Monday, August 24, 2009

Back to school here we go...

apple and books

Back to School

I thought I would switch gears now since many schools in the area are starting this week and thoughts of a family vacation seem to be-temporarily-behind us. As both a mother and teacher, I have a very unique perspective when it comes to getting kids ready for the first day of school, and I hope this will help you as well.
Mentally preparing the kids should really begin prior to that first day back, and a good place to start is by helping to equip your son or daughter with the right tools for the job. At the elementary level in our school district, the teachers often send a letter or post card greeting, along with suggested supplies needed for class. I take these lists very seriously because an ill-prepared student that is a step behind his peers at the start of school may remain a step behind throughout the year, and, as your child gets older, that preparation will help promote that “sameness” amongst him and his peers. It also starts getting your son or daughter thinking about the job ahead, and lets face it, until they start to earn their way in this world, their primary “job” should be their education.

The "fun"

But let’s not forget the “fun” factor in all this, because each year is a fresh new start, and kids really do enjoy being able to pick out materials that are both useful and that make a statement about who they are. My daughter is entering 5th grade, so her school supplies had to have more of a serious student vibe to them. The pink flowers of last year were replaced by bold geometric designs in orange and magenta hues-not pink-, while my son clings desperately to his picks from his kindergarten year-all things super hero, as he enters the scary world known as first grade.bookbags

Have a budget

Yes, I take this seriously, but not so seriously that it breaks the budget. My daughter and I scouted the Sunday circulars for listed items then with these circled items in hand, we went to those designated stores only, and I think we fared pretty well. We hit Big Lots for unique folders and three ring binders, Wal-Mart for the backpacks, color-coordinated ruler and protractor, and everyday items like paper and pencils, and we hit Target for things we couldn’t find in the other two stores. Then my two gathered their supplies, labeled and loaded their binders, and took their first mental steps to getting ready for school.

However, there should also be some prep work on the part of the parent as well. A foundation of teamwork should be laid with your child’s teacher before school, if possible, so that if any problem comes up during school, you can do the work as teammates instead of opponents. If your school has one, attend the back to school meetings and make sure to introduce yourself to your child’s teacher. Since I have the added privilege of being both parent and teacher, I know what it’s like to have your best interests for a child misunderstood by a parent who you have never had contact with until there was a problem, and I know that there is always to sides to every story, so if a conflict arises between one of my kids and the teacher, I try to put my parental feelings aside-not an easy task-and wait to talk to the teacher for clarification.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Oh those Cape May diamonds (and other noteworthy activities)

sunset beach

Sunset Beach

Cape May diamonds you ask, well, yes and no. Sunset Beach is located at the very tip of New Jersey State, but this is not your average sandy beach. In fact, this beach is more rock than sand, made up of small pebbles and reflective stones known as Quartz crystals. The crystals originate from the Delaware River, and over time have invaded this beach landscape. When these crystals are polished, they emit a shine equal to diamonds, and the gift shop located on the beach has some good examples, and can give you some tips for your hunt. But the real fun in going to this beach is the finding, and if you have kids, it doesn’t take long before they become quite enraptured with the search for that perfect Cape May diamond. If you find the perfect specimen, consider having it polished and set because Quartz is said to have healing powers, so why not?

Another time you might want to consider Sunset Beach is at sunset of course, not only because of the spectacular views, but also due to the very moving flag ceremony that honors a fallen veteran. Each flag that flies on the beach belonged to a veteran who has passed away, and at sunset the ceremony starts with a recording of Kate Smith singing God Bless America, then The National Anthem plays and the flag is lowered. This year was the first time we attended the ceremony, and only did so because a friend recommended it. Older veterans did the lowering on our visit, and I got a little choked up after seeing others in the crowd saluting. I think my family’s patriotism might have jumped up a notch that night.

Atlantis ship There is also another unusual site jutting out of the surf at Sunset Beach that deserves another look. During World War I, the United States decided to try building a few ships out of concrete instead of steel, but scrapped the project because concrete ships weren’t very fast. One of the ships, the Atlantis, was towed to Cape May and was going to be sunk and used as a base for ferry transport, but on the way the boat got stuck on a sand bar, and you can see the partial remains today. The picture shows the Atlantis and the Lewes, Delaware ferry coming to Cape May.

Dolphin cruises

I wanted to end my Cape May reviews with a few additional activities that you and your family might also enjoy when visiting this quaint little town. As I said earlier, Cape May is a prime spot to observe dolphins feeding along the shoreline, but taking a dolphin watch cruise can be even better. The Cape May Whale Watcher and Spirit of Cape May cruises offer daily excursions to see dolphins, whales, and other marine life, setting sail from the Cape May Whale Watcher and Miss Chris Marina off Washington street as you head out of town. The boats are huge with both an upper and lower deck, and an air-conditioned deck for those who want to get out of the sun. Keep in mind, however, that the front of the boat and top rock and roll the most, so if you think you may get sea sick, you might want to consider another seat.

The crew practically guarantees sightings or you get a return voucher, but the cost of these excursions may scare more than a few families away. The cruises are not cheap ($28 for adults and $18 for children 7-12), but you can always find coupons-sometimes with a buy one get one free-in many of the Cape May tourist guides that float around town. (Many of the restaurants carry displays loaded down with information about many of the attractions and events happening during the summer months.) It’s up to you on whether you feel an excursion is worth the expense, but if you go, I would stick to just the dolphin cruises because the whale watcher cruises are considerably longer and seeing whales is still iffy. My family has always included this little “splurge” in our vacations because you do get awfully close to the dolphins, and sometimes the dolphins hang around the boat to get a better look at you. ocean

Victorian mansions

Why not also consider taking a tour of one of the many Victorian mansions around the town? This year we decided to take a look inside the Physic estate that includes both a house and a small museum/gift shop inside the estates carriage house, mainly because they offer tours directed at the younger set. The tour guide more than aptly describes life back in the Victorian period by explaining the purpose of the mansion's rooms and giving detailed descriptions of some of the many Victorian artifacts contained in those rooms. The cost was about $25, and included a walk through in the museum, and we were invited to join the staff in a free (yes, I think I heard that right, but don’t quote me on it) storytelling luncheon at the carriage house tearoom and café. We had other stops on our agenda so declined the offer.

Other activities

There are also four man bicycle rentals so that you can tour the town on your own and rental rates are very reasonable, carriage and trolley tours, a zoo, and neighboring Wildwood amusement park if the kids get a little bored. The fact is, there are many diverse activities at the Cape, but here’s a warning. There is usually a cost involved, so decide what is important to you and choose accordingly. We stay in places with kitchens and prepare most meals at home because eating out can put a dent in the old wallet as well. Remember, your main objective should be relaxing, so don’t fill up all your time with activities, and take the time to just “be.”

Friday, August 14, 2009

Get to the Point, Cape May Point I mean...

Cape May Point

Cape May Lighthouse

A trip to Camp May should also include a visit to Cape May Lighthouse situated near the tip of New Jersey in Cape May Point State Park. The lighthouse is over 150 feet high and visitors can make the climb to the top in only 199 steps -yes, that's right-on a winding metal staircase to get a breathtaking view of the Cape May Peninsula below. view from lighthouse
For some reason my family and I have always included this climb in every one of our visits to Cape May, and I remember one harrowing time when my then 3 year old refused to be carried and made the decent one step at a time, literally. My husband and I were both sweating bullets by the time we got back down on the ground
The Point is also home to many migratory birds so if you are a birder, you can get a good look from both the lighthouse and from some wooden platforms on trails throughout the park. Walking the trails is a very peaceful way to appreciate the surroundings, and a nice break away from the roaring surf.

WWII bunker

As you make your way to the beach, a massive concrete structure is sure to catch your eye. This was once part of a defense plan during World War II, and the park itself used to be a military base. The bunker had been high atop a hill, but now as more evidence of beach erosion, it is much closer to the surf.


Monday, August 10, 2009

"On the Way to Cape May" Beaches

Cape May Beach

The beach

Ok, so you now know all about Cape May's atmosphere and your best bets when it comes to accommodations, but you still don’t know anything about the beach itself. The Cape May area consists of several sections, and beaches are located in the heart of Cape May and at the very tip of New Jersey known as Cape May Point. The beaches today are long and narrow due mainly to the Canal the Army Corps of Engineers dug from New Jersey to Delaware Bay during World War II, and the extreme erosion to the shore this eventually caused. The sand remains North of Cape May and refills the beaches on the neighboring resort town of Wildwood, so most of what you walk on is replenished sand brought in by the government years back. Today I will focus on the area in the heart of Cape May

If you stay in Cape May, you will probably spend most of your time in the main beach area that runs along Beach Avenue from Pittsburg Avenue to Second Street. You can access this beach at any time but you will have to pay to use it between 11 AM and 5 PM. (Paying to access the beach is not a unique thing in New Jersey, and the general consensus is that the "pay" beaches tend to be cleaner than other areas. At least the upkeep of this region is a lot more detailed.) The cost of entry depends on how many days you use this beach, but it cost $13 per person for a week, $10 for three days, and kids under 12 are free. Vacationers that spend the entire summer season in Cape May purchase a season tag that runs from about $15 to $25 depending on the date of order, and the earlier the purchase the better.

Regardless of which plan you choose, you won’t be sorry because the sand is soft but not gritty and fine like you find on some of the southern state beaches. And this unique texture makes it easier to remove from your feet, but I also have a special secret when it comes to removing sand from your feet, and that is baby powder. The baby powder actually adheres to the wet sand so removal is that much easier, so just sprinkle it on any areas covered with sand and then brush the sand off. (I always carry some in the beach bag.)

Cape May waves

The ocean

Cape May Beaches are great for small children because even in high tide the surf is not too powerful, but I am not saying that you should let your guard down because you definitely can get a one-two punch on occasion. You will also have a front row seat when it comes to dolphin watching because they often feed along the shoreline throughout the day, so be sure to pack your binoculars for a closer look, then sit back and relax because isn't that why you're here?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Combine time travel and a beach vacation: Cape May, New Jersey

victorian bed and breakfasts

Your beach vacation

Going to the beach has been synonymous with a family vacation for as long as I can remember. I have visited several East Coast beaches and have very strong opinions about all of them. I started counting and realized that this has been my fourth trip to this Victorian beach town, and while four trips might not make me an expert, I hope to give you a little more insight into what a vacation to Cape May, New Jersey might hold for you and your family. This post will review all that is good (and divulge some things bad) about a recent return trip.

The town

The atmosphere in Cape May is like no other; streets leading up to the beach are lined with quaint Victorian style houses and stately mansions, all brightly painted with two or more colors and most adorned with gingerbread trimming.
the abey

Massive trees that line the paved, and sometimes cobblestone, walkways provide a blanket of shade from the afternoon sun, and walks around town are quiet because you are still often awestruck by the sights around you.
walk around cape may

victorian house victorian house

You can spend your days going back and forth between two worlds; my family decided to do the "beach thing" from when it opened (11 AM) until 2:30-3:00, grab a shower and a quick bite, then do the sites in town. There isn't really a boardwalk in Cape May, although there have been several new sandwich joints and small stores to open along Beach Avenue -this is where you will see most cars – but there are instead a couple of blocks down the center of town full of unique shops and eateries known as the Washington Mall. Here is where people gather in the evenings to find that one-of-a-kind trinket, or grab a quick snack of ice cream or homemade fudge.

There is also an information booth located at the end of the mall for information concerning house tours or trolley excursions, or take a horse drawn carriage ride to see some of the sites you might have missed.
carriage rideOk so you can already tell that I am very enamored with this little town, but as with life there are some downsides.
Unlike other seaside resorts, you there are not any hotels, condos, or the more popular bed and breakfasts right on the beach. The closest you can get is across from the beach. Ocean Boulevard is the street that runs between the ocean front accommodations and the beach itself. There is no strolling out of your hotel and right on the sand, you must cross the street, and traffic can be heavy at times.
inn of cape may


The next negative point lies with finding suitable accommodations, although couples may fare better than families just because it is easier and less costly to rent a single room. My family rents a condo when we visit Cape May because it helps keep the costs down, but a hotel we stayed in at the last minute-because of an error with our reservations elsewhere-was the Marquis de Lafayette. Now the room we got was a fancy albeit small standard, but they do offer suites with kitchenettes, and all rooms have an ocean view. (Those on the upper floors also have a private patio with rocking chairs, and it is pretty relaxing rocking and watching the surf while you drink your morning cup of java.)

Places to Avoid

A few places to avoid like the plague are The Grand Hotel of Cape May,The Victorian Motel, and Summer Station Condotel. The Grand is an older hotel and you will notice this as soon as you make your way to your room. We stayed there because it was reasonable for two separate rooms and kitchenette, but the room was dirty and wore out, and we couldn't help feeling like we would have been better off somewhere else. *(They do have two floor townhouses attached to the main building but pictures of them online are pretty dated.) On the plus side they have an indoor pool which is a rareity for hotels in the area, plus a view from most rooms, but they are far from the Washington Mall, and hoofing it while pushing a baby stroller was a pain, and we didn't think it was worth a second visit.

Summer Station Condotel boasts having the conveniences of a condominimum (separate bedroom, bath, kitchen and living area)that are rented out like hotel rooms with available maid service. Unfortunately, if you have small children, the only view you are going to see is one of the parking lot, and entrance into your room is from the outside. (The upper floor rooms are for older guests only.) The rooms were cramped, there were dark stains on the carpet and furnishings, and we had a severe case of ants from the moment we walked in. We had to keep all food in the refrigerator for our entire stay, but we were able to get assistance from the front desk.

The Victorian Motel is about a block from the ocean at the start of the Washington Mall and right behind the recently renovated Congress Hall, but these are the only good things I can say about the place. The rooms include a kitchenette in the living area, but the rooms are dirty and worn and even though ours was a non-smoking room, it reeked of cigarette smoke. There is no private deck but instead a couple chairs right outside your front door-yes entrance is from the outside just like the Condotol- on a concrete "deck" you share with everyone else on your floor. You can see the light displays of the Mall in the evenings, but there were so many rowdies living it up, we rarely sat outside.
behind Guerny street

Best Bets

Unfortunately, if you want more than a bed in Cape May, it will cost you. Bed and breakfasts are somewhat cost effective for couples-although not welcoming to children-, and they are your best bet for enjoying the Victorian vibe along with 21st century conveniences. Unlike the hotels in the area, these are privately run and more apt to be concerned with guests' comfort and appearances. A negative comment about their establishment can have dire consequences for them. A downside to staying at a bed and breakfast falls under the area of privacy because there is usually a common porch for all guests, and you are staying in someone's house. You also have to remember that these houses are quite old, and though most are immaculately kept, they smell of old wood, just like the smell you experience when you first enter your grandmother's house.

We just stayed in the carriage house of a wonderful bed and breakfast, the John Wesley Inn . The pluses were that we were in a private location behind the bed and breakfast, our accommodations included a living area with pull down Murphy bed and full kitchen, and a spiral staircase led you up to a very substantial bedroom and bath. The apartment was outfitted with period pieces and tastefully decorated in all the Victorian splendor but with comfortable furnishings and the place was immaculate. On the downside, we did give up our ocean view for space and location (1/2 a block to the beach and a short stroll to the mall and market), the living area is smaller than we originally thought from the pictures we saw online(the kitchen is not separate and there is no dishwasher), and the central air and refrigerator ran awfully loud. (We turned the ceiling fans on and opened our bedroom porch door up at night and that kept us pretty comfy.)

There is also very tight parking on the premises, especially for our Grand Caravan, but when we spoke of our concerns upon arrival to the owners, Bonnie and Lance Pontin, they immediately assigned us the front parking space when a guest left the following day. (Because everything is within walking distance, most guests park and walk during their stay, but we wanted to visit some other attractions besides the town, and would need to use our vehicle.) Another consideration are the porches at the apartment. There are two carriage house appartments and each shares at least the downstairs porch, but the lower level porch is not at ground level, but rather a few stairs up, so if you have mobility problems, this will be an issue for you.