Cape May NJ: A Victorian Vacation

Originally published in Recreation News

The Victorians knew how to do it right when they went on vacation. No high-rise motels with plastic furniture and intermittent air conditioners for them. No way. They defined style. Their digs were multi-room mini-mansions with hot and cold running servants and all of the comforts of a style to which most of us would like to become accustomed.

The premier summer beach resort for them was Cape May, New Jersey. Far from the sweltering heat of Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore, it was a refined oasis on the Atlantic. Ladies in their all-wool, ankle-to-neck bathing suits dabbed their toes in the surf while the gentlemen – undoubtedly wishing for the advent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue – focused their attention elsewhere. Instead of playing beach volleyball in the afternoon, couples strolled the tree-lined streets and exchanged pleasantries with friends enjoying lemonade and shortbread biscuits on the verandas of the mansions.

Times change, and Cape May was eventually eclipsed by history and modern culture. Atlantic City, Wildwood, and the Ocean City-s in New Jersey and Maryland drew the crowds, leaving Cape May a relic of another era.

That may have been the best thing ever to happen to the place. The Victorian homes are now charming Bed and Breakfasts. Added that to the non-commercial boardwalk and slower tempo of life in the town, and you know why Cape May is perhaps the East Coast’s loveliest getaway.

Getting there is part of the fun. The fastest way is to take the Cape May\Lewes Ferry from Delaware. It takes a little over an hour on a clean, modern, comfortable boat. Not quite a Carnival Cruise, but a nice, laid-back trip that sets the tone for the rest of the vacation.

Many places that boast a historic district or claim to have a Victorian atmosphere are disappointing. All too often, it turns out to be a handful of houses stranded among the modern buildings and heavy traffic, about as authentic as history at a theme park and as charming as a truck stop.

Not so in Cape May. The Victorian town is intact, right down to the gaslit streets and afternoon teas. The spirit and history of the Victorian era is intact. Some 600 houses, mansions, hotels, shops, and other buildings from the Victorian era are intact and restored to their prime.

If it seems as though most of the houses in Cape May are B&Bs, it’s probably because most of the houses are B&Bs. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s safe to say that returning visitors could visit Cape May every weekend and not stay in the same B&B for a couple of years.

The variety is remarkable. There are intimate places with only two or three rooms and innkeepers who soon become old friends, large hotel-type inns with complete staffs and a level of anonymity, places where the guests share the afternoon on the porch, and others where they just smile as they pass on the staircase. Try different places on each visit, or swear loyalty to that one ‘perfect’ hideaway.

Unlike most summer resorts that hibernate after Labor Day, Cape May blossoms in the cooler months. It’s easier to book a room, and the tours, stores, and other attractions are less crowded.

Don’t think that means there’s less to do. Far from it. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, the town’s clearinghouse for activities, puts out a weekly digest that’s as full of things to see and do as a schedule at a summer camp.

Tours of the town are high on the list. Any place that attracted the rich, near-rich, and those with rich aspirations has a reservoir of gossip that rivals that of any soap opera. A knowledgeable guide and a couple of hours bring visitors up to speed with the “Who-was-who” of Cape May.

There are several tours to choose from. Some are a stroll through the town while a guide tells all the stories; some include stops at several of the more historic houses. There are tours that include a formal tea at one of the mansions, self-guided tours of a former ‘gentlemen’s gambling club,’ and a tour that ends with a gourmet brunch. For non-walkers, a trolley tour trundles along the side streets on two different routes. It’s worth taking both tours to see the whole town easily. The trolley also offers romantic moonlight rides and trips to the nearby historic Cape May Lighthouse.

On the ‘must see’ list for those who are dedicated house-tour takers, the number one stop is the Emlen Physick Estate. As the name co-incidentally suggests, Emlen Physick was a doctor. His mansion is one of the largest private homes built in Cape May. The tour shows both the luxurious ‘upstairs’ life of the good doctor and his family and the more mundane existence of his ‘downstairs’ servants. The carriage house behind the mansion is a gallery that hosts special exhibits and events about Cape May. From September through January, there’s an exhibit of Victorian quilts. The Twinings Tearoom on the grounds has luncheon and afternoon teas. The combination ticket for admission to the mansion with tea following the tour is a good deal.

Cape May’s been cited as one of the country’s “100 Best Small Art Towns.” The schedule of music, theater, and other performing arts rivals that of many larger cities. Tickets generally top at $20 for artists like McCoy Tyner, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the New York Chamber Ensemble, the New England Spiritual Ensemble, and Earl Rainey’s Epic Brass Quintet. The Cape May Stage is a professional equity theater that puts on several shows a year.

Then there are the shops. While there are a couple of spots for t-shirts and the usual souvenirs, many more have more unusual inventories.

The Physick Estate has three that specialize in Victoriana – tea pots and tea tools in one; dolls, music boxes, and books on Victorian culture in another; while the third focuses on the Cape May Lighthouse.

Further in town is the Washington Street Mall. It’s a pedestrian area lined with boutiques, sweet shops, a stained glass gallery, decadent bakeries, interior design accents, a shop specializing in angel gifts, and clothing stores – from souvenir t-shirts to designer lounge-ware. Side streets hold more temptations for the credit cards, including one store for cat and dog lovers.

The New York Times dubbed Cape May the “Restaurant Capital of New Jersey.” While there aren’t quite as many eateries as there are B&B’s, it’s still a challenge to decide where to eat. Locals will argue the merits of their favorite places, leaving visitors with no choice but to try them all. Most of them boast some kind of accolade from a survey or restaurant review: “Most Romantic Dining,” “Best Steak Dinner,” “Most spectacular food in the city,” “Serving seafood and other fare to die for,” “Highest rated restaurant in all Southern New Jersey,” “#1 Best Italian Restaurant in South Jersey every year since 1991.” From upscale to beachfront casual, there’s a restaurant for every mood and culinary urge, seafood, traditional, trendy, even Southwestern.

The many moods and flavors of Cape May are showcased each fall in a series of festivals. September kicks off the season with the Big Band Swing Dance on September 8. A World War II hangar at the Cape May Airport is decked out for an evening of Big Band Music and dancing.

September’s other big event is the annual Food and Wine Festival (Sept. 23-26), with tastings and restaurant tours, cooking classes, and a festival lobster bake. There’s even a relay race with teams from restaurants seeing who can set the fastest table, fold the fanciest napkin, and race through an obstacle course without spilling a drop of a cocktail.

Victorian Week actually lasts for 10 days, October 5-14. It’s a city-wide celebration of the Victorian lifestyle, with house tours, Victorian fashion shows, elegant Victorian dinners, two brass band concerts, Victorian dance workshops, theatrical performances, and lectures about Victorian lives and times. There are overnight and admission packages available for that. 800-275-4278, Ext. 185 puts callers in touch with the right people.

November has the Sherlock Holmes Weekend, with amateur sleuths solving mysteries in town. That’s November 2-4 and is held in conjunction with the town’s Arts & Crafts Festival.

Then it’s Cape May’s celebration of the holiday season, from November 16 through January 1. Candlelight tours, wine and cheese tastings, concerts, holly trolley rides, wassail tours, living history performances, and a heavy dose of Charles Dickens fill the calendar.

After enjoying a few of the celebrations and a few more casual visits, more than a few people have decided to move to Cape May and open their own B&B. The town even offers the “Inn Deep Workshop” in March. It gives prospective innkeepers a realistic exposure to buying, restoring, and running a B&B. It’s either a cure or a confirmation!

For more information on Cape May, contact the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, 609-884-5404, (TTY 800-852-7899), or