All Campers Find 'Homes' in Cape May County

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July 29, 2013 by   - () Leave a Comment

Cape May County is shown in red. Map courtesy of Wikipedia

Editor's Note: The following story about the variety of campgrounds in New Jersey's Cape May County is courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

With its nice, big beach, arcades, and tram, one caters to families. Birders flock to another, and then there's the quiet enclave for empty nesters. Entire neighborhoods have grown up around a spot where police and firefighters like to vacation. And there's a particularly snooty place where you'll be judged by the caliber of your caravan.

We're not talking about those distinctly different beach towns that line the New Jersey coast. Instead, for their summer respite, thousands of vacationers and second-home owners head to inland Cape May County, home to one of the nation's largest concentrations of campsites. The county has about 40 campgrounds, offering nearly 14,000 tent, trailer, motorhome, and cabin sites, according to Joann DelVescio, executive director of the New Jersey Campground Owners Association (NJCOA).

New Jersey ranks behind only California, Florida, and New York in the number of campgrounds it offers statewide – about 150 – most family-owned, DelVescio said. Many of Cape May County's campgrounds – which range in size from a few dozen to 1,100 sites – were started when the need for fill during the construction of the Garden State Parkway in the 1950s carved craters in the upland woods deep enough to create lakes.

"I wouldn't think of going anywhere else," said Elizabeth Engelhardt, 75, of Jenkintown, who rented a beach-block home for the entire season in Ocean City before discovering the "other Shore" 41 years ago when her children were young. The lively atmosphere at Ocean View Campground appealed to Engelhardt's family on a visit to a camping relative, she said. There are a large pool, bike trails, games rooms, and a shuttle service catering to its 1,173 sites.

"I can get to the beach and boardwalk over there within minutes if I want to, but we also have a wonderful sandy beach right here on the lake . . .  and it's just steps from my door," Engelhardt said. "Sometimes we don't leave here for days."

Shore camping also appealed to Engelhardt's family because of the friendships formed with their campground neighbors – and continued into a third generation. Her sons and their families have sites beside hers, and Engelhardt's daughter camps for the summer across the lake.

Like many who camp at the Shore, the Engelhardt family started with a travel trailer and eventually graduated to a "park model," a semipermanent abode that is more structure than vehicle. While park models can be rented, many campers choose to own them and pay annual rents to the campgrounds where they are parked on small plots that line the trails.

Most campgrounds open about April 1 and close in October. Sites go for as little as $30 a night for tent camping to about $4,000 for a seasonal motorhome hookup. Some have restrictions on what kind of rig can show up. The Jersey Shore Haven in Cape May Court House, for example, accepts only newer-model Airstream campers – considered the Cadillac of campers – to park at one of the 98 sites on its 38 bucolic acres.

"It's really easy to have all the comforts of home here . . . even air-conditioning," said Joe Smith, 70, of Levittown, who, with his wife, Carole, 67, has spent 37 summers up Route 9 at the smaller Sea Grove Camping Resort. They like the wooded lots – where they can watch and listen to the birds – and how the 200-site campground has evolved from a mostly young family spot into one with a lot of retirees.

"When you go to bed at night, you know what to expect because you're sleeping in your own bed," said Peg Ketterer, who began camping at the Shore with her parents when she was a child and continued the tradition with her own family.

"Our kids' best friends are the ones that they made camping at the Shore over the years," said her husband, John, 56, a retired school administrator from Hamilton, Mercer County. "I don't think we would have enjoyed the Shore as much if we had stayed in the beach towns."

He noted that some barrier-island vacationers "look down" upon those who opt to camp. "It is an affordable alternative to renting or owning a house in, say, Ocean City or Stone Harbor, but there is a considerable investment that has been made in a lot of the park models and the bigger vehicles," he said.

Campers can spend as little as $40,000 on a used, six-year-old model or as much as $300,000 on a new one with the comforts of home. Within the campgrounds, distinct neighborhoods often spring up around occupations, hometowns and other commonalities, said Scott Turner, 37, whose family has owned Ocean View campground for 50 years.

"Once in a while someone will have an issue with a particular site, and we'll offer to move them to another part of the park, and they'll be like: 'Oh no, all my friends are on this trail. I don't want to leave,' or 'All my buddies from work are here,' " Turner said.

"It's very interesting." Dave Myers, who likes to camp at Whippoorwill Campground in the Marmora section of Upper Township, can attest to that. Myers had about a dozen neighbors from Doylestown all living in close proximity for several summers about 10 years ago after he began recommending Whippoorwill to his Bucks County neighbors. "We'd barbecue together or go over to the beach in Ocean City as a group," said Myers, the last holdout in the campground neighborhood. "It was a lot of fun for the kids. But eventually the kids grew up, and everybody scattered. But most of us still see each other back home in Doylestown when the summer is over."

Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at Follow on Twitter.

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