A Victorian-Era Time Capsule on the Shore
Cape May’s unique claim to fame is the juxtaposition of its Victorian country-town atmosphere and its location, directly on the Jersey shore. As America’s premier seaside resort in the mid-1800s, it attracted summering residents such as P. T. Barnum and Robert E. Lee, who came for the salty air and cool breezes.
More than 600 Victorian structures that survived a fire in 1879 and a century of development after are neatly contained within the town’s 2 ½-square-mile Historic District, where they’ve been transformed into shops, cafés, and gas-lit inns. Bicycles and horse-drawn buggies are the perfect way to tour the grand dowagers that proudly face the ocean along Beach Avenue, resplendent in gingerbread excess and colors that are visually surprising but (minus a few exceptions) historically accurate. Don’t overlook the backstreets, where just as much Victorian froufrou abounds, confirming the town’s “more is more” architectural philosophy.
The town boasts more than sixty historic bed-and-breakfasts, which range from boarding-house basic to unashamed luxury. The Mainstay Inn was among the town’s first bed-and-breakfasts, and remains one of its undisputed gems.
A dignified Italianate manor one block from the ocean, it was built in 1872 as a gentlemen’s exclusive gambling club, with 14-foot ceilings, 8-foot chandeliers, and a 12-foot mirror in the grand entrance hall. Luxury was paramount then as it is now, with airy rooms appointed with museum-quality antiques augmented by the necessary 21st-century amenities. Cape May is still an important commercial fishing port, providing fresh seafood that’s built the town’s reputation as one of the most impressive culinary enclaves on the eastern seaboard.
For daytime activities, the invincibly kitsch seaside resort of Wildwood and its famous amusement-crammed boardwalk is only a twenty-minute drive, and, if you’re feeling lucky, Atlantic City is a roll of the dice away. Or just stay put in Cape May, and keep very still: The 400 species of migrating birds that pass through annually have helped make Cape May one of the country’s top three places for bird-watching.