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The situation is beautiful, just on the confluence of Delaware Bay with the ocean in sight of the lighthouse. Carriages may be driven along the margin of the ocean for many miles, and the wheels will scarcely make any impression upon the sand. The slope of the shore is so regular that persons may wade out a great distance. It is the most beautiful spot that citizens can retire to in the hot season."
These praises were first sung to Cape May, N.J., in newspaper advertisements that appeared along the East Coast in 1801. Soon enough, this town at the Garden State's southernmost tip was proud to call itself "America's premier seaside resort" and began attracting visitors from Maryland, Delaware, Washington, Pennsylvania and New York.
Two centuries-plus later, Cape May is still fiercely proud of its history and unrivaled stock of Victorian-era houses. And while visitors do hear quite a lot of architectural chatter about "gingerbread," "belvederes" and "mother-in-law porches," Cape May is hardly a town where style stands still.
Indeed, over the past fall and winter, Cape May has made many contemporary improvements to welcome guests this summer, including the sprucing up of its pedestrian-only Washington Street shopping plaza, and new interiors for the town's old-style movie theater, the Beachside. Add to this local eatery The Ebbitt Room, which was just recognized as one of the best restaurants in America by the Zagat guide, and you have plenty of reasons to pay this place a visit.
Cape May is ever-young, but perhaps mostly for those who are ever-fond of saltwater taffy, miniature golf courses, frozen custard and, oh my yes, a slope of shore that's still so regular, you can wade out a great distance.
Information about other Jersey Shore towns
The Virginia, 25 Jackson St., 800-732-4236.
Open since 1989, this 24-room, boutique-style hotel combines traditional elegance with contemporary comforts like flat-screen TVs and Belgian linens. Rooms start at $200.
The Mainstay Inn, 635 Columbia Ave., 609-884-8690.
Considered to be the only house in Cape May that is completely architecturally intact, this inn was once a "gentlemen-only" gambling club. Set in a lovely garden setting, The Mainstay features wide, rocker-lined verandas and high-ceilinged rooms furnished with antiques. Rates start at $185.
The Chalfonte, 301 Howard St., 888-411-1998. Built in 1876, The Chalfonte is one of Cape May's oldest and most beloved hotels. Its Italianate cupola, or "belvedere" on the roofline, and wrap-around porches catch all the ocean breezes, as the beach is just three blocks away. Rates start at $130.
Congress Hall, 251 Beach Ave, 609-884-8421.
Southern New Jersey's Grand Dame of hotels, Congress Hall has provided hospitality since 1816. Set in the heart of Cape May's famed historic district, and overlooking broad, sandy beaches, Congress Hall was completely renovated and modernized for a gala reopening in 1995. Rates start at $100.
Due to its wealth of world-classdining establishments, Cape Mayis sometimes called the "restaurantcapital of Southern New Jersey." A few places to visit:
The Blue Pig Tavern, 251Beach Ave., 609-884-4163. CapeMay's original tavern from the1700s is now a cozy restaurantserving comfort food like cornmealcrusted oysters, Steak Dianeand macaroni and cheese. Entreesstart at $15.
The Ebbitt Room, 25 JacksonSt., 609-884-5700. Honored by theZagat guide and called "superb"by The New York Times, CapeMay's best restaurant has an elegantambience and a menu thattakes delicious advantage of localpurveyors of seafood and produce.Try the calamari with lime gingeraioli, or the eggplant-crustedhalibut. Entrees start at $26.
Moonfish Grill, 416 S. Broadway,609-898-1600. The charmingVictorian house has sleek, gold,black and white interiors. Itserves world-class sushi and sashimi(there's a dedicated sushichef), as well as wood-grilled seafood,steaks and chops. Entreesstart at $22.
Uncle Bill's Pancake House,Perry and Beach avenues,609-884-7199. Serving 20 types ofpancakes and almost as manykinds of waffles, Uncle Bill'sshould be your first stop eachmorning for breakfast. The menuoffers cheese steaks and burgers,too, but it's the pancakes -served all day long-that draw acrowd. Entrees start at $3.75.
George's Place, 301 BeachDrive, 609-884-6088. George's offersGreek-inspired culinary tastiness.Try the lemon chicken salad,a super-fresh plate of greenstopped with citrusy, juicy chicken.Entrees start at $6.95.
The Original Fudge Kitchen,728 Beach Drive, 800-23-FUDGE. No matterwhat else you eat in Cape May,save room for the Bogle family'screamy fudge, available in 21 flavors,all hand-whipped in copperkettles, priced at $9.89 per pound.
Summer stock theater. CapeMay is fortunate enough to boastthe presence of two professional(Actor's Equity) summer stocktheater companies: East LynneTheater Company (eastlynnetheater.org) and Cape May Stage(capemaystage.com). Check onlineto see summer offerings andschedules. Hint: If you've neverseen Private Lives by Noel Coward,here's your (hilarious) chance.
The Beach Theatre, 711 BeachAve., 609-778-1203. Cape May's home formovies since 1950, this historicbuilding (designed by W.H. Lee,one of America's most renownedtheater architects) now gleamswith new features such as a refurbishedlobby and a high-definitionprojection system. It showsthe best independent, foreign,documentary, animated and classicfilms.
The Boiler Room, Beach Avenueand Perry Street, 609-884-8422. There's live jazz everynight here. Exposed brick wallsand neon lighting give the room awarm glow. Just because thedance floor is the size of a cocktailnapkin doesn't mean things don'tget down and dirty.
Aqua Trails Kayaking,609-884-5600.Even if you've never paddled before,Jeff and Tracey Martin canquickly teach you how to pilot akayak through Cape May's gorgeoussalt marshes. (Make sureyou ask Jeff about the moonlightmarsh tour.)
The Cape May Whale Watcher,609-884-5445. On a three-hourtour, you have a chance to seehumpbacked whales, fin-backedwhales, dolphins, porpoises, turtlesand countless varieties of birds.
Cape May Bird Observatory,600 N. Route 47, 609-861-0700. Join guided walkingtours to spot migrant birdsand other wildlife highlighted onthe CMBO birding and butterflyingmap in such settings as thecoastal dunes of Two Mile Beach,Cape May Point and BelleplainState Forest. Bring binoculars.
Cape May Zoo
The Emlen Physick Estate, 1048Washington St., 609-884-5404.Tour a Stick-Style mansion, builtin 1879, and attributed to FrankFurness, one of the most esteemedAmerican architects ofthe late 19th century. Learn aboutthe gracious living "upstairs" and"downstairs" world of servantswho made such luxury possible.
The Well Center for Massage,110 N. Broadway, 609-884-3177. Try theHot Lava Massage, where themoist heat of volcanic ash-packedcompresses loosens tightness inthe neck and back. $105 for 60minutes.
Washington Street Mall. CapeMay's famous pedestrian mall hasbeen completely refurbished forsummer 2008, with new brickpaving and lighting. A pre-dinneror rainy-day browse here is amust, though Cape May has otherspots for those looking for somethingspecial.
Dellas 5 & 10, 503 WashingtonSt., 609-884-4568. It's a country store,soda fountain and time machineall rolled into one. Owners KimMarie Dellas-Andrus, her husband,Paul Andrus, and her mother,Margie Dellas, hand-pick merchandisethat is refreshinglyretro, circa 1947, like penny candyand Coca-Cola in skinny greenglass bottles.
Oma's Doll Shop, 315 Ocean St.,609-884-8882.Oma's has more than 1,000 dollsunder one roof. Specializing incollectibles, it features a "nurserywindow" with dolls lined up inbassinets, awaiting someone totake them home.
Whale's Tale, 312 WashingtonMall, 609-884-4808. This shop has beena Cape May tradition since 1974,and sells toys, paper goods andother gift items -- all inspired bythe sea. Horseshoe crab earrings,anyone?
The Cape May Lighthouse MuseumShop, Cape May Point StatePark, 609-465-3535. It's a pirate'streasure chest full of nauticallythemed arts, apparel, books andtoys.
CAPE MAY HARBOR FEST -- Various locations / 609-884-5508 or capemaymac.org. Times vary. June 20-22. Activities include storytelling, the Summer Solstice Bonfire, a street festival and more. Most events are free.
TOAST TO THE COAST FOOD & WINE SPECTACULAR -- Various locations / 800-736-1420. A series of events featuring celebrity chefs, culinary demonstrations, wine samplings, cookbook signings and more. Tickets are $15-$150.
Pass required: Yes, for those older than 12. Seasonal passes are $25 if purchased at the City Hall Tax Office; $25.75 through the mail. Eight-day passes are $13; three-day passes are $9; one-day passes are $4.
Pets allowed: Dogs are not allowed on most Cape May beaches during the summer. Higbee beach is pet friendly, but there's no swimming.
Lifeguard hours: Morning until 5:30 p.m. daily.
Rentals: Chairs, boogie boards, umbrellas.
Public Restrooms: Yes.
Showers: Rinse-off showers.
Concession stands:Yes, as well as vendor carts along the road.
Parking: Meters. During the summer months, free parking is offered in the Cape May Elementary School lot on Lafayette Street. Shuttle trolleys run from the lot to locations in town.
Fishing allowed: Yes.
Worth noting: There is a promenade off the beach.Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun