Cape May is a weathered old Victorian town that takes a wind whipped beating and bounces right back with a fresh coat of paint and a resilient attitude. It’s been that way since before a Congressman named Abe Lincoln ever vacationed here.
Hurricane Sandy was another event in the timeless town’s history of rapid restoration. Restaurants and hotels have already reopened after the storm.
The “Cape” has changed its ways from the sleepy winters of the 1950’s. It’s now alive all year long with restaurants, festivals, music and shopping. When looking for an unhurried and uncrowded autumn and winter getaway, look no further. Here’s what you’ll find and where to find it. – Jay Lloyd
WHAT TO DO:
Nov. 23 & 24
Starting this weekend, Cape May goes into holiday mode with a succession of events and activities that spark the spirit of a Victorian Christmas. You can relive Christmases past at the historic Physick Estate with holiday displays that walk a visitor right down nostalgia lane to the days when Cape May was the retreat of presidents and lawmakers. It’s complete with trolley tours, food, wine and Santa.
Cape May’s newly refurbished Convention Hall on the boardwalk at Stockton Street is the setting for a unique holiday craft fair this weekend. It’s designed to satisfy that quest for the perfect, individualized gift created by an artisan to capture the mood of the season. Top it off with evenings of music, a tree lighting ceremony and a gingerbread atmosphere, and Cape May turns into a Norman Rockwell village.
Want to pull in blues and flounder all fall and winter, then grab a camp chair, a rod and bucket and head for Sunset Beach at Cape May Point? It’s tough to find a more relaxing way to spend a day and bring home dinner without spending a dime. Just cast into the surf and stay alert!
November can produce some serious catches if you enjoy fishing from a 65-foot charter boat. The Sea Star III is a familiar and favorite sight cruising past the sunken “concrete ship” and Sunset Beach from her Cape May dock. Six hour charters offer plenty of time for fishing the local waters on a fast, modern trawler. Call 609-884-3421 for prices.
Washington Street Mall
Unique shops displaying local art and crafts–from driftwood to jewelry–can be found on side streets throughout town, but the main cluster is in the heart of Cape May at the Washington Street Mall. Washington Street was once the main drag, with just a movie theater, newsstand and a quirky local bar. Now it’s morphed into a pedestrian mall with outdoor dining and shops that offer everything from cookware to candy. A favorite is the Whale’s Tale, which carries one-of-a-kind greeting cards, toys, shells and jewelry that have a distinct seashore and nautical drift. http://www.whalestalecapemay.com/ The Ugly Mug bar is a landmark spot to quaff a brew while the shoppers in the family drift along the mall.
WHERE TO STAY:
My personal favorite is Congress Hall with its ocean views and a storied history that includes visits by at least four 19th-century presidents. The hotel suffered a devastating fire when Mary and I honeymooned at Cape May in 1979, but it has been completely rebuilt with modern amenities while still retaining its period charm. Off-season nightly weekend rates range from $179 to $259.
The Victorian Motel is an ideal stop for families. Many of the accommodations are multi-room suites with kitchenettes. This is a well-managed and welcoming inn just two blocks from the beach and directly across the street from the Washington Street Mall. Rooms and suites on off season weekends range from $115 to $135.
WHERE TO EAT:
Indoors or outside on the deck, the Lobster House is a spot where the seafood couldn’t get any fresher if it jumped out of the harbor onto your table. You can touch the fishing boats that bring in the flounder, blues, tuna, lobster and scallops right alongside the Raw Bar deck. But you’d better make reservations, even on off-season weekends.
An in-town favorite is the venerable 19th-century Merion Inn on Decatur Street, just a block from the beach. If you enjoy jazz, ask for a table in the lounge – there’s music every night that the inn is open. I try to make it a Friday night stop to hear jazz pianist and arranger Dean Schneider. If you have a favorite standard, Dean knows it. Here, you’ll find a versatile menu that cruises between land fare and fin food, and all of it is well prepared and presented. See the bill of fare and the music schedule here.
WHERE TO DRINK:
If you’re looking for a friendly sports bar with live music and a varied pub menu, try the Pilot House on Decatur Street right off the mall. A dazzling aquarium with darting tropical fish sets the bar mood, and everybody is part of the conversation.
A few steps away is the Ugly Mug, a Cape May fixture for over three-quarters of a century. It’s the place to schmooze with the locals and get the lowdown on what’s happening in and around town. I hoisted my first beer here 60 years ago and noticed the mugs hanging from the ceiling. They’re still there, and they belong to the regulars. As tradition holds, when a mug owner dies, the mug doesn’t come down but is turned to the sea.
From Philadelphia, you can take the Ben Franklin Bridge and Route 42 to the Atlantic City Expressway. Pick up the Garden State Parkway South until it ends at Exit 0, Cape May.
You can also take the Commodore Barry Bridge and Route 322 to Route 55 South. Pick up Route 47 East to 347 East and back onto 47 East, then take 47 to the Garden State Parkway South into Cape May.
The second option is the scenic route, but the time on the road is about the same.