Long before I could afford to take an actual ocean or river cruise, I loved riding ferry boats wherever I traveled around the world.
Whether it was ferrying around the Greek Islands, or riding the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, or taking the ferry from Washington State over to Victoria, BC, riding ferries was a way of getting out on the water both scenically and inexpensively.
And I still love it.
That’s why my wife, Catharine, and I (who shares my enthusiasm) have ridden the Cape May-Lewes Ferry three times in the past six years that we have vacationed in Ocean City, New Jersey, including this August.
The ferry travels from Cape May on the far southern reaches of the Jersey Shore across Delaware Bay to Lewes, Delaware, which lies north of beach communities like Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and Ocean City, Maryland.
Lewes also serves as a gateway to the Virginia coast, the Carolinas, and points south, while Cape May serves as gateway not just to the Jersey Shore but to New York City and points north.
Thus lots of vehicles of many varieties — automobiles, mini-vans, RVs, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles, even the occasional canoe — find their way on board for the 85-minute crossing, which eliminates the need to skirt Delaware Bay by taking I-95 and other traffic-choked, stress-provoking highways south or north.
The ferry, which spans 17 miles across the bay, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Since 1964, it has transported more than 11 million vehicles and 34 million passengers. Pets get to come along for the ride. So did the canoe of one couple who have been canoeing around the U.S. and Canada for more than a year and used the ferry to avoid a rough bay crossing.
Riding Just for the Fun of It
Catharine and I, though, aren’t really going anywhere when we board the ferry. It’s the journey we’re after, not the destination: a chance to get out on the water on a warm sunny day (we always sit outside, so we avoid rainy weather, though there’s ample inside seating if you are crossing during a shower or in cold temperatures).
We simply park our car in the ferry’s spacious (and free) parking lot for the day and board the ship as foot passengers. Along with 100 vehicles, the three operating ferries each carry up to 800 passengers, many of whom are on foot and ride the $4 shuttle buses into either Cape May or Lewes for a day’s shopping, dining, or sightseeing.
On our two previous trips from Cape May (which is about a half-hour drive south of Ocean City), we didn’t even get off the boat. So instead of an 85-minute one-way ride, we were treated to a more than three-hour-roundtrip voyage on placid blue waters, including the turnaround time in Lewes.
The first time we did this several years ago, we weren’t even sure we’d be able to stay on the boat, but the ticket taker assured us it was OK, as long as we purchased roundtrip tickets.
We generally go around midday and have lunch on the ferry. The sandwiches are made fresh and on one boat, the Cape Henlopen, you can get paninis at the Lido Bar on the upper deck on weekends.
Alternatively, both the Cape May and Lewes ferry terminals have indoor-outdoor eating and bar areas (called “On the Rocks”) for those who get there with time to spare. The dining facility in Cape May has a more extensive menu, including a raw bar.
We Are Not Alone
As we learned this year, it turns out that we’re not the only “ferry freaks” out there. A number of people make it a frequent practice to ride the ferry just for the fun of it.
Here’s an account from Sandy Ruddy of Williamstown, NJ, whose family has taken many summer ferry rides there since her childhood:
“We never were able to go away for lavish vacations,” she recalls, “and always took day trips. Every year one of those was our ‘cruise’ on the Cape May-Lewes ferry. In the 30 years or so that we have cruised, we have never gotten off in Delaware. From the decks of those boats we fed an endless number of seagulls popcorn and waved to hundreds of smiling faces along the jetty as we left Cape May. Even on the hottest days of summer, we enjoyed the breezes off the water.
“The greatest part of my story,” she adds, “is that to this day, even all grown up, my siblings and I along with our parents and now our own children, still look forward to our yearly summer cruise to nowhere. It’s the one day when we’re unplugged and just enjoy the laughter and joy of being together as a family.”
Another ferry fan, Kelly Salasin of Marlboro, Vermont, notes that there’s something very meditative and Zen-like about being out on the open water. “What I love most is the crossing,” she says — “that sense of being out of time and place, of being neither here nor there, but in between. I love the pause — the journey.”
Getting Off in Lewes
This year we did finally get off in Lewes, which has always had some nice-looking beaches and clean, modern terminal facilities similar to those in Cape May. There’s even a children’s playground and a free mini-golf course for families to pass the time.
We were lured off the boat this trip by a chance to get a close-up look at Delaware’s 17th-century-era tall ship, the Kalmar Nyckel, which carried early settlers from Sweden. Rather than rush and take the same ferry (the Cape Henlopen) back to Cape May, we waited an hour and took a different ferry, the New Jersey. Though differing to some degree in detail, they offered much the same variety of seating options, ranging from bar tables to Adirondack-style chairs to bench seating outside and comfortable looking seats inside.
On the trip back, we spotted a number of dolphins (the captain called attention to them over the loudspeaker) as well as distant tankers sailing in the Atlantic Ocean to the east. You might spot whales in spring, or osprey in the fall. (Some crossings even feature lectures on the local wildlife.)
Year-Round Schedules and Special Events
Since we’ve always ridden the ferries in summer, I was glad to learn that the boats sail the bay year-round. Lots of baby boomers and other snow birds ride the ferries to Florida and back to shorten the drive and break up the long trip.
In the off-season, when fewer families are on board, the ferries host fall sunset wine cruises and beer-and-wine-pairing dinners. Valentine’s Day brings a special romantic dinner.
As a possible sequel to that, you can even arrange to have a wedding on board and invite many of your friends and family. The ferry terminals also offer meeting spaces, a lounge complete with panoramic views of the bay, weekend happy hours and live music.
One more note: two of the three ferries are handicapped accessible and the third one will be by this winter. An elevator (as well as staircases) serves foot passengers at either terminal and, with advance notice and a written release, crew members will drive a disabled passenger’s car on and off the boat while the passenger takes the elevator. Several passengers have complimented the crew for going out of their way to accommodate their needs.
I would never have guessed when we first decided to take our mini-cruise across Delaware Bay and back several years ago that there was so much history and intriguing background to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, or that others shared our Zen-like enthusiasm for just being out on the water.
But with all the perks these ferries have to offer, it really shouldn’t surprise me.
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