Traveler: Cape May, New Jersey

Forget the images conjured up by the words “Jersey Shore.” Cape May, New Jersey, makes for a relaxing family getaway more akin to Cape Cod than the boardwalking dance party you’ve seen on MTV.

Cape May, New Jersey, is America’s oldest seaside resort, and probably not what most people picture as the Jersey Shore. I’m a longtime fan of this peaceful island at the Garden State’s southern tip—it might be little-known to Hoosiers who prefer ocean getaways in Florida, but its historic charm and family-friendly feel make it a truly serene beach destination.

While the supple sand gets a little too hot for me at midday, it makes great padding for ambitious dives during sunset volleyball games. The next morning, a dip in the pleasantly numbing waves soothes any aching muscles. The beach is never too crowded, even around noon, when a pod of dolphins might pass by close to shore.

The entire city of Cape May was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976, so the oceanside streets lined with Victorian homes have been preserved for tired travelers to rest, laugh with relatives, and nurse sunburns. I visited Cape May in late June for a family vacation, where we rented out an entire nine-bedroom house. This is pretty standard in the family-oriented town, but couples and smaller groups can crash at one of the antique homes now used as hotels.

Cape May doesn’t coast on its historical charm, though. You won’t find many reenactments or Renaissance festivals here. Instead, well-kept buildings and the slow pace of minimal traffic lets a bygone era shine through in the Mackinac Island–esque atmosphere. While the homes maintain an old-timey look on the outside, most have been modernized within.

Trendy cafes and dining options also add to Cape May’s mix of Victorian vibes and fresh feels. I enjoyed starting each morning with some strong-brewed local roasts from Coffee Tyme, a friendly little shop with locations in the town’s pedestrian mall and along the beach. Later, Avalon Coffee provided an afternoon boost on my walks back from the ocean.

For lunch, stay close to shore with Quincy’s Original, serving generously portioned lobster rolls—$11 during the 3–5 p.m. happy hour—and a creamy bisque layered with juicy chunks of lobster throughout. You might also try the bagels and lox, crab cakes, and creative sandwiches over at Freda’s Cafe, where the quirky wallpaper and comfy decor make it feel like your grandma’s kitchen.

Lobster rolls from Quincy’s Original

For something a bit more eventful, the short drive to Beach Plum Farm delivers an afternoon of munching farm-to-table food, exploring flower and herb gardens, and feeding the ducks. Or take a 10-minute stroll from the beach over to Geckos, a hidden gem of Mexican and Native American cuisine—I recommend the Texas migas or shrimp-and-chorizo quesadilla.

By early afternoon, the summer sun always leaves me craving a cold treat. Plenty of the ice cream shops around town could do the job, but Kohr Bros Frozen Custard stands out as something special. It’s only available in a few East Coast states, and the unforgettable mouth feel will leave you with a lifetime craving.

The highlight of my time in Cape May was returning to Shamone, a one-seating-per-night, 15-course restaurant we stumbled across two years ago. Hiding on the second floor of a tiny indoor mall, this experimental bistro maintains an aura of mystery behind a wall of dark wood panels with just a curtain for the door. The owners run a few of the other higher-profile restaurants in the area, but Shamone is the place for trying out new creations. It’s BYOB, so I snagged a bottle of wine down the street at Collier’s Liquor Store before getting in line at 7 p.m. The ever-changing menu includes bites like spiced watermelon and lime gazpacho shooters, seared tuna tacos with avocado pudding in a wonton shell, and meatloaf meatballs with fig ketchup.

Forget Snookie and The Situation—this is the real Jersey Shore.