Why should you go on a Cape May beach holiday? Well, if you’re looking for great architecture and pristine beaches, a laid-back vibe and sophisticated cuisine, family-friendly fun and grown-up pleasures, then America's oldest seaside resort, Cape May, New Jersey (situated at the southernmost tip of the state), fits the bill — and then some.
Located about 85 miles south of Philadelphia and 160 miles south of New York, Cape May is reachable via an easy two to three hour drive that takes you past Atlantic City, the only New Jersey destination that attracts more visitors.
It's been that way for a long while — ever since the mid-1800s when prosperous visitors from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. fled their noisy and dirty cities for the fresh Atlantic Ocean breezes. But the wooden homes were plagued by repeat fires, and in 1878, the town suffered an especially damaging one that destroyed much of its historic core.
What visitors see today is the result of an ambitious rebuilding effort: a superlative collection of some 600 Queen Anne- and Gothic-style Victorian homes. Dubbed 'painted ladies' for their exuberant exteriors, featuring vivid combinations of crimson and indigo or pumpkin and olive. Many are open to the public as bed-and-breakfasts, or during regularly scheduled tours.
The entirety of this eminently walkable and gracious town has been designated a National Historic Landmark. On a sunny summer day, the best way to get a sense of the town is to amble through some of its most popular residential streets, such as Stockton, Jackson and Columbia Ave, taking in the picture-perfect examples of gingerbread trim, extravagant turrets, widow's walks and inviting verandas.
The Emlen Physick Estate gives visitors a close-up look at the era's customs, architecture and decorative arts, as enjoyed by the wealthy. The sprawling mansion, with 15 rooms now open to the public, is attributed to Philadelphia's pre-eminent Victorian architect Frank Furness. The mansion is also the subject of a special ghost tour.
On the same street as the Estate is the Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian shopping district that’s great for people watching and ice cream eating. Independently owned boutiques here sell beachwear, play things (think: kites, frisbees, beach balls), books, salt water taffy and housewares. Some of the town's most popular bars and casual dining restaurants are here, too. The Ugly Mug is a particular favourite, draped in seaside paraphernalia and great for catching local bands. The Mall also serves as a pick-up stop for a variety of carriage rides and trolley tours — offered throughout the day and evening — that can give you an overview of historic hotspots.
Of course, you'll want to make time for a seaside stroll along the town's celebrated promenade. A bevy of shops and eateries front this two-mile walk, and others spill over to side streets. The long white-sanded beach is packed in the summer with swimmers, surfers and sun worshippers. Further down the promenade, the recently renovated Rusty Nail is a great surfer bar that features a lively outdoor scene with fire pits and picnic tables, and an extensive selection of beers and cocktails.
As the day winds down, time your visit to Sunset Beach to join the crowds that gather as the big red beach ball in the sky sinks below the horizon. Before the sun sets, rummage through the sand for some "Cape May diamonds," glittering quartz pebbles found amidst the sand here, and check out the remains of the S.S. Atlantus, a World War I-era ship made of concrete that ran aground here after it was brought to the site to be used as a ferry dock.
There's so much to do that you'll want to make a weekend of your visit, especially if you’re keen to get up early and indulge in some of what's been called America's best bird-watching (migratory water species are a particular strength). Staying at a Victorian bed and breakfast like The Abbey or old world resort like The Chalfonte is an essential part of the Cape May experience.
One group, the Cape Resorts Collection, features a selection of places to stay from the casual to the boutique to the grande dame. Its Beach Shack is a modern take on the family and pet-friendly motel that lies on the beachfront adjacent to the Rusty Nail, and the Virginia Hotel is a classic 1879 home that has its own upscale restaurant, the Ebbitt Room, offering seasonal farm-to-table cuisine. The flagship of the group is Congress Hall, the city's largest hotel with amenities like a day spa, gift shops, underground (literally!) nightclub, elegant lounge, and the ever-popular Blue Pig Tavern, a great choice for Sunday brunch. All three hotels also offer private beach cabanas and lunch menus and staff will even set up umbrellas, loungers, towels and tables and deliver your lunch directly to your beach chair.
The town's other classic brunch can be found at The Mad Batter, a crowd pleaser for its waffles, pancakes, and orange and almond french toast. More casual all-day options range from two diner-like spots, George's Place and Uncle Bill's Pancake House, to classic no-seat beach kiosks like Hot Dog Tommy's, where some 20 variations on the perennial American favourite can be enjoyed, including the "Mexi dog" with shredded cheddar cheese and salsa and the "Chop Suzy" dog with Asian hot sauce and noodles.
Dinner in Cape May skews toward the brew and burgers, but several restaurants offer elevated menus and elegant settings. Aside from the aforementioned Ebbitt Room, the most notable are The Washington Inn, an 1840 plantation home with five dining rooms, including a summer patio, and the Peter Shields Inn, with great views of the ocean and a chef's tasting menu. Then there’s the small-scale local dining of charming Louisa’s. And, while it's not exactly fine dining, no visit to Cape May would be complete without dinner at The Lobster House, a cavernous waterside eatery that seats more than 500 people and specializes in seafood including, you guessed it, fresh-from-the-sea lobster.
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Header photo: beach cabanas line the shoreline © Cape Resorts Collection
Have you been on a Cape May beach holiday? Where were your favourite places in town? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by JoAnn Greco
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About the author: JoAnnJoAnn Greco
JoAnn Greco is a Philadelphia – based journalist who writes frequently on travel, hospitality, lifestyle, and architecture. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, Hospitality Design, History Magazine, and many other publications.