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Mar 23,2007
Travel and Adventure: Cape May - nostalgia at the Jersey Shore
by Joan Scobey

I hate the beach. I don't like quaint. And sunbathing is off limits.

So why, oh, why, was I heading to Cape May, on the southern tip of New Jersey, which excels in all of the above?

CAPE MAY - A flag-draped Victorian home is typical of Cape May's architectural showpieces. CNS Photo by Joan Scobey. 
LIGHTHOUSE - The Cape May Lighthouse is where the Atlantic Ocean meets Delaware Bay. CNS Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. 
NOSTALGIA - Horse-drawn carriages add nostalgia to quaint Cape May neighborhoods. CNS Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. 
TIME TRAVELERS - During Victorian Week at Cape May locals dress up in period attire. CNS Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. 
VICTORIAN MUSEUM - The Emlen Physick Estate in Washington Street is a Victorian House museum that offers daily guide tours on Cape May. CNS Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. 
I could say it was because I needed a break from urban frenzy and the daily headlines, but mostly it was a weekend with friends - and the prospect of pigging out on straight-from-the-farm Jersey corn and tomatoes.

Rolling into a sea of pastel blue, pink and yellow Victorian houses, with their fanciful gingerbread porches, turrets and dormers, was ... well, like stumbling onto the MGM set for a seaside remake of "Meet Me in St Louis."

A small triangle of tree-lined streets hugs the beachfront, with its commercial heart around the Washington Street Mall. The mall consists of three pedestrian blocks of cafes, shops, ice cream parlors, fudge shops, open-air tables and the town's information booth.

Within this triangle is an eye-dazzling display of "Stick Style" Victoriana, with steeply pitched gabled roofs, bright contrasting colors, decorative trusses and overhanging eaves. No wonder this whole Cape May Historic District also carries a National Historic Landmark status for its more than 600 Victorian houses.

Anchoring this architectural bonanza is the town's grandest hotel, Congress Hall, our home for the weekend.

Picture it with a sunshine yellow facade and a long colonnaded L-shape porch. Throw in high-back rocking chairs that overlook the lawn, swimming pool and the broad beach beyond.

The fine-sand beach, cleaned and raked every night by a fleet of "beach cats," runs the length of the town, down to the Cape May Lighthouse where the Atlantic Ocean meets Delaware Bay.

"Because of our location at the southern tip of the state," says Congress Hall owner Curtis Bashaw, "we share with places like Key West and Provincetown - other places at the 'end of the line' - a kind of unfettered charm, as well as a sense of welcome to those who seek their own path."

Undeniably, there is a fetching offbeat nostalgia to Cape May. The townspeople love to recall their early days. They celebrate them, in fact, often in period dress.

They celebrate Victorian Week in October when older women in flouncy lace dresses and broad-brimmed hats rock on oceanfront porches and young boys in knickers and caps line up on the beach for their photographs.

With typical Victorian excess, the week is 10 days of historic house tours, evening ghost tours, vintage dancing, lectures, mystery dinners, brass band concerts, dine-arounds, and more.

Sherlock Holmes had no known connection with Cape May, but every spring and fall a mystery weekend honors the Victorian detective. Participants are urged to wear Victorian attire as they prowl the resort's "gas lit" streets. And every evening from Sunset Beach, where you can see both sunrise and sunset over water, they salute the setting sun with a flag ceremony and a recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America."

Cape May is the oldest beach resort in the country, going back to 1816 when the Congress Hall resort first opened its doors as the "Big House." It was renamed when its owner, Thomas H. Hughes, was elected to Congress in 1828.

No surprise that from the first it drew a lively, well-heeled crowd, such as entertainers P.T. Barnum and John Philip Sousa, who composed "Congress Hall March" in its honor.

Presidents James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Ulysses S. Grant were guests during their presidencies. President Benjamin Harrison made it the Summer White House while electricity was being installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet raced cars on the beach in 1905. Its colorful history even includes a 27-year interlude as part of the Cape May Bible Conference led by fire-and-brimstone radio evangelist, the Rev. Carl McIntire, Curtis Bashaw's grandfather.

In 1878, 30 blocks of the town were destroyed by fire, and, faced with their summer trade moving to other beach resorts (think Atlantic City), the town energetically rebuilt, creating the dazzling Victorians of today, including Congress Hall.

A century later an attentive, seven-year, $21 million restoration preserved the character of the original Congress Hall. It reopened in 2002.

Keeping its Victorian heritage, the resort has a delightful authenticity with welcome 21st-century amenities, such as flat-screen plasma TVs and DVD players in every room.

While my sun-besotted friends at the beach waited for lunchtime crab cakes and gin and tonics to be served at their lounge chairs, I had my date with the 19th century.

I meandered up and down the tree-lined streets, caught in a flurry of stars and stripes. American flags fluttered from flagpoles. They were draped over porches, swagged at windows, sometimes 10 or more from a single house. And it wasn't even a holiday. Charming bed-and-breakfasts were tucked among private homes, where an occasional resident read the morning paper in a wicker rocker. A horse-drawn carriage clip-clopped along. A family on bicycles waved.

From the Washington Street Mall I caught a trolley - it's the preferred mode of transportation, of course - out to the lighthouse, half expecting Judy Garland to warble "Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley." The 199-step trek to the top of the lighthouse rewards one with glorious views, I'm told. I also stopped by the Emlen Physick Estate, a Victorian museum, to learn about life behind those gingerbread facades. How to throw a Victorian picnic, no laid back affair; the art of keeping cool; how Victorians celebrated the Glorious Fourth and took vacations. A host of rules covered summer behavior and diversions.

Modern Cape May has a reputation for outstanding restaurants, and one night we put it to the test in The Virginia Hotel's Ebbitt Room. It's a lovely romantic room with an ambitious menu. Our table of eight was big enough to sample a number of starters - yellow fin tuna tartare with Mediterranean flavors, seared foie gras with raisin polenta, peeky toe and blue crab salad. and butternut squash bisque. Entrees had a similar sophistication: rack of lamb with lamb sausage, pistachio-dusted scallops with tomato marmalade, glazed Atlantic salmon with chopped macadamias. There was a gorgeous tray of 25 international cheeses, and a menu of "small plates" of the most interesting dishes.

Imaginative cuisine, beautifully presented, and not what I expected at the Jersey Shore.

The following night's lobster feast by the Congress Hall pool was closer to the mark. It was our last meal, and still no corn. The next day, as we packed our car to leave, the general manager came out to say goodbye - and he handed me a dozen ears of corn.


Where to stay.

Congress Hall, 251 Beach Ave., Cape May, NJ 08204; Phone: 888-944-1816; www.congresshall.com. 109 rooms, $125-$465.

Virginia Hotel, 25 Jackson St., 800-732-4236; www.virginiahotel.com. An elegant 24-room, Victorian-style boutique hotel half a block from the beach with beach amenities (towels, chairs, umbrellas, and food service); rooms from $150-350 and $265-450 depending on season.

The Star, 29 Perry St., 800-297-3779, www.thestarinn.net. Modest property close to the beach: Nine rooms are $95-$275, midweek; $145-$275 on weekend; 10 efficiency motel suites are $125-$425, midweek; $165-$425 on weekend.

The Mainstay Inn, 635 Columbia Ave., 609-884-8690; www.mainstayinn.com. Six rooms in the inn, six in an adjoining cottage, all with period furnishings. Doubles $290-$345 for weekends, holidays and summer, including breakfast and afternoon tea.

Where to eat.

Blue Pig Tavern, Congress Hall, 609-884-8421. Comfort food and homey American favorites such as clam chowder, fish and chips, seafood sizzler, crab cakes, mac and cheese; entrees $10-26.

Ebbitt Room, Virginia Hotel, 25 Jackson St., 800-732-4236. Award-winning dishes feature fish and seafood; entrees $26-34.

Washington Inn, 801 Washington St.; Phone: 609-884-5697. American cuisine; entrees $25-42.

Copper Fish, 1246 Route 109 South, 609-898-0354. Steak and seafood, entrees $18-32.

The Lobster House, Fisherman's Wharf, 609-884-8296. Famous seafood house, with raw bar, seafood dishes $18-40.

What to do:

For a calendar and listings of all major town activities see Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, 1048 Washington St., Cape May, NJ 08204, 800-275-4278, www.capemaymac.org .

The Cape May Bird Observatory, Cape May Point, 609-884-2736, www.njaudubon.org, is open all year, 9 am. to 5 pm daily, and offers weekend bird-watching courses. The bird refuge and freshwater wetlands is an important stopover for migratory birds, especially March-May and Sept.-Nov.

Emlen Physick Estate, 1048 Washington St., 609-884-5404, a Victorian house museum with daily guided tours, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Cape May Lighthouse, Lighthouse Avenue, is open daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m-6 p.m. weekends.

© Copley News Service

1248 times read

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