You may not need a car once you arrive at the Victorian wonderland of Cape May, N.Y., but there are a few things you should bring. Among them: an appreciation of beautiful buildings, a love of nature and the sea and, most important, the ability to have a rousing good time.
Cape May, as I discovered, is more than the world's largest collection of Victorian frame architecture. Dining and shopping and staying in those comfortably restored homes add a lot to the experience, as does a walk by the seashore or a jaunt to the Cape May Lighthouse, with nature trails and bird-watching nearby.
Any time is a good time to visit Cape May, an eminently walkable, year-round resort and National Historic Landmark City, one of only five in the country. The town consists of some 600 historic buildings, many of them clustered within a few blocks. You don't need to know a turret from a tower or a gingerbread trim from a gingerbread cookie to appreciate their stately beauty. But do notice how many homes have porches, because that tells a tale of Victorian society: People of the 19th century loved to know what was going on in the neighborhoods. Rocking chairs are on virtually every porch - some were even spotted at a funeral home.
Among the most-visited of the homes is the landmark 1879 Emlen Physick Estate, Cape May's only Victorian museum.The Physick Estate itself is testimony to the fact that for Victorians there was no such thing as overdecorating; in one room are six kinds of wallpaper. Visitors learn that fireplace mantels were so important that Victorians would take them along when they moved - that is where the word "dismantle" comes from.
The best way to really get to know Victoriana, though, is to stay in one of the bed-and-breakfast inns, guest houses or hotels. We stayed in the Queen Victoria, consisting of three adjoining homes filled with antiques and featuring homemade quilts. Breakfasts were tasty and varied, and there were such fine features as teatime, constant availability of refreshments, free use of bicycles and plenty of tips on what to do and where to go from the innkeepers.
But if architecture were all there is to Cape May, it would not have become so popular. Dining plays a major role, too, and with restaurants such as the Washington Inn (reserve early), the Lobster House, 410 Bank Street, the delightfully named Mad Batter and Ugly Mug bar and so many more, there is all the food and all the variety anyone could need.
And then there is the shopping. The downtown Washington Street Victorian Mall offers three blocks of shops and restaurants. Not surprisingly, antiques are popular.
Cape May doesn't neglect nature, either. There are four miles of beach and a 1 1/4 -mile paved promenade. The sea views are fine && from the newly restored 1859 Cape May Lighthouse at Cape May Point. Nearby, there are one-, two-, three- and five-mile nature trails and plenty of birds overhead. It's even fun to watch the flocks of bird-watchers watching the birds.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: Take Interstate 95 north to the New Jersey Turnpike (north). At Runnemede, follow signs to the Atlantic City Expressway (east); continue to the Garden State Parkway south. Take it to its most southerly point, then follow signs to Cape May.
Must see: Emlen Physick Estate - 1048 Washington St., 609-884-5404. Tours daily at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.
* Queen Victoria Bed and Breakfast: 102 Ocean St., 609-884-8702.
* The Mainstay Inn: 635 Columbia Street, 609-884-8690.
* Washington Inn: 801 Washington St., 609-884-5697. Dinner is served from 5 p.m.
* Lobster House: Fisherman's Wharf, 609-884-8296. Lunch and dinner served.
* 410 Bank Street: 410 Bank St., 609-884-2127. Dinner is served from 5 p.m.
Tips: Check out "Cape May Diamonds," found in many shops along Sunset Beach. These quartz crystals were first found, and treasured, by Kechemeche Indians, who believed them to be sacred and powerful.
Shopping: Antiques stores line the streets. Along Broadway, there is Bridgetowne, 523 Broadway; Promises, 301 N. Broadway; and Bogwater Jim, 201 Broadway. Elsewhere you'll find Antique Doorknob, 600 Park Blvd.; Rocking Horse Antique Center, 405 W. Perry St.; Nostalgia Shop, 408 Washington St.; and Studio Victorian, 607 Jefferson.
* Through June 21, "Sound Waves 1998," the ninth annual Cape May Music Festival, featuring 20 concerts, including those by the Cape May Festival Orchestra, the New York Chamber Ensemble, Boston Brass and New York Cabaret Unlimited. Concert locations and ticket information available by calling the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts at 800-275-4278.
L * June 6-7, Cape May Sea and Sky Festival, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
* June 13, Victorian Fair 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Emlen Physick Estate.
* June 26-27, Boardwalk Craft Show, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Convention Hall.
Information: Write to the Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 556, Cape May, N.J. 08204; or call 609-884-9562. Most rooms in Victorian-style lodging range from $75 to $250 a night.
! Pub date: 5/31/98