Escape to Cape May

With its Victorian mansions, antique shops and five-and-dime, the historic town is both a beach destination and a nostalgia trip.

It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday in the clubby Brown Room lounge at the Congress Hall hotel in Cape May, New Jersey. Happy hour is definitely in full swing here in the “nation’s oldest seashore resort” city, and the rattle of the cocktail shaker behind the bar blends with noisy laughter and conversation. I’m sipping on a bottle of the local

Blue Pig Tavern ale (the beer brewed especially for the historic hotel’s adjacent restaurant), kicking back on a soft sofa and watching the scene unfold in a room that no doubt has lots of stories within its walls.

Having arrived via the Cape May-Lewes Ferry only an hour ago, I soon discover that the chatty couple sitting near me drove down from Philadelphia this afternoon for a long weekend. Like many of the tourists or “shoobies” who made the trip at the turn of the last century, it seems Philly folks are still finding Cape May’s slower seaside appeal a welcome relief from big-city life.

Of course, I don’t learn this particular detail until the next morning, when I take the Historic District Trolley Tour of Cape May. There, an informative guide, John, shares the origin of the term “shoobies”—i.e., tourists who used to arrive via the train from Philadelphia, often carrying a shoebox filled with lunch or a change of clothes for the beach, and thus earning the nickname. Still, I can’t help thinking the ferry seems like the more poetic way to land in this beauty of a town, which is surrounded by water on three sides.

I learn a lot more about Cape May as the polished red-and-green trolley scoots past dozens of well-kept Victorian mansions, including a long-ago “house of mutual affection” and gingerbready residences decked out in the “too-much-is-not-enough style.”

On this point, John jokes that the former homeowners “loved to decorate their decorations.” These valentine-like, 19th-century structures (one of the largest groupings left in the U.S.) are what designated the city of Cape May a National Historic Landmark in l976—one of the few awarded to an entire town.

Many of the mansions have since been transformed into beautiful bed-and-breakfast guesthouses. But it’s not until the trolley takes me out to the eccentric and imposing 1879 Emlen Physick Estate that I get my first peek inside one of the homes, with its Oriental rugs, lace curtains, coffered ceilings and floral wall coverings.

Now a museum, the estate offers a glimpse of what life was like back when the only AC was the ocean breeze, and social events revolved around cakewalks, concerts and dinner parties.

Since I am here during the Cape May Music Festival (late May-early June), my trolley ticket includes a “Bach’s Lunch” on the patio, where my meal also features a concert by a few select members of the Bay-Atlantic Symphony. If you’re here in the summertime, the Carriage House Café & Tearoom—also on the estate grounds, in the original horse stalls—is a great spot for afternoon tea, too.

AFTER LUNCH, the sun disappears and clouds move in. Instead of a walk by the beach, I opt to drive over to the Cape May Artists’ Cooperative Gallery on Sunset Boulevard.

As in many upscale summer enclaves, art abounds in Cape May. At the Artists’ Cooperative, a group of local artists have joined together to showcase and sell their work, including paintings, prints, jewelry, woodwork, mosaics, and stained and fused glass. When I inquire about several unusual collages of china plates and teacups on weathered wood that catch my eye, I discover the creator is Catherine Bosna—who is in the shop today.

“I used old porch posts I rescued from one of Cape May’s Victorian home renovations,” she explains. These, along with seashells and other locally salvaged objects, figure prominently in her whimsical and artful “Wabi-Sabi Tea Party” assemblages.

My next stop is the West End Garage, where old and new come together in an entirely different way—with 50 vendors housed in a former gas station/garage selling their wares. Wandering through here, I find a treasure trove of unique items: vintage Champagne coupes, new ceramic honey pots, metal mermaids, nautical memorabilia, home-sewn designer clothes and handcrafted jewelry.

In addition to these art and antique emporiums, Cape May offers plenty more for shoppers at the Washington Street Mall, a three-block pedestrian concourse lined with upscale clothing boutiques and specialty shops, plus candy and toy stores. An especially popular spot is Dellas 5 & 10, where I pop in to pick up sunscreen and can’t resist a root-beer float at its old-fashioned soda fountain with the spin-around stools in the back.

The Congress Hall Hotel. Photo by Michael Ventura

There’s no shortage of eating options, either. Beachside favorites include the Rusty Nail, where a beer and a bucket of peel-and-eat shrimp can be enjoyed at the longest bar in Cape May (and shoes are actually discouraged); and the Ugly Mug, where the grilled crab cakes are among the best in town. At Lucky Bones Backwater Grille, a guy leaving the place with a takeout cod sandwich tells me: “Everything’s good in there. I’m not a local; I came down here just for the food.”

Tonight, I’ll end up at The Lobster House, a sprawling mecca on Fisherman’s Wharf that serves up fresh seafood, hauled in daily from the local fleet.

But before I dine, I take a spin out to Sunset Beach, the southernmost point of the Jersey Shore. Famous for its namesake dazzling sunsets, it’s also known for bits of weathered quartzite called “Cape May diamonds” that can be found on the beach. The stones are actually pure quartz crystals, which the local Kechemeche Indians once believed to possess supernatural powers for good fortune.

A carriage ride. Photo by Michael Ventura

THE FOLLOWING morning I awake to the clip-clop of a horse and carriage as it rounds the corner outside my window. I can’t help thinking it appropriate that this town, so evocative of the past, would offer such charming transportation. Still, it’s cool and sun-scattered outside, and although biking is another popular means of getting around (there are bike rental shops in town), I’m more interested in a walk.

Cape May is made for strolling. In addition to its 2-mile stretch of beaches, the city sidewalks pass by picket-fenced mansions wrapped in old-fashioned porches—many flying the American flag, and all shaded by leafy trees that form a canopy over the streets. It’s enough to make me feel as if I’ve stepped into a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.

So much so, in fact, that as I wander down Hughes Street in the town’s oldest residential neighborhood—and pass by a gate with a “Rockwell Cottage” sign—I can’t help asking the man on the porch if Norman Rockwell once lived there.

Local resident John Mistretta. Photo by Michael Ventura.

“No,” says owner John Mistretta, walking over to the fence to chat. But according to his own house history and local lore, “Norman Rockwell’s brother lived here, and Norman spent some time in this home during the summers.”

Mistretta is as friendly as the other folks I’ve encountered on my walk about town—from those sweeping off front steps and greeting me with a “good morning,” to others who wave hello while watering plants on their porch railings. It feels so downright neighborly that the town suddenly strikes me as not just another beach resort, but a place where people love to live. And thanks to the preservationists in the 1970s, many are living in some beautiful vintage buildings within walking distance of the ocean.

With lunchtime nearing, I head out to Cape May Point (population 285) and The Red Store. Many bike over here to visit the nearby Cape May Lighthouse, a beacon built in 1859. If I were so inclined, I could climb the spiraling 199 steps to the top for a view of the Jersey Cape, but I rationalize that it’s cloudy out, so the climb wouldn’t really give me the full view as a reward.

Housed in the tiny borough’s former general store, The Red Store is part general store (there are farm-fresh baskets of strawberries for sale today), part coffeehouse and part restaurant. A farm-to-table menu is the focus, with pitchers of house-made sangria a popular accompaniment. I skip the sangria and order a tasty sparkling ginger lemonade, along with a sandwich of blackened local flounder that is fantastic.

Later in the afternoon, I do partake of some sangria at the Willow Creek Winery. Situated 3 miles from Cape May, it’s one of several wineries to have sprung up in the past several years on the south Jersey coast. Apparently, the maritime effects of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay create a micro climate reminiscent of Bordeaux’s, and Willow Creek Winery takes advantage of those conditions, producing seven kinds of wine on its 50 acres.

After the electric train-cart tour of the vineyards—which passes by one of the most artfully decorated chicken coops I’ve ever seen (“We may be the only winery where you can buy fresh eggs, too,” says the guide)—visitors can stop in the spacious and spectacular tasting room. For $10, I taste five wine and sangria samples while wine educator Katie Panamarenko explains each with enthusiasm and knowledge.

Back at Congress Hall that night, I see there’s music being offered in The Brown Room until 10 p.m., and in the atmospheric basement Boiler Room, a dance band is playing until 1 a.m. But from the locals I’ve chatted with earlier, I’ve learned that Cape May is more of a family place than a late-night partying spot. If I felt like hitting an authentic boardwalk, I could visit Wildwood, which is only 16 miles away.

But the truth is, tonight I’m not feeling the urge to do anything more than head to my room—where I can fall asleep like countless Cape May visitors have before me with the moon sailing high over the ocean and a cool sea breeze gently lifting the curtain.

GETTING THERE

Cape May is located at the very southern tip of the New Jersey Shore. From Arlington, you can take I-95 north and cut through New Jersey on Route 55, which takes about 4 hours of driving time; alternatively (and much more fun) is a ride on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry (www.capemaylewesferry.com). Lewes is located on Delaware’s Eastern Shore, just north of Rehoboth Beach, at the mouth of the Delaware River. This route takes about 3 hours of drive time from Arlington to Lewes, and the ferry takes another approximately 1½ hours to reach Cape May. There are numerous ferry departures throughout the day year-round (check website for specific times and/or advance ticketing). Round trip costs approximately $90 for car and passengers.

WHERE TO STAY

Cape May offers many lodging choices: bed-and-breakfasts, hotels, motels, condos and guesthouses. Here are a few options (for others, check out www.capemaychamber.com):

Congress Hall (200 Congress Place; 888-944-1816; www.congresshall.com) is Cape May’s landmark luxury hotel. Occupying a city block across from the ocean, it offers private beach cabanas, a swimming pool, numerous dining options and bars, family activities, shops and a spa. Depending on the time of year, room rates start at $119 and up, with minimum-night stays required during the summer high season.

The Southern Mansion (720 Washington St.; 800-381-3888; www.southernmansion.com) is a four-star boutique hotel/bed-and-breakfast (built circa 1860), featuring eclectic artwork, fine Victorian antiques and four-poster beds within its 24 rooms. A sumptuous breakfast buffet is served on the glassed-in porch overlooking the pretty garden. Rates from $130 to $395.

Chalfonte Hotel (301 Howard St.; 609-884-8409; www.chalfonte.com) is a vintage Victorian summer seaside hotel established in 1876, with a wraparound porch and antique furnishings. Rooms range from two-bedroom suites to traditional rooms with baths down the hall. There are 70 rooms spread out over three floors; rates from $120 to $499.

The Red Store (500 Cape May Point; 609-884-5757; www.capemaypointredstore.com). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but hours vary according to the season. Located a block from Lake Lily, this charming local treasure is part general store, part coffee shop and restaurant. James Beard-nominated chef Lucas Manteca keeps the focus on fresh and local fare, and a French pastry chef means the croissants and pain au chocolat in the bakery case are amazing. Many folks bike here and pick up food to take to the nearby lighthouse for a picnic.

Uncle Bill’s Pancake House (261 Beach Ave.; 609-884-7199; unclebillspancakehouse.com). Hours change according to season. This popular breakfast spot (one of eight locations that span the South Jersey shoreline) is a local institution. It’s across the street from the beach and is always crowded with locals and tourists.

Crab-stuffed shrimp at The Lobster House. Photo by Michael Ventura

Island Grill (311 Mansion St.; 609-884-0200; www.islandgrillofcapemay.com).  Open Thursday-Sunday at 5 p.m. for dinner. Located within walking distance of Cape May’s Washington Street Mall, this intimate, family-owned restaurant has a warm, welcoming vibe, plus a richly wonderful lobster mac ’n’ cheese dish. (It’s also BYOB.)

The Lobster House (906 Schellengers Landing Road; 609-884-8296; www.thelobsterhouse.com). Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, year-round. This sprawling and lively seafood emporium with five dining rooms spans two floors and is located on Fisherman’s

Wharf at Cape May Harbor. Casual dining on red-checked tablecloths features Cape May scallops, crab-stuffed shrimp and fresh Jersey clams. For lunch or evening appetizers and a cocktail, stop in The Schooner American. Moored alongside The Lobster House, it’s an iconic 130-foot sailing vessel that overlooks the waterfront. The Lobster House also has a takeout shop and a fresh fish market for preparing feasts at home.

GOOD TO KNOW

Beaches in Cape May are some of the most beautiful you’ll find, but they’re not free. Beach tags are required for anyone 12 and older. You can pick them up between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., from Memorial Day through Labor Day, at any beach entrance or City Hall (643 Washington St.). Cost: $6 daily, $12 for three days, $18 for a week (Saturday to Saturday).

Cape May offers whale excursions, bird watching, music, movies on the beach, ghost tours, “lighthouse full moon climbs,” plus many other summer events. Check these websites for more information: www.capemaychamber.com, www.capemaymac.org.

Donna Tabbert Long lives in Minneapolis, and writes about travel and food for numerous publications including National Geographic Traveler, The Dallas Morning News and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Categories: Travel
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