Insider's Guide: Cape May

Posted: May 17, 2013

THE SOUTHERNMOST spot on our Jersey Shore list is also the only non-island. (It's actually a peninsula.) But if you're coming from the north, you'll still have to cross a bridge to get to it. And that feels seashore-y enough.

Kids might lament Cape May's lack of roller coasters and other scream-worthy opportunities. But grown-ups and families craving a quiet time with a dash of history will find what they're looking for among Cape May's tree-lined streets, Victorian architecture and beachfront resorts.

The past decade or so has seen several old, important buildings transformed into upscale hotels and motels. Curtis Bashaw, a local developer with a modern vision, first turned venerable Congress Hall at 200 Congress Place and the Virginia Hotel, 25 Jackson St., into sparkly, gently contemporary destinations for sleeping, dining and celebrating.

More recently, Bashaw upgraded a pair of motels, the Star Inn and the Beach Shack, and a condo complex, the Sandpiper Club. Seems like everything he touches turns to gold. At the very least, his influence has drawn stylish beachgoers seeking a certain level of service.

_ Grand Congress Hall, the hot-weather retreat of U.S. Presidents Grant, Pierce, Buchanan and Harrison, is surely the most dramatically pretty and perfectly accessible spot in town. Booking a room for the weekend is a splurge worth making - as is sipping an icy martini in the property's Brown Room, gobbling up a pancake breakfast at the Blue Pig, sipping bourbon late into the night in the jazzy, basement-level Boiler Room, or shopping for estate jewels and beach cover-ups in the on-site boutiques. The site is also incredibly popular for weddings.

_ Slightly simpler pleasures come in the form of exploring Cape May Point's circa-1859 lighthouse. Climb the 199 steps to the top for a panoramic view - and some satisfying calf burn.

_ One of the country's pre-eminent wildlife areas, Cape May National Wildlife Refuge on Kimbles Beach Road, surrounds the structure. Especially popular among bird watchers, the 11,500-acre preserve annually becomes temporary home to hundreds of thousands of migrators each fall. That's the best time to see these winged wonders, but a hike along a songbird, woodcock or dune foot trail is fairly spectacular any time of year.

_ Man-made pleasures include house-gazing at the well-maintained Victorian structures populating the center of town. If you're craving an inside glimpse, take the 45-minute tour of the Emlen Physick Estate at 1048 Washington St. The 1879 Stick Style mansion is attributed to architect Frank Furness, and exploring the 18 formal rooms is the perfect rainy-day activity. Get details on that and all things Victorian in Cape May at capemaymac.org.

_ If it's local seafood you're craving, you can't get fresher than the scallops caught in the boats moored at the Lobster House on Schellengers Landing Road on the way into town. The sprawling family restaurant offers dining inside or on the dock. It also serves noshes and cocktails aboard the Schooner American, a 130-foot vessel that doubles as an outdoor lounge. You'll appreciate that. The restaurant takes no reservations.

_ A small arcade on the promenade is as close as Cape May gets to amusements. For wilder rides, try nearby Wildwood.


Lauren McCutcheon isn't a Cape May local, but she'd gladly move into Congress Hall as a permanent resident, if the opportunity presented itself.


On Twitter: @LaMcCutch

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