It's time to play outside. From stand-up paddle boarding and kayak sailing to rescue dive simulations and bicycle scavenger hunts - with a few nature talks sprinkled in for good measure - the annual Cape May Harbor Fest is anything but the typical street festival.
Harbor Fest, now in its fifth year, has grown this year into a three-day event, packed with a weekend full of events for all ages just in time for Father's Day. Activities kick off Friday, June 15, with an evening Blessing of the Waters ceremony, and conclude with a day full of water events on Sunday, June 17.
Saturday, the main festival day, will include vendors, children activities, live music, exhibits, a beer garden, the annual scallop challenge and rescue dive simulation.
"To see 10,000 people come in and out - I would say it's one of the coolest things to happen in Cape May," says Harbor Fest volunteer Ray Lawrence, a Philadelphia native who is also heavily involved in the Cape May Jazz Festival. "The people who are there really enjoy it. It's fun, it's exciting, it's educational. It's a magic blend."
The weekend combines all the fun of a typical street festival with a full schedule of environmental events. A harbor history tour, a salt marsh tour and birding on the Nature Center observation deck are mixed with informational classes like "Blooms, Bees and Beach Plums."
"With this festival, I'm going to walk away having learned something," Lawrence says. "I'm going to learn something about the environment. I'm going to learn something about ecology and horticulture."
Harbor Fest initially began five years ago as a public awareness campaign, following a troubling trend of people abandoning boats in the harbor, says Gretchen Whitman, center director of the New Jersey Audubon Nature Center of Cape May and one of the organizers behind Harbor Fest.
"People would just dump their boats and walk away," Whitman says. "We wanted to bring people's attention to it, explain just how important commercial fishing is to our area, what this harbor means ... and it turned into a festival."
It started out simple, Whitman says. But by the third year, Harbor Fest had grown into a major event, attracting thousands of visitors. Today, organizers claim it is the best-attended annual event in Cape May.
"We continue that original message," Whitman says. "What can we do to protect our marina and our environment and protect our coastal waters? We've had a lot of support."
Lawrence, who has a summer home in Cape May, became a Harbor Fest enthusiast after attending his first one three years ago.
"I was overwhelmed to see this little festival go from an idea to a phenomenon, over the course of just a few years," Lawrence says. "This really is, more or less, a microcosm of the beauty of Cape May. It's a combination of appreciation for water and appreciation for nature. All the events have that fabric running through it."
This year's Harbor Fest will feature two authors. Anthony Fredericks will be speaking about the history and importance of the horseshoe crab to Cape May. Tama Matsuoka will be discussing her new book "Foraged Flavor," a combination field guide and cookbook that features recipes using edible plants found right in the backyard. Both authors will answer questions and sign books from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Saturday, at New Jersey Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May.
This year, organizers thought the festival had room to grow.
"We always keep Sunday reserved as a rain date," Whitman says. "So what we decided this year - and it's probably my fault - I said, maybe there are some additional things we can offer that are more laid back."
From that, Harbor Fest's "Super Sport Sunday" was born. Stand-up paddleboard, kayak sailing and the First Resort Bicycle Challenge, a bicycle scavenger hunt, were added to the schedule, in addition to a boat parade and the "Anything That Floats but a Boat" regatta.
"What we wanted to do was encourage families to come back, bring a picnic, see a great view of the harbor, try out the kayaks," Whitman says. "It's something to do with dad on Father's Day. The Sunday activities are very laid back - you can kind of do it on your own."
Extending the festival seemed logical, Whitman says, and a good way to keep all those visitors in the area for an extra day.
"The idea was, 'Why not?'" Whitman says. "We're here anyway, it's Father's Day, and it's a chance to say to people, we've got a whole weekend full of activities for you in Cape May."
Middle Township resident Sharon Zettle was initially drawn to Harbor Fest because of the kayaking events. She brought her 2-year-old nephew for the first time last year, and plans on returning this year, she says.
"The kayak regatta is a ton of fun," Zettle says. "It's very peaceful. It's a way to enjoy the water and nature. It's not noisy, not fast, it's just very peaceful."