by Brittany Chrusciel | For Jersey's Best Wed., Mar. 9, 2022
Cape May has many more layers to offer beyond summer’s proverbial fun in the sun. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
Imagine a seaside resort with no traffic, no lines, free parking and dogs parading the boardwalk. It’s not the summer vacation of your dreams; it’s the reality of Cape May in the underrated offseason, or January through March. Many visitors to Exit 0 on the Garden State Parkway are acquainted with its long stretches of shore spotted with those signature, striped beach umbrellas, lively shops and outdoor activities — it’s all part of what makes Cape May a top-rated destination in the state, according to Jersey’s Best. But Cape May has many more layers to offer beyond summer’s proverbial fun in the sun.
To prove our point, we’re taking you on a day trip to the Jersey Cape during the dead of winter. Along the way you’ll find artisan goods are always in season; you’ll eat and drink local flavors with favorably less crowds; you’ll be moved by a museum humming with heart and soul; and you’ll wax nostalgic over roller skates and curry with a side of vintage records.
We’re convinced the dead of winter is one of the best times to be in Cape May, and we spent 12 hours hiking, learning, eating, drinking, skating and sightseeing to convince you as well.
West End Garage on West Perry Street. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
10 a.m. — Coffee and Shopping at West End Garage
We start (and end) our day at a former gas station. The West End Garage on West Perry Street is an indoor shopping mecca, with individual stalls offering everything from local honey and peanut butter to handmade crafts and handpicked antiques. It’s a gorgeously curated space, enhanced even further by its adjacent coffee and bakery counter run by Beach Plum Farm. Sip a café au lait while buying a bracelet made from guitar strings; munch on a savory scone while debating which vintage map to purchase. One of our favorite stalls is an eclectic but ebullient space called Eastward that offers jewelry and candles as well as cocktail- and bagel-making kits.
South Cape May Meadows. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
11 a.m. — Stretch Your Legs at the Nature Conservancy
Caffeinated and with the browsing bug already sated, head down Sunset Boulevard to the Nature Conservancy at South Cape May Meadows. Even in the winter, birding is possible as finches dart through the reeds, and swans, egrets, geese and more can be found fishing in the lake. Walk a relatively short loop or connect to other paths that will take you to Cape May Point State Park. We had a sunny day — and, of course, a long walk could be challenging if it’s particularly windy or muddy — but we recommend taking advantage of the lack of vegetation found in the winter, which provides much clearer views through the migratory bird refuge and across to the Cape May Lighthouse.
Chicken salad at Mad Batter. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
Noon — Brunch at Mad Batter
The Mad Batter at the Carol Villa Hotel is a Cape May institution, and we’re not looking to improve upon the best. Serving breakfast and lunch all afternoon, you’ll be able to satisfy the craving for a benedict or a burger with coffee or a cocktail. There’s a reliably upbeat atmosphere, and the bustling tables tell you everything you need to know. Even the basic-sounding chicken salad on a croissant can’t be beat — we like that it comes with a heaping pile of fresh fruit.
Emlen Physick Estate. Photo courtesy of Cape May MAC
1 p.m. — Visit to Emlen Physick Estate
Even in the offseason, trolley tours and house tours of the Emlen Physick Estate run regularly. If you’re looking to book a combo ticket, the trolley tour leaves Washington Street Mall at 1 p.m. on the dot, and the house tour then begins at 1:45. We opted to take advantage of a gallery visit on the grounds, which is free and open noon to 3 on weekends. During our February visit, the exhibit at the Carroll Gallery was “A Diamond of Their Own,” about Cape May’s little-known all-Black baseball team, the Cape May Giants. The team represented New Jersey as part of the Negro League throughout the 1920s.
Harriet Tubman Museum. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
2 p.m. — Guided Tour of the Harriet Tubman Museum
Named one of the Smithsonian magazine’s most anticipated museum openings in the world in 2020, the diminutive Harriet Tubman Museum of New Jersey offers an eye-widening account of the freedom fighter’s time in Cape May and how it contributed to the success of the Underground Railroad. But way beyond that, the museum is used as an essential tool to educate and broadcast the message of Cape May’s once-thriving African American community and their lasting impact on the town. From 30% of Cape May’s residents down to just 2%, the local Black community has been unjustly erased over time, and an hourlong guided tour taught us how and why from the perspective of Lynda Anderson-Towns, a former educator, current museum chair and Black resident whose family has called Cape May home for generations. Stunning artifacts include a rare third edition of the book “The Underground Railroad,” but we highly recommend booking a guided tour, held on the hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Book in advance; tickets cost $11.75.
Exterior of Magic Brain Cafe on Perry Street. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
3 p.m. — Late-Afternoon Boost at a CozyCafé
To fend off an afternoon slump, Cape May has several locally owned coffee shops. Even on a wintry Sunday, a few are open until 4 p.m. pouring lattes, teas and hot chocolates to keep you toasty. Try Out There Coffee right on Washington Street, which roasts its own beans, but also brews inventive concoctions, like the vanilla maple jade matcha (hot or iced). Magic Brain on Perry Street feels like a college coffee shop — in all the best ways — steaming milk for impressive espresso art.
Convention Hall’s roller skating rink. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
4 p.m. — Roller Skating With Ocean Views at Convention Hall
Convention Hall, the oceanfront convention center in Cape May, hosts family skate hours from 1 to 3 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. on select weekends in the winter. Admission is $5 whether or not you skate, and rentals are $5 for skates and $7 for blades. Disco-esque, DJ-ed tunes took us back to the elated childhood chaos of the roller rink. However, while our rink was dark and a bit dingy, the facility at Convention Hall boasts a bright wall of windows that face straight onto the beach.
Soaking in sunset from the beach. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
5 p.m. — Head to N.J.’s Southernmost Point for Sunset
If you’ve wrapped skating before 6 p.m. and it’s a clear day, pile into the car and drive west down Beach Avenue to the end, also known as Sunset Pavilion. Here you’ll have a spectacular view off the southern tip of New Jersey as the sun sets into the Atlantic Ocean. Or, if you’re closer to the lighthouse, park at the aptly named Sunset Beach. Even in winter, there were more than a dozen of us around the pavilion waiting for the day to dip below the waterline. The time will vary depending on what time of year you visit.
Inside Nauti Spirits Distillery. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
6 p.m. — Venture Off Island to Nauti Spirits Distillery
Located on Shunpike Road less than 10 minutes off the island, Cape May’s Nauti Spirits Distillery is a worthwhile stop year-round. Pull up to the bar, which often hosts live music, or sip your drink around a firepit on the grounds of the working farm. Sure, the atmosphere here is a bit more subdued in February than June, but the spirits and the housemade sodas are just as delicious. Whiskey drinks were a bit expensive, but the draft cocktails are top quality at $12. We tried a Pear Tree, made with SIGNAL gin, pear nectar, sage simple syrup, lemon and club. Mocktails and daily sodas are also available and kids — and snacks — are welcome. Nauti is open until 8 p.m. on offseason Sundays and 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. If you’re more into wine or don’t want to venture, the Willow Creek Winery is in West Cape May and hosts Fire Pit Saturdays until 9 p.m. (closing at 6 p.m. on Sundays).
Dinner inside Exit Zero Filling Station’s retro, stationary trailer. Photo by Brittany Chrusciel
7-9 p.m. — Enjoy a Private Dinner in a Retro Trailer at Exit Zero
Another former gas station, the Exit Zero Filling Station on Sunset Boulevard is now a bar, restaurant and souvenir shop. The front parking lot is full of festively themed tents called “ski lodges” for private dining. For a truly unusual experience, book one of Exit Zero’s three stationary trailers (free to reserve but do it ahead; these book out in advance). Styled after the eras of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the trailers are heated and provide a funky atmosphere, complete with a soundtrack from a boombox or record player. On a robust menu of burgers, tots and ramen, we were thrilled to also find Thai- and Indian-fusion. The Christmas curry was a tasty gift, but the crowd favorite, flash-fried cauliflower bites, really rocked our socks. As if this experience needed any additional sparkle, a unicorn milkshake comes with a white-chocolate horn while the unicorn salad features what else — a glittering vinaigrette. Cape May Brewing beer is served on tap.
The Brown Room in Congress Hall. Photo courtesy of Cape Resorts
9 p.m. — Grab a Nightcap at the Brown Room
Even if you’re not spending the night, it’s something of a sin to come to Cape May and not step foot in Congress Hall. The 206-year-old historic hotel typically closes for a refresh after the winter holidays and reopens in mid-February, but if it’s open for business, be sure to pop in. Just beyond the lobby you’ll find the eponymous Brown Room, a luxurious setting with a circular bar to grab a classic cocktail or coffee drink. Relax by the fire in a leather lounger to end out your offseason day soaking in the scenery.
10 p.m. — Time to Call it a Day!
Nightlife is a bit quieter in the Cape May offseason, but that’s completely OK when you’ve spent 12 hours exploring the historic, seaside resort town. We hope you’ll better consider a wintertime visit to the Jersey Cape, where the restorative sea breeze blows year-round.
Brittany Chrusciel is a writer and editor specializing in travel, and a lifelong resident of Monmouth County. When she’s not trotting the globe, she calls Asbury Park home and enjoys seeking out new and quirky experiences around the Garden State.
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After only living here year round for the last 2 years, I am just now exploring lovely Cape May during Winter and am loving it! You packed a lot into 1 day and you hit some great spots! Great reporting!
Just spent the weekend at Cape May. It was empty and we ate at the Mad Batter and the service was OK. Both my husband and I felt like crap afterwards food was subpar. We spent a fortune and it wasn’t worth it. Late Spring is a better time to visit
This is an awesome depiction of Cape May, and then some. I have been vacationing in Cape May for over 50 years and have always found surprised that I have never found before. Definitely the Diamond 💎 of New Jersey. Thank you so much. Oh, my family just loved the zoo, what a treasure.
Since our wedding anniversary is in December, we’ve been visiting CM for many, many years when beautiful lights decorate the Victorian homes. Walking through the snow flurries by night, and enjoying the warm winter sun hitting our cheeks by day as we walk by the ocean is wonderful time to be there!
Such an exhausting day you had. Slow down or come back another day. As a year round resident of Cape May I have another view. The town is deserted since most of it is rentals. Ninety percent of the restaurants are closed till May. There is an incredibly cold wind that blows off the bay and not many people venture out Not a fun place to spend the winter and that’s why I run away to Florida.
Great article and very enlightening..my husband and I visit Cape May often in the warmer months and will certainly try a trip during the colder ones..a very enticing city..was considering retiring down there..its so serene.
Thank you for the tour..we definitely will put these on our list.
The article made feel as if I was there. The details you put into what you were describing was fantastic. The pictures were amazing. Thank you. I’ll be sure to visit.