To BnB, or not to BnB? That is the Question in Historic Cape May
By Laurie Millman & Martin Rubin
On a beautiful, early May morning, with clear skies and a slight, cool breeze, we decided to walk, instead of drive, to the Antiques show on the grounds of the Emlen Physick Estate, a Victorian House Museum, in Cape May, NJ. Our serpentine route along the parallel, residential streets leading from the beach to the estate took us past many wonderful examples of the architectural excess and detail of Victorian homes. Each building, painted in bright pastels or earthy colors, appealed to our senses with rocking chairs on sweeping verandas, whimsical gables and turrets, fancy ornamentation, and intricately designed trimmings.
This entire town, with over 600 Victorian homes, is a National Historic Landmark City — one of only five in the country. Additionally, Cape May has the proud distinction of being the oldest seashore resort in the nation. The beauty of the homes, the calming ocean air, and the laid back manner of the town seemed to erase the stress of our daily, active lives during that walk.
Getting around Town
With its wide, flat streets, well-maintained sidewalks, nature trails, and even a long, concrete beachwalk called “The Promenade” the town is just begging you to walk or cycle. We strongly recommend walking shoes or sneakers as the number one foot attire. And don’t forget strollers and bicycles for all ages. If you want to take another mode of transportation, there is a free trolley shuttle drives around town. For a fee, hail a horse and buggy; or rent individual bikes or bike carts, which hold a handful of people. Some inns and B&Bs have bikes readily available to their guests.
We took the self-guided tour of the Emlen Physick house and gardens, which are maintained by the non-profit MAC (tickets are available at Washington Street Mall). Docents dressed in Victorian period dress were available in each room to describe the Physick household, as well as to answer questions about the Victorian period furnishings. For a casual and unique lunch, we ate outdoors under a tent at the Twinings Tearoom on the Estate grounds (upon writing this, we just learned that MAC has renamed the restaurant to the “Carriage House Tearoom & Café”).
As we walked into the dining room, hat racks lined the room — ladies of all ages are encouraged to choose and wear one of the period hats during lunch. We partook of a classic, 4-course High Tea luncheon ($17.95). Our waiter started our lunch by bringing out a basket of pistachio and banana walnut tea breads, raisin scones, and clotted cream. The second course we selected a salad with a light tangerine vinaigrette, and cold potato leek soup. For the main course, we each chose four mini sandwiches from six options, and enjoyed fresh made lemonade and Twinings iced tea. After all of this, we each received a plate with 3 freshly made mini desserts. For reservations and event planning, call MAC at 609-884-5404, ext. 138. You can also get more information about the restaurant at www.capemaymac.org/tearoom/twinings_tearoom.htm
For a ghostly adventure, MAC offers a few Ghost trolley tours from summer through fall: a guide will relate the paranormal findings of psychic medium, Craig McManus on the “Ghosts of Cape May” 45-minute tour through the streets; or “Dr. Physick’s Favorite Haunts Tour” combines the McManus findings with a visit to the Emlen Physick Estate to learn about ghostly residents there and the Victorian fascination with the spiritualism. The tours begin and tickets are available at the Washington Street Mall Information Booth. Call MAC at 609-884-5404 for more information.
The Haunted Cape May Tour is a walking tour developed by local and noted parapsychologist, Al Rauber. His tour takes you along a route which crosses homes and inns where he has actually performed investigations, and contains information and recordings taken from within the buildings and from personal interviews with the inn owners. The Haunted Cape May Tour runs from May through November. For ticket prices, schedules and more information, call 609-463-8984, or go to www.hauntednewjersey.com
Worldclass Beach, Sunsets
We can’t forget Cape May’s clean beaches which are literally blocks away from any lodging in town. Even though it was too cold and windy to go into the water for most of us in early May, many people enjoyed walking or jogging along the Promenade. As the town is very safe, after dinner, we took evening strolls along the Promenade and circled around through the town back to our room.
On Sunday morning, we took a two-hour cruise out of the Miss Chris Marina (on your right as you drive into Cape May), courtesy of the Cape May Whale Watcher. We were treated to an informative description about the Cape May coastline and history, and saw a few dolphins. As the summer progresses, you will probably spot more dolphins and even Humpback whales; sightings are guaranteed, otherwise you receive a voucher for a future trip. For schedule and pricing, call 800-786-5445 or go online towww.capemaywhalewatcher.com . By the way, no matter how calm the water appears at the dock, the trip itself may be rocky. A tip for the entire family for a fun time on the ocean: prior to boarding, we each take a chewable, non-drowsy, over-the-counter anti-seasick pill; we never leave home without our favorite brand, Bonine.
For an exhilarating experience, try parasailing up to 500 feet over the Atlantic — Cape May Parasail accommodates children (with their parents) as young as two years old; for pricing and reservations, call 609-884-8759.
Back on land, take a walk up the 159 steps in Cape May’s 147-year old Lighthouse, then hike a nearby nature trail, or do some bird watching from the sanctuary.
Down near the lighthouse, you may want to sit on the beach and look for “Cape May Diamonds” (ocean polished pieces of quartz). At sunset, ride over to Sunset Beach to see striking sunsets, and watch the flag lowered as you listen to a recorded “God Bless America.”
In the Evening
Cape May has many wonderful restaurants either within an inn or within walking distance. Depending on the time of the year or festival, the restaurants and bars will offer live music. As we walked along the Promenade on a weekend night, we could hear live music coming from the Cabanas Beach Bar and Grill across the street.
We combined dinner and entertainment on evening at Elaine’s Victorian Inn. This 150-year-old B&B has what has been judged by the Food Network as, “one of America’s top five dinner theaters.” While we waited to be called into the dining room, we wandered around their delightful gift shop. It is filled with items that are related to the past and current shows. The campy show we were seeing that evening was a comedy about pirates, “The Pirates of Plunder Island.” The shop was selling masks, pirate costumes, and toy weapons. Upon entering the dining room that was decorated with a tropical theme, our waiter introduced himself, explained the 4-course, pre-fixe dinner ($39.95/adult, $29.95/teen, $17.95/child), and we joked with him by questioning if he would be entertaining us later. We had a choice of appetizers, a seafood chowder or garden salad, and an entrée. The food was delicious and presented beautifully. We finished with a choice of deserts and tea or coffee.
After dinner, the fun began_the cast included some of the waiters and waitresses (it turned out that our waiter really was part of the show) and a professional actor who played both competing pirate captains. The scenes unfolded on a small stage and around the room – you never knew where they would be next! The dialog was speckled with old, but funny and sometimes bawdy jokes, and was highlighted with impromptu comments and jokes from the cast as they interacted with the audience. A large parrot puppet and a disembodied voice added to the fun. (The adventure-packed “Minnesota Smith and the Skull of Doom” opens in July.)
We also had the opportunity to meet Ron Long, who writes the scripts for the theater, and, along with his wife Shirley, own and run the inn. During our conversation, we noticed a pamphlet advertising three attractions from this location: Elaine’s Haunted Mansion Restaurant, Haunted Mansion Ghost Tour, and “Cry of the Banshee” Dinner Theater. Ron confided in us that the Inn has a real, verifiable ghost. The spirit is evidently the daughter of Dr. Reed, the Inn’s builder and original owner. Ron reported he has seen the ghost many times (along with visitors to the Inn); regretfully, our evening visit did not offer us this experience. To join the fun and delicious meal, call the Longs at 609-884-4358, or visit their web site atwww.elainesdinnertheater.com.
“So Much to Do, So Little Time”
For a little town of only 3,000-4,000 year-round residents, we were surprised at the wealth of scheduled activities and events, thanks to the non-profit, cultural organization, Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC). MAC promotes the preservation and interpretation of Cape May’s Victorian heritage and the performing arts. MAC offers residents and tourists a year-round schedule of special events and tours, as well as maintains local attractions such as the Cape May Lighthouse and the Emlen Physick Estate Victorian Museum. For a monthly listing of MAC events and pricing, call (800) 275-4278, or go online to www.capemaymac.org.
Annual, weekend-long events allow you to combine a hobby with a trip to unwind from a busy lifestyle: Sherlock Holmes mystery weekend; jazz and classic music festivals with bands and singers in the streets, restaurants, and bars; the Tulip Festival, when the entire town is bedecked in newly bloomed tulips; antique festivals and craft shows.
Bird watching weekends at NJ Audubon’s Cape May Nature Center (http://njaudobon.org/centers/nccm) offer field trips, programs, and workshops.
The annual Victorian Week in October is a 10-day celebration of Victorian life. Throughout the Week, both visitors and residents dress for the part, donning beautiful clothes reminiscent of that time.
Make sure you book months in advance through MAC for these special weekends.
Alas, one weekend wasn’t long enough — we didn’t have time to check out all of the wonderful retail shops and art galleries we passed on our walks around town!
The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of Cape May’s heritage. MAC also fosters the performing arts. MAC membership is open to all. For information about MAC’s year-round schedule of tours, festivals and special events, call (609) 884-5404 or (800) 275-4278, or access MAC’s Web site at www.capemaymac.org. For information about restaurants, accommodations and shopping, call the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May at (609) 884-5508.
To B&B or not to B&B?
The one thing that is clearly missing in this historic town is the preponderance of retail hotel/motel chains (as well as fast-food restaurants). Local residents own all accommodations, which range from moderately priced, family-friendly inns to intimate B&Bs to upscale hotels. Here are only a handful of the many wonderful choices you have in Cape May_
We stayed for the weekend at one of the town’s family-friendly inns across the street from the beach — the Montreal Inn. Now in its 40th year, the Inn is owned and managed by the Hirsch family. Larry Hirsch informed us that many of their guests have been coming for decades, starting when they were children, and now bringing their own families. Even though the second generation now handles the day-to-day activities on the property, Patriarch and original owner, Harry Hirsch, still spends time at the Inn; in fact, he greeted us when we first arrived.
The family-owned complex takes up half a block, and includes a wonderful restaurant and bar, Café Promenade, and a liquor store. Café Promenade is a family restaurant that recently opened for its second season. The eclectic menu of creatively delicious and colorful presentations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is surprisingly moderately priced. At one breakfast, Marty enjoyed apple French toast and Laurie had a three mushroom omelet; for dinner, we enjoyed asparagus wrapped with prosciutto and chicken pot pie in a bread boat.
The multi-storied Inn has 70 moderately priced rooms with seasonal rates from $52 to $275 for single bed units to luxurious suites with ocean views on three sides. We stayed in an efficiency suite that was split into a bedroom and a living room with a convertible couch; each room had a TV. A small kitchen separated the two rooms, and had everything we would need to prepare and eat in the room — a stove, sink, refrigerator, dishes, microwave oven, dishes and flatware, coffee maker, pots and pans, etc. Our roomy balcony had an unobstructed view of the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Montreal Inn has a long list of amenities, including: a gym, in-room massage (for an extra fee), on-site laundry, a large pool, a gated kiddie pool, a barbeque and picnic area, a large sunning deck, and even a small, 5-hole miniature golf course. For rates and availability (from March – November), as well as special 40th birthday promotions, go online towww.montreal-inn.com, or call for reservations at 800-525-7011 .
B&Bs and Rentals
Over 60 Victorian homes offer the Bed and Breakfast experience, while other have converted over the last few years to short- and long-term rentals of one or two-bedroom apartments with full kitchens. Each Cape May B&B has its own unique Victorian architecture, antiques, and warmth from the proprietors. Many have been and are undergoing renovations to maintain the beauty of the Victorian period as well as provide modern amenities.
During our Saturday morning walk, we took a closer look at one of the original, two-storied Stockton Row cottages that were built in 1869. Lance Pontin, the new proprietor of the John Wesley Inn, happened to come out of the stained glass backdoor of the main house, as we were checking out the private backyard. Pontin informed us that he and his wife, Bonnie, were just cleaning up after the full, gourmet breakfast they prepare every morning. When asked about the rooms, Pontin said that in addition to the beautiful Victorian-period antiques, each spacious room has modern amenities like a private bathroom, air conditioning, wide-screen tv, and internet access. The newly restored Carriage House at the rear of the main house, has two apartments which will be rented out on a weekly or monthly basis. Each apartment has a living/dining/kichen area on one floor, and a large bedroom with a vaulted ceiling on the second floor; on-site parking is included. Seasonal B&B rates vary from $165 – $295, double occupancy, with the apartment weekly rates ranging from $1895 – $2855. For availability, call the Pontins at 800-616-5122, or go to www.JohnWesleyInn.com.
The proprietors of Elaine’s Victorian Inn, the Longs, also recently gutted the two floors above the dinner theater, bar, and gift shop, and added additional rooms and emergency access from each floor. Each beautifully appointed room has many modern amenities, including large, tiled private bathrooms. Their seasonal rates vary from very affordable $100 – $195 through June 15; then goes up to $200 – $265 during the summer; fall and winter rates drop again. For more information, go to http://www.elainesdinnertheater.com; or call 609-884-4358 for reservations. Inquire about their packages for the Inn, Dinner Theater, and ghost tour.
Usually B&Bs do not allow pets, with one exception — the rustic Billmae Cottage Guest Suites. Not only are dogs welcomed, but during the Summer, the proprietors host the “Yappy Hour,” where dogs and owners meet on the wide porch and enjoy treats from the owners. Each suite offers a parlor, one or two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen and a private bathroom. Room rates range from $175 – $240. Visit their web site at http://www.billmae.com and call for reservations at 609-898-8558.
Cape May has the distinction of being America’s oldest seaside resort, thanks to some of the oldest resort hotels in America. The Chalfonte is the oldest hotel in town, celebrating it 130th anniversary. As we walked past this hotel, the rocking chairs lining the long porch that wraps around two sides of the building beckoned us to check out this historic building. The Chalfonte has retained its original features and furnishings, including its beautiful woodplanked floor. The Chalfonte room rates, based on double occupancy, range from $130 to $300 per night, and include breakfast, dinner, tax and gratuities. However, the 70 rooms do not have air-conditioning, televisions, or telephones, which, the web site states, “makes for a lovely, distraction-free vacation.” For reservations, visit www.chalfonte.com and call 888-411-1998.
The large and stately Congress Hall with its back facing the ocean, has a rich and interesting history, beginning when it first opened its doors in 1816 as a boarding house for summer visitors. As the popularity and size of the hotel grew, so did the town’s popularity. By the mid-1800s, Cape May became a prime holiday destination. In 1878, a fire destroyed 38 acres of Cape May’s seafront properties, including Congress Hall. Within a year, the owners rebuilt the hotel, this time in brick rather than wood, and business took off. The hotel and Cape May became a popular summer retreat for presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. President Benjamin Harrison made Congress Hall his “summer White House” and conducted the affairs of state from the hotel. The 19th-century composer, John Philip Sousa, wrote a musical composition called the “Congress Hall March,” in honor of the hotel, after he conducted a series of concerts in 1882 with his Marine Corps band on Congress Hall’s lawn. Even if you are not planning to stay here, we recommend stopping in during the day or night to look at the wonderful historic photos in the hallways, including one of a bearded 26-year old Sousa, with a caption explaining that Sousa was, “sporting a full beard to appear older.”
Completely renovated, the L-shaped design of Congress Hall allows for excellent views of the ocean from many of the rooms; however, only a few have balconies. The Congress Hall room rates range from $100 to $450 per night for double rooms to large suites. Each room has a private bathroom, individual climate control, flat screen TVs with DVD, CD player with alarm clock, daily newspaper, two telephones, voicemail, data port, and housekeeping twice a day. For reservations, call 888.944.1816 or visit their web site at www.congresshall.com.
Travel by Car, Bus, _ or Ship??
Only a few hours away, Cape May is relatively easy to get to by car, traffic issues aside – just take the NJ Garden State Parkway south to the end and continue right into town. If you prefer someone else driving, daily express bus service is available from NY, NJ, and PA; for terminal information and pricing, call 1-800-626-RIDE, or visitwww.njtransit.com.
Now, for the first time in 100 years, visitors may arrive in Cape May by cruise ship. Larry Hirsch, proprietor of the Montreal Inn and co-chair of the Cape May Tourism Commission, informed us that the town has become a half-day port-of-call for small cruise ships traveling along the Atlantic Seaboard. In fact, Cruise West’s upscale, 102-passenger Nantucket Clipper will dock in Cape May twice a year (in May and November), as part of its 11-day “Atlantic Coast Experience: Chesapeake Bay & Hudson River ” voyage (call Cruise West for more information at 888-851-8133, or visit their web site at www.cruisewest.com).
For information about restaurants, accommodations and attractions, contact the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May at 609-884-5508, www.capemaycountychamber.com or Cape May County Department of Tourism, 800-227-2297, 609-463-6415, www.thejerseycape.net.
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