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My Eleven Favorite Things to Do in Cape May in January

by Jane Kelly

When I picked the month of January to send the heroine of Cape Mayhem to The Parsonage, a fictional b&b in Cape May, I wanted the physical environment to be as cold as the emotional environment. Whatever Meg Daniels desired, as her creator I handed her the opposite. As little as possible to do - requiring as much bodily discomfort as possible to do it.

Cape May always has a lot to offer but there is one six-week period when I imagine the locals breathe a sigh of relief. Everyone deserves a hiatus from being cordial and hospitable - plus an opportunity to park wherever they want. That break appears to occur in January. If you were to graph the level of Cape May's activities for visitors and residents, you would see a rather precipitous dip between the peak at New Year's and the high on President's/Valentine's Day weekend. What better time to send Meg off to Cape May to stir up a little mischief?

Plus, I knew Cape May in the dead of winter. For some reason, I have spent more time on the town's beaches getting my face burnt from the cold winds rather than the hot sun. To do fact-checking for the book, I had to repeat those experiences. I visited Cape May on several January weekends - including the exact dates when the action in the book occurs. Based on the forbidding atmospheric conditions, I modified some of my favorite activities. The surf looked impressive from the front seat of my car. The sunset looked lovely through the windshield. I was just as happy to avoid climbing all those steps at the Cape May Lighthouse. I could still shop. Many of the stores - but not all - were open. The key elements for my protagonist, Meg (and admittedly for me), were available: fudge and skeeball. After a day of research, I was happy - and hungry. And therein lay a problem.

On my first fact-checking mission, I rode around town looking for a restaurant for dinner (one of my suspects had to walk to dinner so I couldn't roam out of the center of town). I thought the search would be simple and the selection wide. I ended up at the WaWa with a pretzel and a bottle of chocolate milk (which by the way IS excellent). Thinking I had missed an obvious choice, I called a friend. He rattled off a number of restaurant names. I had the same reply for each suggestion: closed. Finally, he said, "There's always WaWa." Apparently, I was better at research than I thought.

To verify my findings, I called every Cape May restaurant I could find in guidebooks, in the yellow pages and on the Internet. Here is how the conversations went.

"Hello. Are you open all year?"

"Yes, we are." Unsaid: Come by we'll be happy to serve you.

"Even in January?" "Well no, not January." Unsaid: What are you, nuts?

Despite the need for careful meal-planning, I concluded that the decision to visit Cape May during this winter lull is in no way a nutty choice. To support this contention, let me offer my Top Eleven List of Things to Do in Cape May in January. (Top Eleven sounds bad but Top Ten is hackneyed - and besides I had eleven.)

1. Shop at the stores that are open. A few stalwart retailers stay open to serve you during this lull. They deserve to be rewarded. Consider starting next year's Christmas shopping. If my previous experiences are any indication, you will not find yourself caught in a rush.

2. Eat fudge. Okay, this choice makes my list for every month. My heroine, Meg, was as happy as I was to see that the Fudge Kitchen on the Promenade was open to fulfill her culinary requirements. She stopped there before she settled into the b&b to start her adventure.

3. Celebrate my birthday. Congress, perhaps due to the meager contribution I have made to the history of this country, has so far declined to declare my birthday, January 14th, a national holiday. They did, however, see fit to set aside the following day, January 15th, in honor of someone who did contribute to the nation's growth. So if you get Martin Luther King's birthday off, consider stepping out the night before to celebrate my birthday. Going out to dinner would be a fitting tribute. Order some of my favorite foods: salmon, tuna, swordfish. Anything except lima beans -- as long as the dish is laden with pepper or surrounded by mashed potatoes or asparagus. Just be sure to top the night off with Breyers' Chocolate Mint ice cream. If you can't get a babysitter you might just eat a half-gallon of ice cream in the privacy of your home. I recommend it.

4. Test your endurance. If the weather contributes and your consulting physician agrees, take yourself out into the elements. Bundle up and go for a walk on the beach. I like to start out walking with the wind. Then, when tired, I turn and walk back headlong into the cold gusts. Given the right meteorological conditions, this is a true test of endurance. I've done this many times. Of course, I've never actually done this on purpose. I never figure out that I've made the same mistake again until I turn around to head home. (There is one pleasant side effect: you'll look great for about a half hour. In the long run? Five years older. Be prepared to invest in moisturizer or a chemical peel.)

5. Play skeeball. With skeeball you either get it or you don't. I've demonstrated the game for people who look and say "let's go." Others get it immediately and have to be dragged away from the old wooden alley and balls. I just don't understand people who refuse to see the virtue in spending fifty dollars to win a lovely rubber snake. You never know when you'll need one. Try running out to get a fake cobra on short notice. Better to be prepared.

6. Get warm at The Ugly Mug. My heroine found that when other restaurants took a break The Ugly Mug stayed open to feed her - and to warm her as she moved up and down the Washington Street Mall. In three days, she became a regular. (If you want variety as the month goes on, keep an eye out for restaurants that take only a two week hiatus and offer limited hours for the end of January. I've heard the Mad Batter falls into that category.)

7. Eat at the Lobster House. It's open. I insisted that my fictional characters had to be within walking distance of a restaurant for Saturday night. The Lobster House, however, has a large parking lot and is there to serve real people all year - including January.

8. Tour the Emlen Physick Estate. You might not want to spend as much time admiring the architectural detail on the outside of the building as you would in July, but you'll certainly like moving through the Victorian museum without the crowds you'd find in the summer.

9. Catch the sunset -- from your car. If you keep your windshield clean, this is a no-brainer. Nature still puts on its display each night at Sunset Beach. The degree of drama varies with the cloud cover but unless the sky is totally obscured by heavy gray skies, you might want to check it out. I even caught a miraculous sunset on a day I would have thought the sun would have slipped from the sky unnoticed. As if a Hollywood director had ordered the effect, a hole opened in the clouds and a shaft of bright light spotlighted a circle of water below. I was waiting for Charlton Heston to descend with the ten additional commandments, but without further instructions the hole closed and the day was once again gray and grim. I would have driven hundreds of miles to experience that unlikely sight.

10. Spend time with your loved ones. Let's face it. When are there fewer distractions?

11. Park early. Park often. To my knowledge, there are only six weeks when you can get a parking space in town -- anywhere you want --anytime you want. Experience the joy. Experience the power. Remember the feeling. The window of opportunity is short. We, the tourists, will return - soon.

Jane Kelly is the author of three mysteries with a humorous twist set at the Jersey shore.

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