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Cape May, N.J.

June 15, 2009
Stories and Photos By PHYLLIS R. SIGAL Design Editor

Once upon a time, a young couple in love discovered the Victorian charm, the delicious restaurants and the quaint shops of Cape May on the Jersey shore.

A few years later, pregnant with their first child, they spent a week at a lovely bed and breakfast, participating in seminars throughout the town for Victorian Week, learning the ins and outs of Victorian renovation, having just purchased a 12-room Victorian Queen Anne on Wheeling Island. (Although, pregnant with daily morning sickness does not fare well with the "breakfast" part of a B&B.)

With two children, they returned, giving up the romantic bed and breakfast for the Victorian Inn, with a pool and efficiency apartments.

Article Photos

The Queen Victoria is one of the
premier inns of Cape May, N.J.

Again, with older kids in tow, a new hotel on the edge of the pedestrian walkway was their home for a few days, giving the tween/teen kids a chance to explore on their own.

And, this year, a couple of empty nesters - still in love - returned to their favorite town. It was still full of Victorian charm with a host of delicious eateries and some of their favorite quaint shops.

And they even ended up at the same bed and breakfast inn at which they stayed oh-so-many years ago, The Queen Victoria.

Memories continued to resurface: the restaurant where they dined one evening featured "Maureen's Famous Whipped Cheesecake." During that first visit a few decades ago, their most memorable dinner was at Restaurant Maureen, a romantic place on the second floor overlooking the beach. Lo and behold, the chef at the Union Park Restaurant had worked at Restaurant Maureen, and brought the famous dessert with him.

Even without the memories, Cape May is a wonderful place.

It's not just a Jersey Shore town, and it's not just a mecca for afficionados of Victoriana. It's not just for foodies and not just for shoppers and not just for historians.

It's for all of the above ... and then some.

(And speaking of "all of the above," my husband Bruce and I are that couple above - as if you astute readers hadn't guessed.)

There are many places of interest to tour, but just exploring the town, checking out the quaint shops and focusing on the Victorian architecture are my favorite activities.

A great way to get your bearings and to learn a lot is by taking a trolley tour.

We took a trolley tour throughout the town, and our guide shared tales of Cape May's history and pointed out architectural details of various structures.

History:

(provided by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts)

Cape May has always been a resort; people came by steamboat, stage coach and then by train to the seaside resort. Local residents provided accommodations and meals for visitors who came to "take to the ocean waters" for health and recreation. In 1761, Cape May became the first seashore resort in America. The tourism industry flourished when roads were laid in the 1700s and 1800s.

In the 1850s, 20 large resort hotels were established.

In the mid 1800s, elegant hotels, summer cottages, gentlemen's gambling clubs, bath houses, ice cream parlors, cafes and smoke shops flourished during the eight-week tourist season, while agriculture, shipping and fisheries kept residents busy year-round.

In 1878, a devastating fire wiped out 35 acres of Cape May. Enthusiasm for Cape May was strong, and new cottages and hotels were built in Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, Second Empire and American bracketed styles - a bit scaled down from the grand hotels of years past.

As Cape May rebuilt and continued to be a fashionable summer watering spot, tourism competition was growing. The barrier islands along the Atlantic coast became the object of real estate development.

The early 20th century saw the advent of automobile transportation and fundamental changes to seaside tourism.

While Cape May's tourism industry did not end, it also did not grow.

A great storm in 1962 proved to be the crossroads where Cape May would choose its future.

The city could finish the job nature had started, or it could preserve what was left of the Victorian seaside resort. The decision to modernize the historic main street with a pedestrian shopping mall, the creation of a National Register Historic District and the establishment of a not-for-profit cultural agency, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, to attract and educate Victorian enthusiasts, has proven itself. Cape May is now a center of heritage, culture and environmental tourism.

Highlights:

MAC is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of Cape May's heritage. It also fosters the performing arts.

It operates trolley tours, walking tours, house tours, nature tours, boat tours and more. Since its founding in 1970, MAC has restored the landmark Emblen Physick Estate, the 1859 Cape May Lighthouse and operates both as museums. Recently opened is the World War II lookout tower, Fire Control Tower No. 23.

The Emblen Physick Estate was built in 1879 in the stick style of architecture, which was somewhat avant-garde for Cape May. All 18 rooms have been restored, most with the original furnishings. The home was designed by Frank Furnace. The estate was built for Frances Ralston, her son Dr. Emblen Physick Jr. and her sister, Emilie Parmentier. Physick lived at the home until he died in 1916. His aunt Emilie lived there until she died in 1937. The city of Cape May purchased the home in the 1970s and leased it to MAC.

Dr. Physick never practiced medicine. He graduated from medical school, then retired to Cape May to live the life of a country gentleman. He was the first person to own an automobile in Cape May - a 1905 Ford Runabout. He was know as a "gadfly."

The current theme for the estate tours is "HERstory," which details the history of women in the Victorian era. Our guide, Ginger, talked about how the role of women changed during the times. In the earlier Victorian times, women were their husband's helpmates on the farm. But as time progressed, the women did not work at all. They concentrated on flower arranging, scrapbooking and teaching etiquette to their children.

Also on the grounds is the Carriage House Gallery and Carriage House Tearoom and Cafe.

II Lookout Tower Museum and Memorial

The tower, one of 15 concrete fire control towers in Delaware and New Jersey, was used for spotting ships during World War II and aiming guns to fire on them. It was built in 1942.

Visitors can climb the 71 steps to the top of the tower, where a volunteer will answer questions. Photo displays and historic information can be seen on the way.

At the top of the tower are slits for the observation level and the rooftop platform. Soldiers occupied the top two levels. They would climb to the top of the tower using wooden ladders that were attached to the wall. The ladders led to manholes in the floors, and interestingly were staggered so that if a soldier fell, he would only fall one story.

If those 71 steps at the Fire Control Tower weren't enough, you can climb 199 steps to the top of the 1859 lighthouse for a beautiful view of the Jersey Cape, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. The Visitors Center houses a museum shop filled with lighthouse and maritime souvenirs.

The Cape May Lighthouse is one of the oldest continually operating lighthouses in the country, and is the third structure to be built on the site. The original lamp was fueled by oil, and replaced by an electrical beacon in 1938. A "Fresnell" lens, now on display at the Cape May County Historical Museum in Cape May Court House, projected the light.

It was as beautiful a day as you could ask for - a bright sun, a blue sky and a pleasant temperature. It was perfect for sitting on the wooden deck at the winery, overlooking rows and rows and rows of grape vines, sipping a glass of 2007 barrel fermented chardonnay - that was our favorite from the 12 or so wines Stephanie Busa, director of sales and marketing, offered us at the tasting bar.

The winery has been producing wine for more than 10 years. In 1992, a professor from Rutgers University set up a test plot at the original vineyard, which was 12 acres.

Winemaker Darren Hessington noted that the winery produces 8,500 cases a year, or 20,000 gallons of wine. He arrived at the winery in 2003, when about 3,000 gallons a year were made. "That's a huge increase from 2003 to 2009," he said.

"A good winemaker is only as good as his fruit," Hessington said. "The winemakers get all the credit, but the guys in the vineyard deserve the credit." The best wine, he said, comes from 20- to 30-year-old vines.

The winery offers tours, a gift shop, tastings and more. Merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, chardonnay, riesling, pinot grigio, port, Victorian blush and Victorian white can be purchased.

Cape May's Food & Wine Festival in September features wines from several New Jersey wineries.

Besides the beach and the bed and breakfast inns, it was the great restaurants that kept luring us back to Cape May. We have lots of favorites.

I once heard a statistic that there are more high-rated restaurants in Cape May (per square foot) than in New York City.

Because our most recent trip was early in the season, only a handful of restaurants were open on Wednesday and Thursday. That actually was a good thing because it forced us to try some places we had not been to.

The first fact to ascertain about any restaurant in Cape May is whether it has a liquor license. Many do not; another good thing. You can bring your own, which usually makes for a more affordable meal.

Once you know if the restaurant is a BYOB, the next bit of information you need to know is the location of Collier's Liquor Store (202 Jackson St.) There, you can choose from a huge variety of wines and beer. It's the place to stop.

I don't always think of sushi when I'm at a beach town; I think more of crab cakes and lobster. But, we went for sushi - and why not, it is fish! - our first evening in town. The Cape Orient, had perhaps, the most beautiful rolls I've ever seen.

They offered more than sushi, too, with Chinese, Thai and Japanese sections of the menu.

Our second dinner was at Union Park Dining Room, a romantic, elegant place with delicious food.

For the best pizza - and it could be the best pizza anywhere - try Louie's Pizza. When we first started going to Cape May, it was located in a wooden shed; but they expanded into an actual building somewhere along the line. You can order whole pizzas or just a slice or two. The toppings are incredible; this time we tried one with big blops of fresh ricotta. One slice filled up two of us quite nicely.

Probably our most favorite place is Louisa's. Louisa's has been in Cape May since the early 1980s, and is a tiny place with just a few tables, all painted with whimsical fish. It didn't take reservations at the beginning, but as years went on, that changed.

When we first started going - back in the 1980s, this was the drill.

Show up around 5:30 when the place opened. Put your name on the list. Walk to Collier's for your wine. While checking in from time to time to see if your table is ready, you can check out the little shops on the mall. The fresh fish selections are written on a blackboard, and as the dish disappears from the kitchen, so do the words on the blackboard. If you get there too late, you may only see a lot of eraser swipes.

One of the best things about Louisa's is that she offered bowls of buttered pasta to the kids. They were in heaven.

I still have a T-shirt I bought probably 20 years ago - one of my favorite sleeping shirts.

Other favorites: A Ca Mia, specializing in northern Italian cuisine; the Ugly Mug, the place for a bucket of steamers and a pitcher of beer; the Mad Batter, great for breakfast; Henry's on the Beach, and when they say on the beach, they mean, on the beach; and the Lobster House.

Places I'd like to try: The Ebbitt Room, elegant; the Merion Inn, which has been in business since 1885; and the Washington Inn, with its reputation for fine dining.

In the early 1960s, a pedestrian shopping mall was built. It is now the site of a variety of shops, selling anything from clothing, jewelry, kitchen goods, T-shirts, taffy and fudge, paintings and more. Most of the facades fit well with the Victorian town.

Migratory birds, marine mammals and wetlands ecosystems have attracted visitors to Cape May for hundreds of years. Birders, whale and dolphin watchers, butterfly enthusiasts and nature lovers recognize Cape May as an environmental tourism destination. The New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory annually identifies and counts hundreds of thousands of birds and conducts educational seminars and tours.

June 26-Jan. 3: Cape May's Designer Show House.

Aug. 7: National Lighthouse Day

Sept. 19-24: 13th annual Cape May Food & Wine Festival

Oct. 9-18: 37th annual Victorian Week.

Oct. 16-31: Halloween Happenings.

Nov. 6-8: Sherlock Holmes Weekend

Nov. 20-Jan. 3: Cape May's Holiday Season, with Holiday Preview Weekend (Nov. 20-22), candlelight house tours (Dec. 5, 12, 19) and Dickens Christmas Extravaganza (Dec. 6-8).

Up and down every street and all along the beachfront are dozens of bed and breakfast inns. They are part of the historic ambiance of the seaside resort town. Some are tiny with just a few rooms, with the largest being the Queen Victoria with 32 rooms. The innkeepers pride themselves on personal attention and delicious, homemade breakfasts. Some offer afternoon tea or afternoon cocktails, too. A few of the inns offer tours.

Whale and dolphin watching

Deep sea fishing

Antiquing

Music festivals

Bike rentals

Parasailing and jet skiing

Golf

Art studios

www.capemaychamber.com

www.capemaymac.org

www.capemaywhalewatcher.com

www.capemaywinery.com

 
 
 

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