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)
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)
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 . 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.
, 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 , 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 . 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. 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)
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)
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)
You'll find more birds and their land-bound counterparts at the , 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 , 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. , 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: The candy shop features a kaleidoscope of salt water taffy.(Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)
Perhaps the most famous Cape May eatery is the Mad Batter, located at the 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 Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun