Growing up in New York, you didn’t go to the beach–you went “down the shore.” Even though I’ve lived in Baltimore for 15 years now, the Jersey Shore is still my preferred stretch of sand for a low-key, nearby beach vacation. Each summer we load up the minivan and head to Exit Zero on the Garden State Parkway to Cape May, New Jersey, with my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, and nieces and nephews for some seaside family time. And though we bring some of our own chaos with us (think 12 kids under 13), it’s definitely not of the variety of the other “Jersey Shore,” the one with the big hair, bar brawls, and high drama. This charming seaside town has it all—gorgeous beaches, great food, and plenty of opportunities for fun that keep us coming back each summer.

where to sleep

We’ve been renting the same house in the borough of Cape May for 12 years and have added another rental in recent years to accommodate growing kids. Dellas Agency is the source for summer rentals, with signs lining the manicured lawns of nearly every other house in town. Cape May proper is the place to be if you want your choice of beach spots and a quick walk into town. West Cape May and Sunset Beach are a bit quieter, but equally nice.

Though I’ve never stayed at a hotel in Cape May, there are plenty to choose from. The gorgeous bed and breakfasts in lovely restored Victorians are a staple in the local tourism scene, but they aren’t the most practical for families with kids. But you don’t need to give up the genteel scene of sipping a post-beach chilled glass of wine on a covered porch—the Congress Hall hotel is a lovely option right in the center of the historic district. The hotel, with its signature awnings and expansive Great Lawn, is directly across the street from the beach. And even if you don’t stay at the hotel, you can enjoy the ambiance with brunch at the Blue Pig, morning boot camp on the beach, and family karaoke in the Boiler Room. Their sister hotel the Beach Shack is a little more casual and pet-friendly, too.

The Camelot Hotel is another family-friendly hotel with basic accommodations boasting a prime location near the beach, promenade, and town (bonus—they’ve got a small pool, which somehow always tempts the kids even with the entire ocean at their disposal).

where to eat

If I could eat every meal of my vacation at the Red Store, I do believe I would reach complete vacation nirvana. There’s a reason why Chef Lucas Manteca was nominated for the James Beard award—his food is simply amazing. Ride your bike over for breakfast and bring home sticky buns for the family, stop in for lunch (get the scallops surfer bowl—you won’t regret your choice), or place an order for carryout empanadas. If you have a babysitter available, make dinner reservations (ideally, before your vacation—the place is small and fills up quickly) and customize your own tasting menu with a combination of small and larger plates. There are a few tables outside on the patio and the staff keeps some bug spray on hand so you don’t become dinner to the evening mosquitoes.

If you want to dress up and head out for a nice dinner with the family, Union Park is always a good option. Each year, our entire family visits for dinner, with all 12 kids in tow. And while the restaurant doesn’t cater to children, the staff is always gracious to even the littlest guests and the kid’s menu includes a Kobe beef burger, pasta options, and some pretty delicious chicken tenders. Save room for dessert—the ice cream sandwich stuffed with Nutella ice cream and topped with salted caramel is as decadent as it sounds.

Uncle Bill’s Pancake House is a Jersey Shore staple. It’s open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. if you’re looking for an early-morning scrapple fix, and, of course, pancakes galore.

The Rusty Nail has a fun beachy vibe with lots of outdoor seating, a fire pit, and shuffleboard to keep you entertained while you wait for your meal. Kids meals come served on a take-home Frisbee and the beers are said to be the coldest in all of Cape May.

If you’re renting a house and eating at home, there’s an Acme in town that carries all of the basics. For fresh seafood, the best spot for the daily catch is the fish market at the Lobster House located at the base of the bridge. You’ll need some patience to navigate the parking lot, but the reward is great if you’re a seafood lover.

(cool) vacations: cape may with kids - (cool) progeny

where to play

Of course, the main event is the beach, and most people head to the main beach in Cape May City. Like most other beaches in New Jersey, everyone 12 and over needs a beach tag to play from Memorial Day through Labor Day. These are available at the entry points all along the beach and are available for the day ($6), 3-day stretch ($12), week (15), or entire summer ($28). Active military and veterans are free, but you’ll need to head to City Hall to pick up your tag there. There are bathrooms at numerous spots along the promenade, so plan your beach spot around them if you’re home base is far from the beach. And many of the hotels rent umbrellas and beach chairs for a reasonable daily rate. Many hotels also rent beach lockers so you can stash your stuff on the beach and avoid hauling a bag of sand toys and boogie boards back and forth each day. Lifeguards are on duty until 5:30 p.m. each day during the summer. If you walk the Promenade to the end, you reach the Cove, a perfect spot to search for shells, sea glass, and Cape May “Diamonds” (or tiny, pearly rocks) and family pictures with the lighthouse in the background.

The beauty of Cape May is that there is also plenty to do beyond the beach. Take a walk into town and stroll along the pedestrian-only Washington Street Mall, lined with shops to meet your every souvenir need. Looking for beach chairs, some sand toys, and an ice cream soda or egg cream? Della’s 5 and 10 is an old-school convenience shop that sells it all. How about gorgeous seashells, cute jewelry, and kids’ toys that will still be fun by week’s end? One of our favorites is Whale’s Tale. Then there are the take-home treats that you didn’t even know you wanted—bath bombs and lotion that smell like Monkey Farts? A Place on Earth sells handmade soaps, scrubs, body butter, and more, including the giggle-inducing “Monkey Farts” flavor made with coconut, banana, and lime. If you get past the name, it actually smells pretty scrumptious. Now, if you can just time your trip so that there is a different person handing out free fudge samples on your return trip down the mall, you’re really in luck. And if fudge and saltwater taffy aren’t enough, you’ll pass a handful of ice cream shops, including a Ben & Jerry’s (though Uncle Charley’s at 310 Washington Street is more affordable).

(cool) vacations: cape may with kids - (cool) progeny

Get in touch with nature at the Nature Center of Cape May, which organizes family-friendly tours and activities like beachcombing in the cove and nighttime hunts for ghost crabs. The Cape May County Zoo, about 30 minutes from town, is a great way to spend a cloudy morning or afternoon away from the beach. And it’s free, which means you don’t feel pressure to stay after getting soaked by a rainstorm mere minutes after arriving (true story). Outside the zoo is a great carousel and the 200-acre Cape May County Park Central with multiple playgrounds, disc golf, and picnic pavilions.

Want to get active? This year we rented kayaks from Aqua Trails and explored Cape May Harbor in a flotilla of 6 kayaks included 11 kids from ages 4 through 13 and a handful of adults. We opted to head out on our own, but the tour outfitter offers guided tours (including a cool full moon excursion) as well as stand-up paddleboard rentals. Prefer to stay on dry land? Lace up your shoes and walk the 199 steps to the tippy top of the Cape May Lighthouse. I can’t tell you anything about this one because I always send my husband for this great adventure, but the pictures promise fantastic views and the kids report that the gift shop rules.

Morning or night, it’s always a good time to take a stroll on the promenade. You may ride bikes along this paved path that runs alongside the beach, but only until 10 a.m. After that, the promenade is busy with runners, power walkers, strollers, and folks making their way to the beach. On the weekend, there are often flea markets and art shows set up in mini tents along the walkway outside of the Convention Center. On Thursday nights throughout the summer you can watch a movie on the beach. At night, Cape May’s version of a Boardwalk is positively tame compared to neighboring towns. There are 2 arcade posts with skee ball and lots of video games that deliver strips of tickets that can be turned in for more useless junk (wait, did I say that out loud? Ahem. Priceless treasures that will likely never make it out of the car despite the lengthy deliberation process.)

For some real boardwalk action, you’ll need to head to Wildwood (roughly 20 minutes away). Morey’s Piers has it all on the boardwalk scene, including legitimate roller coasters, great kiddie rides, 2 fantastic waterparks, and, of course, French fries. You’ll need to pay per ride with tickets (unless you opt for a wristband) for the dry rides and the waterpark has a set admission free (with discounts throughout the week listed on the website—the morning option is a particularly good option).

(cool) vacations: cape may with kids - (cool) progeny

Finally, you cannot leave Cape May until you’ve ridden a surrey. We rent ours from Shield’s. Even if you rent bikes to tool around town, you’ll still need to log an hour pedaling a bicycle built for 4 or 6 or even 8 (if you max out your capacity add two toddlers to the front basket). We always save this activity for the very last day (and hour, to be exact) after every last item is stashed in the car. For my kids, there is a direct correlation between the amount of noise made and the amount of fun had while riding the surrey. This generally involves ringing the bike bell repeatedly, singing “On the Way to Cape May” at the top of one’s lungs, and having a companion surrey to race against (ideally, one filled with family members and not strangers because that could get awkward). Wear a helmet—you already look silly enough riding a surrey, and you’ll feel better with your noggin protected on those sharp turns.

rain, rain, go away (what to do when it rains)

What does anyone do at the beach when it rains? Play a few board games and look obsessively out the window to see if things look clear. Drive to Rio Grande to the movie theater or bring an umbrella and do some browsing in town. You can also hop aboard the trolley and take in the sights under cover. Last year, we loaded up the kids and brought them to the Cape May Brewery, and we were greeted by lots of other families doing exactly the same thing. The house-made Root Beer flows from the taps, in addition to a rotating selection of some pretty delicious brews. While the brewery does not serve food, you are welcome to bring your own (now’s a good time to check out those empanadas I mentioned earlier). They do offer complimentary tours, but we opted out because the kids couldn’t stop yelling, “What’s that awful smell?” in regards to the brewery’s super hoppy aroma.

on the road

Every year we drive, and every year we swear that the next time we’re taking the Cape May-Lewes ferry. That hasn’t happened yet, but it does sound like a fun addition to the trip. The ride should take about 3 hours, but the traffic is unpredictable and some parts of the drive take you along 1-lane roads filled with other cars of eager vacationers.

(cool) vacations: cape may with kids - (cool) progeny

bringing along baby

If you have one, a jog stroller is probably your best option for navigating the promenade, beach, and cobblestone streets in town. We always brings our own, but Coastal Baby Rentals rents strollers and a host of other baby products if space is tight in the car. Shield’s Bike Rentals also rents adult bicycles with a rear toddler bike seat.