Cape May is one of America's most genuine tributes to the Victorian era. The entire town exudes the artistic excess of the 19th century: it looks like 1870 adjusted to include automobiles and portable phones. Behind this living exhibit are the 4,700 Cape May residents, intent on preserving the historical authenticity that makes their town unique among Atlantic coast destinations.

Named for Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, a Dutch sea captain who explored the area in 1620, Cape May is the grandam of the Atlantic coast. It was first settled by migrant whalers in the mid-1600s and became a popular summer retreat for Philadelphians in the early 1800s. It was accommodating and majestic, and attracted elite admirers -- politicians like Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, and entertainers and businessmen like P.T. Barnum, John Philip Sousa and Henry Ford.

When a fire claimed 30 blocks of Cape May in 1878, visitors shunned the resort and moved up the coast to Atlantic City for their summer recreation.

Giddyup: Cape May reflects its Victorian charm with horse-drawn carriages. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

But Cape May rose from the ashes and became even grander than before. New buildings blossomed. They were elaborate homes in High Victorian architectural style: sweeping verandas, whimsical gables and turrets, fancy ornamentation, bright colors and intricate cutout designs. Visitors came back, and so did the celebrities. In 1890 and 1891, President Benjamin Harrison vacationed in Cape May, setting up the "Summer White House" in the Congress Hall Hotel. Auto magnates Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet raced on the beach there in 1905.

Cape May has survived the Great Depression and World War II, not to mention a number of violent Atlantic storms. A brutal nor'easter ravaged the coast in 1962, resulting in more than $1 million in damage. Again, Cape May's popularity waned. Could the town reinvent itself a third time?

It did, with the help of grand, colorful Victorians. Residents and business owners (realizing that historical interest might draw people back to Cape May) began restoring their Victorian-style homes and buildings with zeal. In 1976, Cape May was declared a National Historic Landmark. The visitors poured in.

All the trimmings: Victorian houses and inns, like this one on Jackson Street, set Cape May apart from other beaches. (Photo by Jeff Byron, In the Groove Photography)

Today, 600 buildings in Cape May are on the National Register of Historic Places. Even to those who can't distinguish the Queen Anne architectural style from a queen bee, strolling among these meticulously preserved buildings is like disembarking from a time machine.

Stay inn for the night
Cape May wears its Victorian heritage like a freshly pressed dress. The town has more personality, more dignity and better manners than its mid-Atlantic neighbors do. It is a gracious host, always ready to entertain the guests who come by the thousands to absorb its Victorian spirit. Lawns are well manicured, and trees and shrubs flank clean streets. Buildings are impeccably maintained.

Beach vacationers often pay only slight attention to the rooms they book, settling for basic accommodations that are clean, convenient and affordable. Not so in Cape May, where a memorable visit is often marked by a stay in a historical bed and breakfast. These "painted ladies," at once vibrant, playful, coy and proper, summon the artist and romantic in everyone. But they are not cheap: between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you can expect to pay as much as $200 per night at the finer B&Bs. To compound the expense, most inns have a minimum stay requirement, some as long as four nights. But this is money well spent: a weekend at a Cape May bed and breakfast may drain your wallet, but your visit won't be complete if you stay somewhere else.

Cape May boasts dozens of delightful B&Bs -- some sprawling Victorian manors, others cozy guesthouses. You'll feel like British royalty, or even Queen Victoria herself at the venerable Mainstay Inn. The Italianate-style inn, which was once a gentleman's gambling house, is surrounded by white picket fences and lush gardens, and is decorated with museum-quality antiques.

If you don't want to splurge for a stay at the Mainstay, you can make a $3 donation (to benefit Cape May's preservation organization, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts) and tour the first floor between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily from mid-April to mid-October.

The Abbey, built in the Victorian Gothic style with a 60-foot corner tower, offers similar tours. For $5, you can enjoy teatime and tour the building and grounds every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the summer. The Abbey's 14 rooms are named for U.S. cities. The Charleston and Saratoga rooms may break your budget, but the Baltimore Room is available for less than $200 a night.

One of the best values might be the standard rooms at Angel of the Sea, about one mile from the historic district and right across from the beach. For $175 a night in high season, you'll get a full breakfast, afternoon tea and sweets, evening wine and cheese, free bicycles, and beach chairs, towels and umbrellas.

Not all B&Bs require you to remortgage your house. If you're willing to share a bathroom, you can stay for $75 to $165 a night at the Brass Bed Inn. The 128-year-old house has nine rooms, each with the namesake brass bed, ceiling fan, air conditioning and original antiques.

Out and about
You'll appreciate Cape May's Victorian charm much more if you take an organized tour. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) offers a variety, from historical to romantic to mysterious.

On the Historic District Walking Tour you won't venture inside any of the restored buildings, but you will get an up-close look at the Victorian architecture that characterizes Cape May. Your guide will share some history, and even disclose some of the scandals that went on behind closed doors. The Stairway to the Stars tour includes a narrated trolley ride to Cape May Point, where you can climb the lighthouse and inch even closer to the starry sky.

Amateur sleuths who enjoy Cape May in the summer should return in the off-season for the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Weekend, a tribute to the famous fictional detective. Actors in period costume reveal the mystery, written especially for the occasion each year. Throughout the weekend, sleuths tour the city's hotels to pick up clues, match wits with Sherlock and compete for prizes. The event is anything but elementary, my dear Watson -- a mystery has yet to be solved. The sleuth who comes the closest to finding the real solution wins the grand prize, while the person who most misses the mark receives the "clueless wonder" award.

Once you've had your fill of Victorian architecture and folklore, take to the streets. The town is easily navigable by foot, and many visitors explore the flat, tree-lined streets by bicycle. If your hotel or inn does not provide bicycles for guests, you can rent one around town. Cape Island Bicycle Center stocks hundreds of bikes, tandems, surreys, beach cruisers and child trailers, along with safety helmets, locks and maps.

199 steps: Visitors can climb to the top of the scenic Cape May Lighthouse. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Biking is a great way to explore outlying areas that Victorian influence hasn't touched. It's an easy three-mile ride to Cape May Point State Park, where you can climb 199 steps to the top of the Cape May Lighthouse. While in the park, scan the water for bottle-nosed dolphins, survey the sky for falcons, hawks, peregrines and eagles, and look for other wildlife along its nature trails.

As you bike along Sunset Boulevard, stop near the hulking wreck of the Atlantus, a freighter that ran aground in shallow water in 1926. Here you can search for Cape May Diamonds, clear quartz crystals that look like diamonds to the untrained eye. The quartz breaks into pebbles at the upper reaches of the Delaware Bay, then travels to the mouth of the Delaware River -- a journey that some scientists say takes 1,000 years. The largest Cape May Diamond ever found weighed almost eight ounces. Nearby gift shops sell polished Cape May Diamonds, but it's more fun to search the beach for your own. Buff them to a shine and you'll dupe your friends at home into thinking you've hit the mother lode.

Despite Cape May's oceanfront location, erosion has diminished the quality and size of its beaches. They are pleasant enough for those wanting to soak up some sun between sightseeing stops, but hard-core sun-worshippers may want to drive a few miles north to the wider stretch of sand in the Wildwoods, Avalon and Stone Harbor.

Shore enough: Although some feel Cape May's private beaches are too small, many enjoy their peaceful qualities. (Photo by Jeff Byron, In the Groove Photography)

You can enjoy many other maritime pleasures in Cape May, such as whale and dolphin watching, deep-sea fishing and sailing. Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center and Cape May Whale Watcher offer two- and three-hour whale and dolphin watches from April to October. The tours venture as far as seven miles off shore. Anglers can wrestle with bluefish, tuna, white marlin and flounder on charter deep-sea fishing boats. If you prefer to pretend you're rich and famous instead of breaking a sweat, cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway and out into the Atlantic on the schooner Yankee.

It's for the birds
Finches, falcons, eagles, hawks, owls, woodpeckers, swallows, pelicans, herons. They are regular, year-round visitors to Cape May, making it a birder's Shangri-La. More than 400 bird species are known to rest and refuel in Cape May before continuing the journey north or south.

Feathered friends: Swans, hawks, herons and egrets can be spotted at Cape May's Migratory Bird Refuge. (Photo by Jeff Byron, In the Groove Photography)

In the fall, clamber up to the elevated platform and stand elbow-to-elbow with official hawk watchers who tally the 50,000 migrating birds of prey that pass through each year. Adjacent to Cape May Point State Park is the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, a seaside meadow where cattle once grazed. Now it hosts sandpipers, plovers, herons, egrets, gulls and countless other transient shorebirds.

You'll find more birds and their land-bound counterparts at the Cape May County Park and Zoo, about 12 miles north of town, on Route 9 in Cape May Courthouse. The zoo is a must for the parsimonious and those traveling with children. It contains 345 species of animals, birds and reptiles, including an endangered species -- free admission. Visit the African Savannah boardwalk to see giraffes, zebras and antelopes, and the new World of Birds for a close encounter with flamingos and other feathered creatures.

Back to basics
The concrete high-rises and kitschy souvenir shops that have pervaded other Atlantic beach towns may be missing in Cape May, but the town still has the basic essentials to every beach vacation: shopping and eating. Ground zero for these activities is the Washington Street Mall. Part pedestrian mall, part park, it is a quaint Main Street of yesteryear. Shopkeepers still crank up their awnings and sweep the sidewalks, and at dusk, gaslights illuminate the streets.

The shopping choices of the Washington Mall are as unique as Cape May itself. People come from miles around to stock up on inventive greeting cards at the Whale's Tale, one of the oldest stores in the Mall. The shop also sells soaps and fragrances, locally made jewelry, toys with coordinating books, and seashells from around the world. Love the Cook, owned by the folks who operate two popular Cape May restaurants (Pelican Club and Washington Inn), sells cookware, cookbooks and kitchen accessories. Chocoholics dig the famous whipped cream fudge from the Fudge Kitchen, and that summer standard, salt water taffy, is a hit at Fralinger's.

Fralinger's: The candy shop features a kaleidoscope of salt water taffy. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

When you're shopped out or just plain worn out, relax and refuel at one of the many cozy eateries around town. There are dozens of them throughout the historic district and many are housed in restored Victorian buildings. Unless you are a teetotaler, check with your restaurant of choice before sitting down. Many eateries do not have liquor licenses and operate under a BYOB policy.

Perhaps the most famous Cape May eatery is the Mad Batter, located at the Carroll Villa Bed & Breakfast on Jackson Street. A darling of food critics, the Mad Batter serves traditional goodies like crab cakes and burgers. But it has built its reputation on more exotic dishes, such as the grilled Brazilian pork chop with orange ginger glaze, smoked duck breast salad and Crab Mappatello (crab meat, spinach and ricotta cheese in a puff pastry). Some entrees may push your bill into the big splurge category, but no price is too great to dine at this Cape May institution.

For the best view in town, head to the gourmet oceanfront restaurant

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