Escape to: Cape May
By the Editors of Farewell Travels
© Paul Hakimata
Situated on the southernmost tip of New Jersey, Cape May is home to more than 600 Victorian buildings, many of which have been faithfully restored. That’s a big, big number...enough to make the entire town a National Historic Landmark. It is one of four U.S. seaports that has very successfully preserved its Victorian heritage (Mendocino, California; Galveston, Texas; and Port Townsend, Washington, are the others). Ocean or not, it’s impressive. Throw in the Atlantic ocean, plenty of shops and attractions, several tasteful inns, and more than a week’s worth of great restaurants--and you have a dreamy seaside trip to look forward to – ideal for families, couples and solo travelers.
Exploring town. The heart of town is the Washington Street Mall, which is a 3-block-long stretch closed to automobiles and lined with shops and restaurants. At some point, head over to the information booth on the corner of Ocean Street and the Mall to get in on a Historic District Walking Tour. The tour, which lasts about an hour and a half, is full of historical tidbits, taking you by exquisite Victorian buildings with more gingerbread than you’ve probably ever seen. Afterwards, you may want to go back and explore on your own. You can do this by foot or by cruising around in a rented surrey bike (complete with the fringe on top). It kind of feels like a Flintstone mobile, seating between two and six passengers.
Trolley tour. If you’re not up for walking or biking, you can always take the Cape May Trolley Tour. It’s a 45-minute narrated tour along Sunset Boulevard around Cape May Point. Many historical sites and points of interest are shown along the way including the lighthouse, St. Mary’s by-the-Sea, and other historic houses.
Life’s always a beach. Year round, the ocean takes center stage in Cape May. In the summer months, there’s always a tipsy air of carnival on the promenade which runs along the Atlantic and its 2 1/2 mile beach. Most of the hotels face the sea or are within a block or two of it, so chances are, you’ll spend lots of time enjoying it and its many amusements which range from all-out relaxing to riding the waves on boogie and surf boards and making the rounds in the arcade. Some of the hotels provide umbrellas, beach chairs and towels. Always keep your eyes open on the lookout for dolphins that tend to swim and leap right offshore.
When the summer crowds leave, the beach and promenade become a quiet paradise for walkers, joggers and beachcombers.
Birding for all. You can walk or bike out to Cape May State Park for a beautiful stroll through one of Cape May’s best birding areas. There are three miles of trails and a boardwalk taking you over ponds and through wooded areas and marshlands. Every fall, thousands of migratory birds (including everything from small songbirds to falcons and eagles) stop here on their way south. You’ve come this far, now climb the 218 steps to the top of the Cape May Lighthouse for a far-reaching view.
Tour and Tea. Be sure to visit the Emlen Physick Estate (1048 Washington Street), a fully restored eighteen-room Victorian mansion designed by Frank Furness. There’s a special kids tour, if you have young ones in tow. Afterwards, settle in for tea and light sandwiches at The Carriage House Tearoom & Cafe.
Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes! Once you have one breakfast at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House (Perry and Beach Avenues), you are going to spend the rest of your stay arguing with your kids, your spouse or yourself over whether or not to keep going back every morning. The problem with this place is that the pancakes are incredibly good. There’s always a line around breakfast time, but it moves fast.
Fun for foodies . The dining scene in Cape May is excellent and a great time to go is during the Cape May Food and Wine Celebration in September (this year, the 15-19th). There are wine tours, tastings, special lunches and chefs' dine-arounds. Can't go that week? Well, at the very least, make reservations at 410 Bank Street which has French, Caribbean and New Orleans influences (ask for a table on the verandah) and The Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel, which offers Classic American dishes using seasonal ingredients from their own nearby farm.
Hotels with history. Several of the hotels and bed and breakfasts in town are major landmark buildings as well as wonderful places to stay. Among them is Congress Hall which was originally built in 1816 as a simple boarding house for summer visitors. After a fire destroyed it in 1878, the current hotel—a grand yellow building with stately white columns--opened its doors in 1878. Among its many claims to fame is that in 1891, it became the Summer White House, when President Benjamin Harrison summered at Cape May while electricity was being installed in the White House in DC. In recent years, it has completed an epic restoration. Its sense of history paired with modern amenities and comfort make this 106-room hotel a great choice for staying.
A smaller alternative is The Queen Victoria Bed and Breakfast (pictured left) which has four beautifully restored and maintained Victorian-era buildings right in the historic district, a block away from the beach. There are 32 rooms and suites, all furnished with period antiques.
Sunset spot. An excellent way to wrap up the day is to head over to Sunset Beach and collect some “Cape May diamonds,” pebbles of pure quartz that wash up on the beach. Searching for these “free souvenirs” which can be a big as grapes, is a great adventure for all ages. Plan to stick around for the sunset over Delaware Bay. You won’t regret it.
When to Go. Spring, summer and fall are the very best times to visit Cape May. Many of the guest houses require a two- to three-night minimum stay on weekends. If you want to avoid the crowds, go before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.
Photo Credits: Starting at top of page, ©Paul Hakimata, ©Jason Paluck, ©Stefan Ekernas.