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New Jersey: Cape May Seaside Victorian Village


Author: Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Located at the southern-most tip of the Jersey Cape, below the Mason-Dixon line, the historic seaside Victorian town of Cape May is the jewel in the crown of the New Jersey Shore. Once home to the summer White House, it is the nation’s oldest seashore resort and is on the national Register of Historic Places. It is a fabulous place for families and, indeed, for everyone to get away--think noisy lobster restaurants, fresh saltwater taffy, and an immaculately clean beach.Originally a peninsula, it is now an island. A drive along Beach Avenue provides a good orientation and a view of the plethora of lodging options, both vintage and modern.

Cape May’s historic area is spread along the streets heading inland. Measuring two blocks deep by six blocks long, it is a delightful collection of more than 600 authentically restored and preserved structures from the Victorian period of 1840 through 1912. Among their lavish ornamentation are latticework, scrolls, frets, brackets, bargeboards, and plenty of stained glass. Features include original detached kitchens that are converted to garages, and wrap-around porches with rocking chairs and hammocks, but no widow walks--because the town has no harbor. Natural cedar shakes are popular on outside walls because salty sea air otherwise makes it necessary to repaint every five years or so. Some houses resemble San Francisco’s “painted ladies,” but most are in lower-key traditional East Coast colors of white or grey. Flags, banners, and colorful flowers enliven the daylight hours, and at night the area is glowingly lit by the town’s original gas lamps.

A visit here is greatly enhanced by a stay in a Victorian B&B, many of which are family-friendly. The all-suite, Colonial Revival Victorian Lace Inn drips with gingerbread trim and is well located to the beach, the beachfront promenade, and the gathering spot that is the popular Washington Street outdoor walking mall. It’s a bit like grandma’s house remembered or imagined, with hand-crocheted bedspreads, natural wood floors, and plenty of that namesake lace covering its windows. Louvered doors front solid doors allowing in a breeze. On most days, an expansive breakfast is served on an enormous wrap-around front porch, in sight of the ocean.

Though located outside the historic area, the Stick-style Victorian Emlen Physick House and Estate is well worth a visit. One tour option includes trolley transportation to and fro and a rolling tour of the Historic District. The guided house tour visits 15 authentically restored period rooms. Time a visit to have lunch or tea in the only Twinings Tearoom in the U.S. Situated inside the estate’s Carriage House, it offers a menu of finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries along with a selection of the famous teas. In good weather, dining takes place inside a tent on the garden patio.

If time permits, a tour of the 1872 Italianate Mainstay Inn, The Abbey, or The Southern Mansion B&B is well worthwhile.On the outskirts of town, at the top of the still-operating 1859 Cape May Lighthouse, the Watch Gallery offers a panoramic view of the Jersey Cape and Atlantic Ocean. Climbing the 199 steps up its cast iron spiral staircase is part of the fun. The surrounding area attracts birds to the bounty of fish, crab, and mussels found in its marshlands, which are on one of the best migratory flyways in the world. Bring binoculars.

In addition to all this, Cape May is called the “restaurant capital of New Jersey.” For special meals, try the casual Blue Pig Tavern located inside the renovated Congress Hall Hotel, which once was the Summer White House for President Benjamin Harrison and which was also the venue for performances by John Philip Sousa. It offers an eclectic menu in a spare, colonial-style decor. Drinks include Yuengling traditional lager from America’s oldest brewery, and a well-priced steamed lobster special is available some evenings. Alternatively, the grander Ebbit Room inside the Virginia Hotel is situated amid lovely houses in the historic district and features fine dining with piano entertainment. Both are near the mall.

New York City-Cape May-Washington, D.C.
You can fly into NYC on an open-jaw ticket, stay a few days, then rent a car and drive among a band of yellow taxis on your way out of Manhattan toward the greenery-lined New Jersey Parkway leading to Cape May. After a refreshing stopover in this seaside village, continue on, taking the 70-minute car-ferry across the Delaware Bay (and maybe seeing a pod of frolicking dolphins, not to mention exotic East Coast seagulls with black heads) to Delaware, landing in picturesque Lewes--the oldest town in the oldest state--and on through this scenic state into slightly less scenic Maryland, and then into D.C. Or you can visit Cape May as a side trip from either big city.