We spent the bulk of our vacation down at the Jersey shore, because I am from Philadelphia and that is what my people do.
It has ever been thus.
When I was a kid we went to Sea Isle City, where my Uncle Charlie (“uncle” in the extended Italian sense of “someone related whose exact degree would be too complicated to repeat and Uncle will do fine”) had a house that we’d rent for a week while it rained. It didn’t rain all the time, not really, but it rained enough to provide a lifetime’s worth of family stories and a complete understanding of the rules and strategy of Yahtzee.
Before that my parents would go to their favorite places down the shore (yes, that’s how we phrase that), and their parents before them. Atlantic City figures heavily in my family’s lore.
Recently my parents have begun renting places in Cape May, which is as far south as you can go in New Jersey and still have dry feet. Cape May is a lovely town, especially if you like Victoriana – a good chunk of it is actually a National Historic Landmark, which having run one of those for a while I can tell you is not a small thing. It’s also the kind of place where you can take small kids and have a grand time. The teenagers go to Wildwood when they’re on their own or Ocean City when they’re with their families, or at least they did when I was a teenager.
We like Cape May. We get to hang out at the beach, catch up with family, and generally enjoy ourselves. My parents were there, my brother and his family came down from New York, and a good time was had by all and sundry. You can’t ask much more from a vacation than that.
We took the scenic route to get there, across the southern edge of New Jersey, past towns with names like Bivalve. The roads down there are not all that well marked – or they are too well marked so that you aren’t sure which sign points to which road – and we took a couple of short detours, but in a way that was sort of the point. Kim had really only seen New Jersey from the AC Expressway before, and everything looks the same from the highways. So she plotted a more local course. It was probably slower than the highway even with the advantage of far fewer miles actually traveled, but it was prettier and really, if you can’t go slow on vacation when can you?
This was a new place we were staying in, the previous one having gotten a bit small for us. It was a hit. It had bedrooms for everybody and a plethora of bathrooms. And it was right downtown, where the grocery store is – which for us is just perfect. We could walk to the store, we could walk to the minigolf, and most importantly, we could walk to the beach.
The girls just love the beach. They look forward to this trip all year long, and they wring the most beach time they can out of every day there.
They frolic in the waves, which is a wonderful thing to see especially since so few people actually “frolic” anymore.
They surf their way back to shore on their boogie boards.
Back in the Stone Ages, when I was a kid, we had rafts made of stone, of course. They sank. Then they invented inflatable rubber rafts, which were a whole lot more fun except they tended to lose air after a while and become like unto stone. This is not a problem with the boogie boards. They hold up to a lot of use – even when grownups get involved.
There were also sand castles to build, some of which approached the sophistication of medieval towns and with much the same drainage problems. But the effort was the thing – that and the recruiting of volunteers and the making of new friends.
The weather was quite hot the first couple of days before cooling off a bit toward the end of the week, which meant that we spent most of the time covered in a thick layer of sunscreen. While it did tend to make holding on to small objects a bit of a task, it must be said that the sunburns were few and localized this year – an improvement over previous years. We’re getting good at this. The oddest time, though, was the morning when the fog rolled in. It was thick, grey, and beaded up on your sunscreen as if you were a cold glass of water in the afternoon sunshine. We loved it. You could tell that the lifeguards were a bit put off by the fog, since they could barely see the water let alone the people in it and they kept whistling us back onto the shore, but it was actually kind of fun.
As always with my extended family, food played a big role on our week. We’re a food-centric bunch, which is a bit tricky these days as the list of things one or more of us must avoid gets longer every year, but we are clever and resourceful people and we simply figure out solutions to those problems. Having a bucket full of margaritas for the grownups always helps, as does having the world’s biggest marshmallows for making smores for the kids.
We also make it a point to stop by Hot Dog Tommy’s.
Hot Dog Tommy has a funny foam hat and sells gourmet dogs out of a walk-up hole-in-the-wall right off the beach, and we look forward to visiting him every time we go because in addition to having the world’s best hot dogs, he also sells slushies. Heavily flavored slushies, evidently.
There was only one day that we didn’t get to the beach, and much of that was spent going dolphin watching. Cape May gets a lot of dolphins. They swim along the shoreline, sometimes as close as twenty or thirty yards offshore, jumping and playing while everybody oohs and ahhs and points. Dolphins: the attention whores of the maritime world. And a number of enterprising companies have outfitted large boats to take advantage of this. You head on over to the docks, pay your fare, and they take you through the shipping canal and around the point in a big circle so you can get up close and personal with the dolphins.
This year the girls even convinced me to go.
I’m not a great fan of boats. They don’t qualify as a phobia and I am one of the least susceptible people I know when it comes to motion sickness, but even so I generally would rather stay on land. Usually on these trips I stay home and cook dinner, but this year my presence was requested, so I went.
It was a nice tour, with all sorts of dolphins bobbing along with the boat.
That day was also Arcade Day, because you cannot go to the Jersey shore without your requisite quota of skee ball. The girls have actually gotten quite good at that game – so much so that by the end of the week they had enough tickets to exchange them for some truly inspiring tchotchkes. You have to wonder at the thought process that went in to selecting some of them for display, but clearly the arcade people know their market since there was much excitement all around when the cousins went to redeem their tickets. It’s like the lottery, only with more winners.
No trip to Cape May is complete without a visit to Sunset Beach, which is opposite the usual beaches and faces the point where the Delaware River meets the sea. It’s a rocky beach, which is part of the charm – many of the rocks are “Cape May Diamonds,” which are little quartz stones that you can polish up to look like, well, diamonds, if you have a bit of imagination, and much of the fun is collecting them. Wear sneakers, though, as the rocks are hard on the feet and sandals don’t help. There is also a stone jetty for the kids to run around on. It points out to sea, directly at the wreck of a concrete ship that ran aground there in 1926. Seriously, it’s made of concrete – an experiment during WWI that somehow didn’t catch on. It’s slowly deteriorating – even in the half dozen years we’ve been going there it has diminished noticeably – so if you want to see it you’d better hurry.
On our last day we cleaned.
You have to leave these places clean or else they take your deposit, so the last morning is always spent getting the place ready for the next people and packing everything up into the cars. Afterward we had a very nice lunch at a place overlooking the beach, wandered through a random craft fair that sprang up out of nowhere, and then headed north to Margate to visit my brother’s in-laws, who have a house there.
We always enjoy visiting with them, as they are good people. Steve even took most of the various assembled out on his boat, which the girls just loved. And there were donuts – real bakery donuts, which for most people is not that big a deal but with the nut and peanut allergies in our family it was quite an event. Junior’s is right on the water and within walking distance, and we took full advantage of this.
And so went our visit to the shore. But our trip did not end there.