QUEEN VICTORIA WOULD BE PROUD
It is entirely possible to spend a few days in Cape May and never know it’s on the ocean, let alone a peninsula surrounded by water. The urbanscape of this National Register of Historic Places town is so classic hometown America, at least the popular imagination version, I’d almost expect it to show up in the next round of election TV adverts. Over 600 colorful spindled Queen Anne houses sit side by side filling the streets with character. Front yards display decorative wooden signs bearing period Bed and Breakfast names (“The Gables,” “The Queen Victoria”). Gaslight-style luminaire with flower boxes punctuate clean sidewalks. Narrow streets are shaded by grand old trees whose presence in most places has long since been supplanted by street signs bearing their names.
Aside from the density of houses and a few stores displaying beach decor, a person strolling through town could easily mistake themselves for being in a historic Hudson River hamlet or small San Francisco neighborhood (minus the hills and cold).
Ironically, the love and care taken to preserve the charm of the town does not seem to have extended to the oceanfront area in the tourist district. Although the sand and water are typical of any other found along the Atlantic Ocean, the dunes are completely gone, as is any sign of nature. There is nothing, no sea grass, no shrubs, nothing offering a visual or psychological break from the genuinely ugly and uninviting cement barrier and wide highway bordering the beach. The motels and restaurants lining the beach are the multistory, polyester bedspread, nondescript buildings you’d find offering hourly rates off the highway in most cities. Adding insult to injury, the one-time visitor has to pay a fee to use the beach (around $15 for the weekend).
On a positive note, you can drive or take a trolley tour to areas with more natural beaches (see Sunset Beach below) and overall, a Cape May vacation is very versatile. The compulsive shopper, birder, tour-fanatic, nature lover, and pool/sunworshipper can all have an equally great time. There are plenty of things to do in Cape May beyond sunbathing.
ADDENDUM: Numerous people from Cape May have written me directly or in comments below stating I am blind or have a large misconception of the vegetation and dunes in Cape May. After discussions with them over email, it is clear to me they have different standards of what constitutes nature on a beach. As this website is done to my standards and for Oceanistas who are looking for similar standards, I stand by my original assertion. To me, the beach immediately available to tourists staying in town who don’t want to schlep 10 blocks up the beach, or take a car ride to get to the beach, is simply not the type I would want in a weekend Ocean destination. Compare the dunes, vegetation and landscaping (e.g. concrete sea wall) to Kiawah South Carolina, North Carolina, The Hamptons, Long Beach Island, etc.. and the beach is simpy not on a par with them. Be your own judge. I uploaded the photos Cape May residents have sent me to our Cape May Facebook page, so you can decide yourself.
Body of Water
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TOP TEN THINGS TO DO
|SHABBY CHIC & LOCAL SHOPPING
WEST END GARAGE
Capitalizing on the local trend, this refurbished garage is a cooperative selling goods from 15+ local artisans. Handmade pillows with bold orange and black prints; hammered silver rings; whitewashed armoires, bookcases, and Victorian sofas; fabric hula-hoops, 200 varieties of handmade hats, and watercolors splashed with whites, blues, reds and yellows. Basically, you could easily decorate an 8 bedroom beach house with the furniture, art and accessories here.
The products are definitely a big step up from most farmer’s market type chintz-wrapped lampshades, Winslow Homer-gone-bad-brushstroke seashore paintings and cobweb encrusted antique dolls.
|AMERICA’S SECOND LIGHTHOUSE?
CAPE MAY LIGHTHOUSE
To Oceanistas like me, lighthouses are like chocolate. All are great, but some are truly spectacular, usually thanks to an extraordinary view of, or proximity to, water. The lighthouse at Cape May is one of my favorites not only because of the view: at 157 feet high in a town with few structures above 4 stories, you can see nearly 20 miles in either direction to Wildwood (North), Cape Henlopen (South) and out over the endless Atlantic ocean, on a clear day.
The beauty of the 150 year old structure, a solid white tower topped with a simple red cupola exudes the quiet authority of which romance novels and fisherman’s tales are made. Now under control of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities, you can climb the 199 steps on your own, or go with one of their trolley tours. My preference is a daytime climb followed by one of their monthly full moon tours.
|DIG A DIAMOND
Now that I’ve basically slagged this town for callous disregard of its best natural resource, it’s only fair to point out one beach well worth the trip. Sunset beach, appropriately named, is almost the southern most point in New Jersey and, as the name implies, is known for remarkable sunsets. Even locals will come here in the evenings to watch the sky turn out reds, purples, and finally blues over the ocean, hard to find on the East Coast.
In the summer, Marvin Hume asks children to volunteer to help him lower the US servicepeople’s casket flag hanging over the beach. He then teaches children the proper way to fold a flag and a little story behind how he acquired them.
Another local secret is the Rose Quartz crystals found along the shore. Looking almost exactly like diamonds, a favorite past time (and completely free) is mining through the rocks lining the beach looking for these gems. Aside from being a wide, sandy beach that’s fun to walk (with shoes, its rocky), there’s a miniature golf course, souvenir shop, cafe, and peeking through the water is the last remnants of a sunk concrete ship (the USS Atlantus). Dog lovers take note: it’s one of the only beaches along the Jersey shore furry friends are allowed in season.
|A BIRDER’S PARADISE
Cape May is considered a birder’s paradise in Fall because of the thousands of migrating birds that use this as a rest stop along the way to Canada and other parts North. The Cape May Bird Observatory run by New Jersey’s Audubon includes two information centers where staff are more than happy to help visiting ornithologists, weekly walks, photo safaris, kayak tours, festivals, workshops, visits to a local bird breeding farm, lectures, and boat outings. Begin by downloading the Cape May Birding Map, spotlighting prime places to see birds and butterflies, then pick up The Kestrel Express locally, or visit the events section of their website.
|STAY & SPLASH
CONGRESS HALL POOL & ACCOMMODATIONS
Staying at a Cape Resort Group property is the only choice for Oceanistas seeking the comforts of home (down comforters, firm mattresses, clean bathrooms), use of a resort pool, and a central location. Fortunately, accommodation types suit all kinds of travelers: romantic couples at the adults-only Victoria inn, families in the suites of The Star Motel Inn, multi-generationals or larger families in one of the cottages, or big groups at Congress Hall.
Each is less than a 2 minute walk to the pool, has relatively upscale interiors and decor they certainly intended to be a bit edgy and contemporary—to me it came across as a bit disjointed, as if they either had a manic-depressive interior decorator or ran out of budget halfway through. For example, our room had a nice bed, great framed tulip print, and schoolhouse stools, but the kitchen could have been ripped straight out of the never-renovated rent-control apartment I inhabited when I went to Berkeley 20 years ago.
The service too was variable: some staff such as Ryan at the pool and Maria at the Blue Pig Tavern went out of their way to be helpful. Others, seemed to be following policy to a fault.
|TROLLEY & QUIRKY TOURS
MID-ATLANTIC CENTER FOR THE ARTS TOURS
Cape May Tours are a quick way for first time visitors to get an overview of the area and see the buildings that make the area an architectural standout.
The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities runs over 30 different tours throughout the year ranging from your traditional highlights to more quirky options like the “Unzipped” tour (humorous Cape May happenings over the years), the ghost tour (nothing scary or gory, all ages), Cape May in Blue & Grey (Civil War years in Cape May) and the popular Cape May Lighthouse tour.
As a veteran of extraordinary ghost tours taken in places like Edinburgh and Savannah, I would like to see their version made more dramatic and engaging. A jaded narrator dressed as a Victorian ghost, presumably, was friendly but really didn’t hold my attention for long. Still, it gave me a chance to see parts of town we might not otherwise have gone to.
|TAFFY, TEE-SHIRTS & TOURS
WASHINGTON STREET MALL
After a full day on the beach or at the pool, the whole town seems to go to the Washington Street Mall.
A wide, three block-long pedestrian precinct filled with local family-owned shops, restaurants, benches, fountains, memorials to mariners, and an occasional busker. The spirit is upbeat as kids chase each other, couples walk arm in arm summarizing the day’s book, and shoppers pick up goodies for folks at home. Temptations abound with products two steps above the usual tourist schlock, and prices are definitely set with visitors in mind.
My favorite stops included Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy where 30 bins of colorful taffy are ready to assault unsuspecting teeth; Bath Time, a luscious display of artisan soaps, candles and a make-your-own scent bath products bar; Authentic Sportswear for the obligatory Cape May or Exit 0 tee-shirt/sweatshirt; and Cape May on Canvas showcasing Scott Griswald’s art and other gentle beach house-worthy wall art.The ticket booth for tram tours, and start of the tours, is at one end of Washington Street Mall.
CAPE MAY LEWES FERRY
One of the least expensive ways to get out on the water for a quick cruise or a good chance to add another popular beach area to your itinerary. For $10 round-trip, passengers without cars can see some of the sites that make this area so memorable (the Cape May Lighthouse, dolphins in the surf) or just stare out at the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean for 90 minutes. A shuttle followed by a public bus connects the ferry to Rehobeth Beach and Ocean City, making it easy to do a day trip to these popular ocean resorts without the extra 3 hours of driving.
|TOUR AN INTACT VICTORIAN MANSION
EMLEN PHYSICK ESTATE TOUR
It always seems so romantic to envision what life must have been like in the olden days. Especially life as a member of a prominent Philadelphia family with a patriarch who invented surgical techniques still used today, living in a grand Victorian resembling the set for a Tim Burton film.
The reality may have been slightly less exciting than our vision (I’d take a small apartment and modest income over no antibiotics or indoor plumbing any day), but this tour still demonstrates a damn impressive lifestyle. They use anecdotes about family life, point out decor features and give a history of the time that gives a sense of what life was really like for the three people who lived here (Emlen Physick Jr., his widowed mother, Frances Ralston, and his maiden aunt Emilie Parmentier). At $10 for a 45+ tour, its a great way to get a deeper understanding of how this seaside resort came to be and what it was like 130 years ago.