Cape May is possibly the most beautiful spot in New Jersey. Oh, some will argue that family friendly Ocean City with Wonderland Pier and Manco & Manco Pizza is the better place for a vacation, while others deem the glitzy Atlantic City with casinos and the Knife & Fork Inn more for their taste. Yet, I will choose Cape May with its historic Victorian bed and breakfasts, charming antique shops and The Lobster House.
This past week my husband, Al, and I accompanied our son’s family on a camping trip just outside of Cape May. Other than the huge greenhead flies that swarmed us when we stepped out of our camper, it was a wonderful week.
One of the days, Al and I took the grandkids to Ocean City to play in the waves and go on rides. My husband snoozed while Everett, and I played catch in the surf and Ellie collected seaweed and pebbles polished by years of tumbling in the saltwater and sand. Her disappointment showed when she failed to find a single shell that wasn’t broken or even a tiny piece of sea glass.
It reminded me of years long ago when my cousin and I would pack up snacks, chairs, towels and toys, and then load up our five kids into her minivan to spend the day in Ocean City. I remember wider beaches and a less crowded boardwalk. I would always instruct my sons to keep on their ugly chartreuse T-shirts so I could easily spot them as they rode their boogie boards in the waves and beg them to build sand castles with me. My most vivid memory is of making the mistake of buying them all whistle pops at Shivers for the long ride home.
During the past week we barbecued, trekked to various beaches, shopped and had several lovely dinners out. Eating crabs on the deck at 2 Mile Landing Restaurant and watching the sun set over the water was delightful. Another favorite was Menz Restaurant on Rt. 47 in Rio Grande. It is a cross between Zaberers and Captain Starn’s restaurants, decorated with antiques, oddities and memorabilia, including several two-headed calves, stuffed and displayed. It was founded by William Menz, who in 1936 lost his leg to cancer at the age of 19. As a young man, Menz opened a farm stand and soon added hotdogs, burgers and gas for 12 gallons for $1.
William married and in 1964 they decided to buy the roadside attraction on Rt. 47, Fort Apache, and add a campground. Located in Rio Grande, Fort Apache consisted of a log stockade fence with a gate and lookout towers. Inside the fort were buildings which included a café, gift shop, barber shop, sheriff’s office, candy store jail and saloon. There were entertainers such as cowboys, Native Americans, horses, shoot outs and can-can dancers. Visitors could take a ride in a covered wagon which was chased by bandits and a train ride where Native Americans attacked.
You could also walk through a giant apple or watch alligator wrestling which is hard to imagine in the west, but it was a sensation. Horses could be hired for a trail ride outside the fort or you could stand in line and get an autograph from television celebrity, “Our Gal Sal,” Sally Starr.
When Fort Apache was no longer popular in the 1970s, Menz decided to return to the restaurant business and opened the current Menz Restaurant. Though Menz died in 1992, the seafood is still excellent, the staff is friendly and your visit is complete with a camera girl who comes to your table and takes your photo for the front of a matchbook.
One evening we took a phenomenal sunset cruise around the island of Cape May on the Starlight Fleet where we saw stingrays, jellyfish and dozens of dolphins. We returned to the campground and the grandkids and I decided to stay up late and draw pictures of dolphins swimming by an island with palm trees, sharks and dead bodies, pirate ships and skeletons. We then cut up the pictures to make puzzles, and while eating saltwater taffy and laughing profusely 7-year-old Ellie turned to me and said very seriously, “Grammom, I hope my husband is like you.” Surprised by her comment I asked her in what way. She replied, “You know, creative, funny and a little crazy.”
Later that night I reflected on the name they often call me, “Crazy Grammom.” They use the name as they paint my face to look like Frankenstein, or mix odd ingredients from my pantry to create potions which I must drink with pleasure, when they cover the kitchen floor with packing peanuts to make snow angels in August or while we sprinkle glitter around as pixie dust because everything is better with glitter. Yep, best nickname ever!
Donna Brown is a former Hammonton Middle School librarian and a columnist for The Gazette. To reach Donna Brown, send an email to email@example.com.