There’s something special about the pause after a storm passes—the sun comes out, the air is clean and the world is quiet for a brief moment. The same can be said about the calm along the southern portion of the Jersey Shore just after the high season ends.
During summer, the beach communities from Atlantic City south to the tip of Cape May swell to more than 20 times their year-round populations, packed with folks from Philly and its suburbs. But post-Labor Day, the crowds abate, and the locals on these barrier islands—and savvy travelers—get to enjoy the stretch of September and October affectionately known as “Locals’ Summer.”
Starting at the north end, near Atlantic City, Margate reverts from “martini glasses on the beach at the height of summer back to come-as-you-are,” says Mike Fitzick, who lives in town and owns Bakeria 1010, an incredible pizzeria and bakery open year-round in nearby Linwood. “I can leave my house, walk to the beach and directly into the water without running into anybody,”—an impossible feat in the summer. “At night, I can call Dock’s Oyster House in Atlantic City or Steve and Cookie’s at 4 p.m. for a table at 7 p.m.” Margate and its adjacent cities of Ventnor and Longport make relaxing counterpoints to Atlantic City, which is a year-round destination.
“This time of year is really the best of summer without the extreme heat and without the crowds,” says Yvonne Yuen, a marketing consultant who worked for Four Seasons in Toronto before relocating to her husband’s old surfing grounds in Avalon, and falling in love with this secret season. “Your favorite restaurant doesn’t have a line. You can have the beach all to yourself, and the ocean is crazy warm.”
Her husband, a massage therapist who works 12-hour days during the summer, heads to the beach in fall and unwinds on his surfboard; late-season hurricanes swirling down south generate the best swells of the year in New Jersey.
Just to the south sits the Wildwoods, a cluster of towns renowned for its swinging midcentury architecture. Check into the Starlux for an example, then explore two-and-a-half-miles of Boardwalk and the sands of Diamond Beach at the island’s southernmost tip, where the water is so spectacularly clear it might fool you into thinking you’re in the Caribbean. There, on Raleigh Avenue, the beach abuts the bike-able, hike-able Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, a seabird sanctuary stretching two miles to the inlet dividing the Wildwoods from Cape May.
Over in the Victorian confection of Cape May, Chad and Courtney Ludeman’s chic Lokal micro-resort is 70-percent booked for this September and about half that in October. When the family relocated to the area three years ago to get the hotel up and running, they didn’t know what to expect after the summer, but “Once I started exploring to create content for Lokal,” Chad says, “I realized what a long list of businesses stay open year-round: breweries, wineries, restaurants, hotels. Cape May never really shuts down. The vibe is just so much more chill. Everything gets better.”
The Ludemans and their two young sons like to linger around the firepits on cool nights at Beach Plum Farm, a working organic farm, stylish general store, and café near where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay. A few minutes away in the community of Cape May Point, the Red Store, one of Yuen’s clients, bakes its famously flaky empanadas through September.
Humans aren’t the only smart visitors to the southern end of the shore in fall. “The monarch migration is spectacular,” says Yuen of the embattled butterflies that use the area as a waystation between Canada and Mexico. “If you keep an eye out, they’re covering the goldenrods on Stone Harbor beach, or down at Cape May Point you’ll find them resting overnight in the trees. It’s one of those things, you’ve just got to be here to see it.”