science experiment.”

“You can find all kinds of unusual beach artifacts. It’s not groomed and it’s very natural,” said Sue.

As you move east (or north, depending on whom you’re talking to) Broadway is next. Broadway is the beginning of what’s locally regarded as the locals’ beaches. A lot of the West Cape May kids follow Broadway right to the beach. The locals all know that Broadway is where the younger kids hang. The unspoken pecking order that rules adolescent life ensures that the local grade and middle-schoolers have their own space at Broadway.

But Broadway also attracts a diverse crowd, including long-timers like Dan Anderson, 60, who hangs at Broadway, well, “because it’s where my wife goes.”

Smart man. Seriously though, want to know why Dan lives at the beach?

Congress Beach

Congress Beach

“So I can sea (see) level,” he claims. Get it? “There’s bathrooms, good lifeguards (I was a lifeguard on that beach for about a month many years ago) and there’s a place to get food.”

As you move east Patterson is where you’ll find the legendary Rusty Nail restaurant and bar. It’s a beach patrol hangout, boasts the coldest beer in town and is recommended for a visit.

Grant Street is home to the world famous Cape May Beach Patrol headquarters (but they don’t sell beach tags). Plenty of eye candy though. Then there’s Windsor, a favorite neighborhood beach.

“I’ve been coming to Windsor Beach since 1948, because, well, I’ve always lived on Windsor,” said Sandy Thomson, who relocated to Cape May in the 1990s after a career as a teacher.

Congress Street has been host to the fireworks display on July 4. It’s also the location of Congress Hall, which some consider the city’s “living room.” Congress Hall does things right and the personalized beach chair and towel service is a great example. If you’ve had the pleasure of staying at Congress Hall take advantage man, take advantage.


Steger’s Beach

When you hit Perry Street, you’re in the thick of. This is the start of Steger’s Beach and it’s where you’ll find many of the young locals, including Kelsey Herchenrider, from Lower Township. You might find Kelsey with a large group of her friends right in front of the South End Surf Shop.

“I like hanging out with all my friends,” said Kelsey.

The Perry Street side of Steger’s is mainly high schoolers, it gets older as you move east and it’s been that way for a long time. Freshman might get to hang at Stegers, but they’re also probably going to get some lectures on taking care of their beaches and all that stuff.

“It’s a chill place,” said Sean Peterson. “All the good food places are there.”

conventionNext up is Decatur Street, which is a magnificent spot. There are plenty of nearby restaurants and bars in case you need a break from the sun. Cabana’s, Carney’s, Martini Beach and the Fin Bar are all located just steps from the Decatur Street beach. It’s also a favorite spot for some of the twenty-something locals, like Megan Magill who can be found with a few of her close friends right in front of Cabana’s.

“You can see everything that’s going on from here,” said Megan. “You can see Beach Drive (actually, it’s Beach Avenue – but most locals refer to it as Beach Drive), you can see the Boardwalk. Plus you know when it’s time to head up for happy hour.”

If you’re wondering how to score one of those beach boxes or cabanas, call Steger’s Beach Service. They’ve got the franchise on those babies and the word on them is that they get passed down from generation to generation.

“Yeah, some of the names on those cabanas have been there a long time,” said Sandy Thomson.

Howard is the beginning of East Cape May. The shopping and bars are replaced by giant beachfront inns and houses.  I think the beaches just don’t seem to get enough of the beach groomer’s attention out here, but families return to these beaches out here like the swallows to San Capistrano. East Cape May runs for a mile or so and includes Jefferson Street, Queen Street (say hi to local photographer Don Merwin), Madison, Philadelphia (get a hotdog at the little hotdog stand there. I guarantee it’s worth the price), Reading (Peter Shields Inn), Pittsburgh, (home to the La Mer Inn), Baltimore, Brooklyn and finally Poverty Beach at Wilmington.


Poverty Beach

Poverty Beach has a long history. Legend has it that in the old days the “help” frequented poverty beach. The entrance to the beach has changed a bit, but there are showers there now. Free parking is a plus and the crowd includes many people from the nearby neighborhood.

“I love Poverty,” said Samantha Lapp of North Cape May. “It’s quiet and there are no parking meters.”

From Higbee Beach to Poverty Beach, Cape May is a beach-lovers’ paradise. Pick the beach that suits you best and put your best suit on (swimsuit that is). Whether you’re interested in seeing friends, returning to a traditional spot, convenient food and beverage, solitude, or nearby shopping, there’s beach that’s just right for you in Cape May.