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.
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-class dining establishments, Cape May is sometimes called the "restaurant capital of Southern New Jersey." A few places to visit:
The Blue Pig Tavern, 251 Beach Ave., 609-884-4163. Cape May's original tavern from the 1700s is now a cozy restaurant serving comfort food like cornmeal crusted oysters, Steak Diane and macaroni and cheese. Entrees start at $15.
The Ebbitt Room, 25 Jackson St., 609-884-5700. Honored by the Zagat guide and called "superb" by The New York Times, Cape May's best restaurant has an elegant ambience and a menu that takes delicious advantage of local purveyors of seafood and produce. Try the calamari with lime ginger aioli, or the eggplant-crusted halibut. Entrees start at $26.
Moonfish Grill, 416 S. Broadway, 609-898-1600. The charming Victorian house has sleek, gold, black and white interiors. It serves world-class sushi and sashimi (there's a dedicated sushi chef), as well as wood-grilled seafood, steaks and chops. Entrees start at $22.
Uncle Bill's Pancake House, Perry and Beach avenues, 609-884-7199. Serving 20 types of pancakes and almost as many kinds of waffles, Uncle Bill's should be your first stop each morning for breakfast. The menu offers cheese steaks and burgers, too, but it's the pancakes - served all day long-that draw a crowd. Entrees start at $3.75.
George's Place, 301 Beach Drive, 609-884-6088. George's offers Greek-inspired culinary tastiness. Try the lemon chicken salad, a super-fresh plate of greens topped with citrusy, juicy chicken. Entrees start at $6.95.
The Original Fudge Kitchen, 728 Beach Drive, 800-23-FUDGE. No matter what else you eat in Cape May, save room for the Bogle family's creamy fudge, available in 21 flavors, all hand-whipped in copper kettles, priced at $9.89 per pound.
Summer stock theater. Cape May is fortunate enough to boast the presence of two professional (Actor's Equity) summer stock theater companies: East Lynne Theater Company (eastlynnetheater.org) and Cape May Stage (capemaystage.com). Check online to see summer offerings and schedules. Hint: If you've never seen Private Lives by Noel Coward, here's your (hilarious) chance.
The Beach Theatre, 711 Beach Ave., 609-778-1203. Cape May's home for movies since 1950, this historic building (designed by W.H. Lee, one of America's most renowned theater architects) now gleams with new features such as a refurbished lobby and a high-definition projection system. It shows the best independent, foreign, documentary, animated and classic films.
The Boiler Room, Beach Avenue and Perry Street, 609- 884-8422. There's live jazz every night here. Exposed brick walls and neon lighting give the room a warm glow. Just because the dance floor is the size of a cocktail napkin doesn't mean things don't get down and dirty.
Outdoors Aqua Trails Kayaking, 609-884-5600. Even if you've never paddled before, Jeff and Tracey Martin can quickly teach you how to pilot a kayak through Cape May's gorgeous salt marshes. (Make sure you ask Jeff about the moonlight marsh tour.)
The Cape May Whale Watcher, 609-884-5445. On a three-hour tour, you have a chance to see humpbacked whales, fin-backed whales, dolphins, porpoises, turtles and countless varieties of birds.
Cape May Bird Observatory, 600 N. Route 47, 609-861-0700. Join guided walking tours to spot migrant birds and other wildlife highlighted on the CMBO birding and butterflying map in such settings as the coastal dunes of Two Mile Beach, Cape May Point and Belleplain State Forest. Bring binoculars.
Rainy Days The Emlen Physick Estate, 1048 Washington St., 609-884-5404. Tour a Stick-Style mansion, built in 1879, and attributed to Frank Furness, one of the most esteemed American architects of the late 19th century. Learn about the gracious living "upstairs" and "downstairs" world of servants who made such luxury possible.
The Well Center for Massage, 110 N. Broadway, 609-884-3177. Try the Hot Lava Massage, where the moist heat of volcanic ash-packed compresses loosens tightness in the neck and back. $105 for 60 minutes.
Washington Street Mall. Cape May's famous pedestrian mall has been completely refurbished for summer 2008, with new brick paving and lighting. A pre-dinner or rainy-day browse here is a must, though Cape May has other spots for those looking for something special.
Dellas 5 & 10, 503 Washington St., 609-884-4568. It's a country store, soda fountain and time machine all rolled into one. Owners Kim Marie Dellas-Andrus, her husband, Paul Andrus, and her mother, Margie Dellas, hand-pick merchandise that is refreshingly retro, circa 1947, like penny candy and Coca-Cola in skinny green glass bottles.
Oma's Doll Shop, 315 Ocean St., 609-884-8882. Oma's has more than 1,000 dolls under one roof. Specializing in collectibles, it features a "nursery window" with dolls lined up in bassinets, awaiting someone to take them home.
Whale's Tale, 312 Washington Mall, 609-884-4808. This shop has been a Cape May tradition since 1974, and sells toys, paper goods and other gift items -- all inspired by the sea. Horseshoe crab earrings, anyone?
The Cape May Lighthouse Museum Shop, Cape May Point State Park, 609-465-3535. It's a pirate's treasure chest full of nautically themed arts, apparel, books and toys.
June 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.
Cape May 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. Camping: No. Worth noting: There is a promenade off the beach.