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Step Back in Time at Historic Cape May

26 August 2000

By Catherine Poe

Dangling from the side of New Jersey like a vulnerable appendix, Cape May has somehow withstood the scalpel of hurricanes ripping up the East Coast. Situated at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, this little Victorian town was almost destroyed, not by gale force winds, but by Time itself. Like Atlantic City, she too received a reprieve. However, unlike Atlantic City, Cape May did it without slots and craps, but by going back in time and celebrating her unique heritage.

Following in the footsteps of Captain Mey, the Dutch explorer who happened on this spit of sand in 1620, Captain Kidd, who stopped here to refill his water kegs, and Abraham Lincoln, who paused to refresh before his presidential campaign, I know what seduced them all, and it wasn't salt water taffy. Cape May is surrounded on three sides by vast expanses of water and a cooling breeze that tempers the most raging summer furnace. Even today, the main draw is the ocean and has been since 1761, when it was an escape from hot, insufferable summers. During the last century, Cape May was called the Queen of Seaside Resorts, rivaling even Newport and attracting such notables as Robert E. Lee, P.T. Barnum, and John Philip Sousa.

However, the arrival of the automobile and railroad opened distant and more exotic vistas to travelers and soon Cape May was not a destination anymore, but like a frumpy aunt, she became the place to avoid. Resurrected from terminal neglect in 1976 when the entire town was designated an historic site, Cape May has cashed in on American's love affair with things antique. Six hundred Victorians have been restored to their former glory and fifty of those are now bed and breakfasts. Today's vacationer seeks surf and sand, but also a bit of nostalgia, for the way things once were as well as for American values that we seem to think we've lost.

VOYEUR ON THE TOWN

Cape May serves it up in style, with houses that equal San Francisco's painted ladies, gaslit streets, Victoriana days, ghost walks, Vintage Dance Weekend, and a slower pace even Queen Victoria would have admired. A walkable town, it makes ambling the shaded streets and peering into blossoming yards and lace-curtained windows an acceptable practice. Some people might prefer the bike, but I find you rush by too fast, missing all the wonderful gingerbread detailing. It's fun to find a Gothic cupola, an Italianate widow's walk, a peacock stained glass over the front door, or a white wicker swing on a wrap-around porch. Houses that are a must-see are The Southern Mansion, The Mainstay, Angel of the Sea, the Physick House, the Abby, and the Queen Victoria. All of them are rescued relics, dating from the mid-1800s, which have been restored and refurbished with their antiques buffed to a high gloss, reflecting the gentility of their heyday. Many of these homes are now inns and invite visitors in for a guided tour and tea (for a fee, of course).

When your "dogs are barking" head for the Boardwalk and the ocean to cool your tired feet or out to the tip of New Jersey to the Cape May Lighthouse, which has been a steady beacon since 1859. This is where the "Cape May Diamonds" are to be found, actually unique quartz crystals, honed to a shiny luster by the sea. Cape May is one of those rare spots on the East Coast that you can look West and watch the sun set into the water. Better yet, get on the water. Schooner Yankee (609-884-1919) has whale and dolphin outings that are a hit with kids and their parents. For the romantically inclined, try their sunset cruise and bring your own wine as you sail the harbor, the intercoast or the Atlantic. A fitting climax to any day.

Now it's time to eat, and depending on your wallet, you can have fine dining or a quick bite. For lunch, especially for the open-face crab imperial sandwich, the Pilot House in the historic pedestrian mall is the place to stop. For dinner, head to just out of town to the Lobster House not for only lobster, but for any and all seafood cooked to perfection. One night I gorged myself on crab au gratin, but then I can't help myself. I love anything crab. Toss in the view of the harbor and the boats (while ignoring the restaurant's cheesy nautical decor), a delicious full course dinner for around $25, and you'll go home most satisfied. If it's gourmet you crave, then Peaches at Sunset is your place, whether you sample breast of duck with pear and curry sauce or avocado crab cakes. Figure about 35 to 40 well-spent dollars.

SEDUCTIVE CHARM

However, a word to the wise: before you come to Cape May, you must book a room very early. This little town is now an extremely popular destination and even with dozens of motels and 50 B&Bs, once summer comes, the living ain't easy if you haven't booked early. I stayed at Angel of the Sea (1-800-848-3369), a pink and white confection of Victoriana built in 1850, with 27 rooms, a view of the ocean, and the pampering from another time.

Named one of the two best B&Bs in America, it more than lives up to its reputation. Breakfast is a diet breaker, but even more dangerous are the afternoon teas with a buffet of cookies, tarts, and cakes. Even the wine and cheese before dinner can ruin a good appetite. Rates in the summer run from $155 for a standard room to $285 for a suite. The Queen Victoria (609-884-8402) in the historic district has rooms and suites furnished in period antiques, starting at $190 on the summer weekends, which includes free use of bikes, a beach pass, a full breakfast and tea with savories, mini-fridges, whirlpool baths, and tons of towels for the beach. The price is more than fair. Across the street is the Queen's Hotel (609-884-1613) for those folks preferring a more traditional stay in a stately old hotel of historic charm with all the modern conveniences. During the summer peak, a room starts at $170. But with so many places to stay, each more wonderful than the next, no matter where you put your head for the night, it will be a treat.

During the summer, tours abound, something for everybody: trolley tours, harbor safaris, house and tea tours, mansions by gaslight, and gourmet brunch tours. In October the town becomes a haunted affair, but it is the winter holiday season that brings out the best in Cape May when the entire village recreates a Dickens Christmas. Literally Cape May is a town for all seasons.

When you think you cannot stand one moment more of pure relaxation and bliss and you experience an uncontrollable craving for the Twentieth Century, head up the coast to Atlantic City, just 45 minutes away. Boom, bang, you are right up against all the ersatz glamour that is casino life. Of course, you don't have to go into the Sands or Bally's. You could walk the nearly five miles of Boardwalk. Or take a rolling car and let someone else do the walking. Or head out onto one of the piers jutting into the Atlantic, just like your folks did in search of the best salt water taffy. You can also golf, sail, fish, and even visit the Art Center and Historic Museum on the Garden Pier. Or stop at Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.

But ten to one, you're probably itching to get inside the Taj Mahal. It even reminded me of a photo spread I once saw of The Donald's bedroom in Trump Tower, all gilt and mirrors. In contrast, Showboat is fun kitsch with artificial flowers, lattice work, and animated jazz cats to simulate a Mississippi riverboat out of New Orleans. Roving clowns on stilts and free Dixieland jazz played hot make this more of a family casino than the Taj. So it depends on what atmosphere suits your gaming mood.

Atlantic City likes to brag that when gambling was approved in 1976, the town which was a has-been, gained a new lease on life. To some degree that is true since 12 casino/hotels now rise where the old hotels of the 40s, such as the Traymore, once stood. And it's true that 37 million people a year flock to its shores, not only for gaming but for events such as the perennial Miss America Contest, the Fishing Tournament in July, and the Antique Show in October.

It is also true there is another Atlantic City within one block of the casinos that hasn't been revitalized and the vast disparity between opulence and poverty is a bit unnerving. I had to wonder why the whole city hadn't been lifted to the heights of the skyscraper casinos. I also understood why everyone, me included, immediately parked in a casino garage and never emerged except for a Boardwalk stroll. It was easier not to see the slums and ask why. After all, most of us prefer our fantasies, whether they're Victorian revival or Trump's gaming palaces, to gritty reality. The Jersey shore provides just such an escape.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.