There’s something soothing about Cape May in the winter. Yes, many of the shops, restaurants, and hotels are closed for the season. No, you can’t go swimming when the temperatures are in single figures. But the slower pace and quieter shores are what make winter the perfect time to visit this historic seaside town at the southern tip of New Jersey.
I discovered this in December, when we pulled up outside the grand white arches of the Peter Shields Inn just as the sun was setting, casting the street, the sand, and the Atlantic Ocean with a gentle golden glow. Away from the bustle of the city and the to-do list above my writing desk, l felt myself relax as I took in deep breaths of salty sea air (although if I’m honest, that welcoming bottle of champagne didn’t hurt either).
Our first point of call was the beach. I’m no fan of lounging all day in the sun chasing a tan, but I adore beaches when they are a little bit wild, when I can don my wellingtons and take off down the water line, undisturbed by beach beds, umbrellas, or rowdy sunbathers. That’s exactly what Cape May offered us this winter: the beach all to ourselves as the sun seemingly sank into the ocean.
I’ve learned over the last 12 months or so of city living that I need a regular escape to the country to recharge. Whether a day trip, a weekend, or a full-blown week, a dose of greenery and fresh air works wonders for my state of mind. Cape May was all that and more.
As if arriving to experience one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen wasn’t enough, a full day of exploration the next day exposed me to all that this Victorian town has to offer in the off-season. I adored the brightly coloured Victorian town houses that lined the town centre, houses which put me in mind of elaborate wedding cakes.
I liked that there were no chain stores, simply little local business offering all that you need. I was thankful for the almost-empty roads, especially as I pedalled languidly along on the beach cruiser bike I’d borrowed from the Inn.
It was on that beach cruiser – so suited for relaxation that it had no gears to change – that I accidentally cycled eight miles. Well, not quite accidentally. I knew where I was going, but had mistakenly taken a local’s insistence that the Cape May Point Lighthouse was only ‘15 minutes away’ to mean 15 minutes by bike; as my burning thighs discovered, they had in fact meant 15 minutes away by car.
Still, the bike ride to Cape May Point offered close-up views that would have been nothing but a blur in a car. The cold air made my cheeks tingle as I wheeled past old cottages, boughs of holly (how festive!), and the wild expanse of trees and marshland that make up the wildlife and nature reserve.
A squirrel ran across the road in front of me, birds circled above me, and as I stopped to catch my breath by a small lake, a brightly coloured butterfly landed at eye level on the plant next to me. Seemingly unperturbed by my presence, it sat there motionless until I hopped back on my trusty pink bike to continue my journey.
While I couldn’t climb up the lighthouse itself (even if it had been open, my legs would probably have buckled after the bike saga), I was able to stroll onto yet another beach, this one unmanned and untamed by tourism.
An unexpected piece of history looms out of the sand (and at high tide, the sea) here: a gun emplacement bunker, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the early years of World War II. Some locals say ghosts of the gunners who never saw combat still linger, but I’m happy to say there were no apparitions near me that afternoon.
Noticing fog roll slowly in, I decided it was time to head back to Cape May proper, where I parked my trusty bike and took in the town’s charms by foot before returning to our cosy room (the best in the house) to rest my weary legs by the fire before hitting the town.
Our second night by the seaside was food-focused: complimentary wine and cheese at Peter Shields Inn, festive cocktails at the Virginia Hotel in the Victorian-era centre of town, and dinner at the Blue Pig Tavern (another historic spot, whose claim to fame is operating as the town’s first tavern in the 1700s). That’s yet another bonus to visiting Cape May in the off-season: easy access to the usually fully-reserved hotspots.
I rose early to my alarm the next morning, emerging onto the balcony just in time to see the sunrise over the ocean. As I learned that weekend, Cape May is one of those rare places where you can watch both the sunrise and the sunset from the same vantage point. And in the winter, of course, you have the view all to yourself.
An unhurried atmosphere. Streets straight out of a storybook. The sand, the sea, the sky. Warm welcomes. These are just some of the reasons why I loved Cape May in the winter, and why I can’t wait to go back.
Where are some of your favourite winter destinations? Have you ever been surprised by a destination in winter? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you all!
Plus: don’t miss the suitcase story from the gorgeous seaside Inn where we stayed in Cape May!