Wise vacationers in southern New Jersey and southern Delaware will see the Cape May-Lewes Ferry as more than a nautical backdrop for beachcombing or a basic way to "bridge" the distance between the two states. It also can stretch your vacation's reach and enrich your experiences.
Although the ferry's initial purpose always has been to carry cars and passengers across the 17-mile-wide mouth of the Delaware Bay, it's also a chance to treat the family to a "mini-cruise" that includes sailing past three lighthouses, seeing commercial ship traffic and, possibly, watching dolphins at play.
Free onboard activities, during select ferry trips between Cape May and Lewes, include listening to live music, learning more about horseshoe and hermit crabs and partying with Lighthouse Pete, the ferry's mascot, who can keep kids busy for the length of your crossing.
The ferry also offers shuttles from its two terminals to downtown Lewes and Cape May and affordably priced packages to explore even more attractions in Delaware and New Jersey.
South Jersey vacationers can dive into Delaware's history, shop until they drop at the state's tax-free Tanger Outlets or link up with additional shuttles to reach the beaches in Bethany, Rehoboth or Ocean City, Md.
Delaware vacationers can explore Cape May, the Cape May Zoo or learn more about the area's involvement in coastal warfare during World War II. Those who are over 21 even can spend the day at Atlantic City's casinos, using offers that cover both shuttle services and round-trip ferry crossings.
The ferry's website also has an extensive list of other destinations that independent travelers can explore in southern New Jersey and Delaware.
Each of the four ships in the ferry's fleet is larger than a football field and carries 100 cars and 1,000 passengers. But the ferry has veered off its initial "strictly business" course because it's no longer as essential as it was in the days before the area's highway infrastructure was upgraded.
Now it's an option that's marketed as a way to "take a break for the ordinary." Instead of driving on endless asphalt byways, the ferry tempts with the lure of relaxing on the water, where air temperatures are at least 10 degrees cooler than land temperatures and the views are much more beautiful than typical highway landscapes punctuated with road signs, rest stops and policemen wielding radar guns.
The ferry can still save drivers time if their route north or south hugs the coast. And anyone who decides to make a quick trip between Cape May and Lewes will appreciate the time the ferry saves. Making the trip entirely by land would take three hours and 180 miles of driving. Crossing on the ferry will take 85 minutes and 17 miles of travel on the water.
During the busy summer season, passengers who plan to take their cars on the ferry need reservations and should arrive at the Cape May or Lewes terminal an hour before scheduled departure times. But that doesn't mean families have to sit in their cars until it's time to drive onto the ferry.
"Some people stay in their vehicles because they're worried about missing the boat," says Jim Salmon, spokesman for the Delaware River and Bay Authority. But it isn't necessary. It also means they'll miss exploring the terminal, the boardwalk by the dock and great burgers at the terminal's outdoor cafes while waiting for their "cruises" to begin.
Just plop on a bar stool under the awning at the Rock Pile Cafe (Cape May Terminal) or the On the Rocks Cafe and Bar (Lewes terminal) or carry your meal to one of the nearby umbrella-shaded tables to savor the food and the view. Lewes locals told me the burgers there are the "best in town." They were right, although I suspect it's also like downing a hot dog at a baseball or football game. When you're outdoors and having fun, food just can't taste better.
If eating doesn't consume all of your waiting time, you can browse the ferry terminal's souvenir shops for clothes, mugs, glasses, postcards and other trinkets emblazoned with the ferry's image.
Fifteen minutes before boarding starts, announcements tell drivers to return to their cars. As I walked back, I passed many drivers and their families who'd spent the time waiting in their assigned rows on the parking lot. What a mistake!
Because cars are lined up in advance, and foot passengers and handicapped passengers board from inside the terminal building, boarding is almost as quick as casting off the ferry's moorings.
For the voyage, car passengers can stay with their cars or climb to the ferry's higher decks. Make the climb. It's fun to enjoy the scenery. If necessary you can escape the sun and heat in one of the air-conditioned passenger areas. All four of the ferry's ships offer limited food (cold sandwiches and sodas) and air-conditioned rooms where passengers can relax or watch television.
But it would be a shame to stay inside when the water, breeze and scenery converge for beautiful scenes. Close your eyes and you can imagine being on a real cruise. But you won't have to worry about having a dressy wardrobe or bestowing endless tips. Just grab a jacket if you think you'll need it and wear rubber-soled shoes for traction. And you'll only have to open your wallet if you get hungry or need to buy one last souvenir.
Passengers can get seasick if the water's choppy, so be prepared. The ferry runs 365 days a year, unless there's severe weather on the bay.
As the Cape Henlopen leaves Delaware and heads for Cape May, she passes the Harbor of Refuge and Delaware Breakwater East End lighthouses on the Lewes side as well as the Cape May lighthouse as she approaches the Cape May terminal.
Although no one spots dolphins, there are pretty, late-afternoon views of Lewes. The sun around the Harbor of Refuge makes the water's surface look as if it is covered with thousands of sparkling diamonds.
It's a quiet time for reflection. As I page through a book on Delaware and New Jersey shipwrecks, purchased inside the Lewes terminal, I can't help smiling when I remember the cashier's words. He looked at me in a fatherly, kindly sort of way and said, "You know, we've never lost one of our ferries."
CAPE MAY-LEWES FERRY
Where: Runs between Cape May, N.J., and Lewes, Del.
When: 365 days a year, with as many as 16 round trips during the peak summer season.
How much: One-way passage for a car and driver is $44 in peak season. Additional car or foot passengers pay $10 (14 and older), $4 (6-13) or travel free (if younger than 6).
Tip 1: Be sure to call or check the website for special deals on round-trip fares and multiple trips.
Tip 2: You get a small discount for making your own online reservations.
The Cape May-Lewes Ferry offers more to passengers than a way to cross the Delaware Bay. Onboard programming and summer packages make it a destination as well as a way to add more memories to a beach vacation.
Rock the Boat: Free live music on select Friday departures through Aug. 27. Catch the ferry that departs Cape May at 6 p.m. or the ferry departing Lewes at 6:15 p.m. Free with ferry ticket.
Marine naturalists: Through Aug. 26, Stone Harbor Wetlands Institute naturalists offer talks and introduce passengers to terrapins, horseshoe crabs, sea stars and more on select Monday and Thursday crossings. Catch the 9:30 a.m. or 1 p.m. ferry from Cape May or the 11:15 a.m. or 2:45 p.m. ferry from Lewes. Free with ferry ticket.
Lighthouse Pete's Family Fun Cruise: Lighthouse Pete the Pirate, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry mascot, leads onboard activities for kids on select departures through Aug. 26. Catch Pete's ferry at 6 p.m. Wednesdays from Cape May or at 4:15 p.m. Thursdays from Lewes. Because Pete's parties are so popular, make advance reservations for the ferry. Free with ferry ticket.
PACKAGES FOR LEWES
For tour details and stops, see www.capemaylewesferry.com.
Self-guided Historic Lewes Tour ($25, adults; $18, children 6-13; free for children younger than 6).
Lewes Guided Trolley Tour ($25 for adults; $16, children 6-13; free for children younger than 6).
Shop till you drop: Tax-free shopping at The Tanger Outlet Center on Route 1, with more than 130 designer outlet shops, for rainy days or when it's too hot to be on the beach. Ferry ticket plus $4 for shuttle.
PACKAGE FOR CAPE MAY
Cape May Guided Trolley Tour, including round-trip ferry and shuttle ($25, adults; $18, children 6-13; free, under 6).
Cape May County Park and Zoo, including round-trip ferry and shuttle ($26, adults; $18, children 6-13; free, under 6).
Cape May World War II Trolley Tour, including round-trip ferry and shuttle ($36, adults; $26, children 6-13; free, under 6).
Lucky 7's package to Atlantic City, including round-trip ferry and shuttle ($12, must be 21 or older).
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