Posted by: Shell | May 18, 2010

A Vacation in Cape May

I am the Queen of Road Trips.  I can plan them in nothing flat.  I know the packing lists by heart.  I know rest stops, restaurants, how to eat cheaply and moreover, how to have a vacation for a family of 6 for $500 or less and STILL come home with money in your pockets.

Let me demonstrate.

Last weekend, we took a long weekend road trip to Cape May, NJ.  If you’ve never been, I HIGHLY recommend it.  The only caveat?  Do it BEFORE Memorial Day or AFTER Labor Day.  Anyone that lives in/near the World’s Largest Resort City knows about tourists and the prices they bring.  Cape May is no exception.

But let’s talk about how to do this for next to nothing.

First of all, we wanted to camp.  That was a given.  Not that I’m not partial to nice hotels but this time, we were “roughing it.”

Let’s back up a bit, though.  Why Cape May?  Well, thank Family Fun Magazine for that.  Lounging in the bath one night, I was reviewing old magazines (I have over a decade of Family Fun Mags that I like to review for ideas to do with the children.)  There it was.  A beautiful Victorian house near the beach.  Those of you that know me know that San Francisco is one of my most favorite places on the plant.  This was all of the charm but less than a 1/4 of the distance!

After looking at pictures online, I called the Cape May tourism board to find out from the locals where to go.  Now, this is where honesty is the best policy.  I let them know up front that I was from a tourist trap and understood I was visiting a tourist trap.  With that said, we could be more candid with each other.

I was quickly educated in the term “Shoebee.”  As someone who barely tolerates tourists, this had me in stitches.  This is the term for tourists who come with their own food (in shoe boxes) and never spend money there.  Well, I was now determined that I would spend money there but I’d still be a “shoebee” as far as food is concerned.

That brings us to huge expense #1.

1)  Bring your own breakfast and lunch.

I know a lot of people who do this because of dietary concerns.  To be honest, this was part of my motivation.  With a new gluten free diet, I’m too much of a newbie to not be a shoebee.  I packed accordingly.  Fruit, cereal, milk, peanut butter and jelly, cheese sticks, popcorn, etc.  Breakfast and lunch were covered with a few pounds of lunch meat and cheese.

2) You may want to bring a dinner too.

Yes, we did.  We knew we were camping and that brought visions of hot dogs over an open flame, grilled corn, s’mores, and beans.  The Boy Scout came out in me when I thought about “foil dinners” too.  Voila.  Dinner number two taken care of.  A little bit of hamburger, potatoes, chopped veggies, onion soup mix, and Worcestershire sauce was HEAVEN.  Easy and delicious.

3) Shop at stores you know.

There was a local K-Mart that helped us out a couple of times instead of having to hit touristy convenience shops for things like batteries which, for some reason, seem to triple in price the nearer you get to any beach.

4)  Find out what’s free before you plan for the paid entertainment.  You’ll be glad you did.

Yes, we could have done a trolley ride for about $30 – 40 bucks throughout the city but realistically, we can’t hear the announcements over the people – especially screaming little ones.  In our car, we had our snacks, we were able to slow down or even go around the block to see the house again if we wanted.

The lighthouse was beautiful.  For $10 per person we could have climbed 200 steps to the top.  However, at home, we have TONS of lighthouses for free.  BTDT so the visit and pictures were well worth the trip instead.  The beach at the lighthouse provided us with comfy seating as we watched an hour of dolphins jumping in the water.  That was priceless.

Birding tours at the Cape May Lighthouse are free.  I love birding but didn’t want to spend all of my time listening to a tour guide about birds I knew about.  (We’re not that far away that we don’t have the same birds.)

We were there during the World Series of Bird Watching.  Amazing.  I will DEFINITELY look into participating next year.

The Cape May Nature Center was small but nice.  They offer activities and nature classes for the children for free.  Of special note were the coloring books that even the older “children” liked.  These were free.

Cape May diamonds are free.  Free.  FREE.  You sit on Sunset Beach and dig through the stones with the backdrop of a guaranteed spectacular sunset over or next to (depending on where you sit) the shipwrecked USS Atlantis.

Before the sun sets, you are privy to a quaint flag retirement ceremony.  There was something that made even the most curmudgeon stand tall and proud as the National Anthem is sung while they retire the flag on a gorgeous beach of people from all over stopping in their tracks to pay respects to Old Glory.

Then there was the zoo.  Cape May Zoo is a nice zoo.  Not as well kept as the Norfolk Zoo but the animal varieties were MUCH better – mainly because they have flamingos!  It’s free, the animals are well loved,  (We saw evidence of this by the handlers there.) and it was a great afternoon of stretching our legs after a long time in the car.

If you’re not keeping track, that was two days of activities for FREE… then we added the paying part.  Wildwood boardwalk.   I had already told the children we were only going for the evening (day passes are $35 per person, if I remember correctly.)  We have Busch Gardens, Ocean Breeze, Kings Dominion, and Water Country where I live.  Amusement parks lost their charm on us a while ago.  But there was this ferris wheel that I knew they’d want to ride.  I was right.  For $25, the 6 of them (I wasn’t going on it!) had a ride of a lifetime.

The end of the night brought us back to the campground.  Which brings me to #5.

5) How much time are you actually spending in the room?

Do you really need to spend $100 – $300 a night for a room that you’ll be in for 6-8 hours and most of that asleep?  No, you don’t.  Opt for an inexpensive chain (free breakfast makes it even better!) or do what we did, camp.

Camping at Seashore Campgrounds was a treat.  (As recommended by Family Fun.)  The people were so friendly, the grounds were immaculate, the long term residents were lovely and helpful, and the pool was wonderful.  Then there was the free mini golf on site. (This isn’t free during tourist season but we went two weeks before it started.)  $33 a night for 7 of us.  What a deal.

At this point, you may be asking, “Just what did you spend your money on, then?”  Gas, tolls (including the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel), a couple of treats and games at the boardwalk, a few groceries, and some souvenirs.

The one thing that I’d have paid a million dollars for but didn’t have to?  The relaxation, the de-stressing, and the family bonding we shared.

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