Beachfront resort has something for everybody

June 19, 1994|By Caroline Spencer | Caroline Spencer,Special to The Sun

Located on New Jersey's southernmost point, Cape May has been a seashore resort for more than 200 years. In summer months, the lovingly restored horse-drawn Victorian carriages and tree-lined streets help attract so many visitors that the population swells from 4,800 permanent residents to more than 30,000, according to the Cape May Chamber of Commerce.

Cape May's amazing diversity adds to its appeal. Nature lovers can spend the day on a fishing boat in the Atlantic spotting humpback whales or engaged in world-class bird watching. For the gourmand, Cape May's restaurants, such as the Water's Edge, which serves exquisite nouveau American cuisine, and the award-winning Northern Italian Fresco's, are two of many that offer sophisticated dining. There are also recreational opportunities that include biking or strolling on Cape May's tree-canopied streets.

The best introduction to Cape May is through a tour. There's something for every energy level, ranging from the Historic District Walking Tours, a 1 1/2 -hour guided jaunt through the town's old streets, to the Trolley/Physick Estate tours, the motorized version that adds a visit to the Emlen Physick Estate, an 18-room Victorian mansion-turned museum.

Tours geared to particular interests are plentiful during the summer season. Visitors can view mansions by gaslight and eat their way through town on the Gourmet Brunch Walk. They can embark on an ocean walk and learn about beach history and marine life, or enjoy tours of the historic inns accompanied by a restorative afternoon tea. There is also a tour of Fisherman's Wharf.

Whether a visitor takes an established tour or is an independent explorer, Hughes Street, the town's oldest residential street, is a place to visit again and again. Its historic houses represent a wide range of Victorian styles and color schemes. Among the favorites are Cherry House, a dignified 1849 New England-style Colonial clapboard, and the mustard-colored Joseph Hall Cottage, circa 1868, with its distinctive low-slung wrought-iron fence and old-time gas street lamp. Its multicolored exterior is a quirky combination, from its mustard yellow shingles to its aqua shutters. Nearby, Franklin House is even more unusual, combining a mauve exterior with shutters in varying shades of rose and maroon. Its windows are trimmed in emerald green.

The town's historic Victorian houses turned bed and breakfasts -- there are 65 -- may be even more interesting to look at, if only to ogle those visitors lucky enough to engage in one of the town's favorite pastimes on the wide front porches -- chair rocking. Columbia Street has the highest number of B&Bs -- a ratio so overwhelming that the few owners of private residences on that street have posted signs discouraging visitors from porch trespassing.

Another important historical structure is the Cape May lighthouse, located in the Cape May Point State Park. The lighthouse, currently undergoing a 10-year, $1 million renovation, recently reopened to visitors and now offers a watch room and outside gallery/viewing platform, reached by a 199-step cast-iron spiral staircase. At the adjacent Oil House, visitors can watch a video on the lighthouse's history, see exhibits and browse in the lighthouse museum shop's collection of nautical memorabilia.

Sunset Beach, a short drive from the lighthouse, offers a diversion from downtown Cape May. On the southernmost tip of Cape May Point, it feels oddly desolate, with its few ramshackle gift huts and a greasy spoon. Sunset Beach is one of the few places in the area where one can enjoy unobstructed views of both sunrise and sunset over the water.

The waters of Sunset Beach, where the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean meet, are home to the S.S. Atlantus, an experimental concrete ship -- one of just 12 built during World War I in an effort to find a substitute for steel -- whose remains are lodged at the angle that sticks out above the tide. Attempts to free the S.S. Atlantus, which broke loose during a 1920s storm and went aground, were futile because of her weight.

Taking a step back into historic America is so much a part of the Cape May experience that it's easy to forget the town is a modern-day seashore resort. The clean, sandy beach is long and narrow (be prepared to pay an admission charge). Along Ocean Avenue, shops offer the typical honky-tonk vacation necessities, such as T-shirts, beach toys and postcards.

Right on the beach is a commercial pier, the site of Cape May's convention center, a fudge confectionery, fast food joints and McGlade's, a ramshackle cafe that backs up almost into the ocean.

Perhaps the real charm of Cape May is not just in its celebration of its Victorian heritage, its respect for the environment or even in its seashore location. It may well be that the beauty of Cape May lies in its ability to combine past and present in a way that provides even the most discerning traveler with a restful place to escape.

IF YOU GO . . .

From Baltimore, Cape May is approximately 3 1/2 -four hours away by car, depending on traffic. There are two options. Using the Cape May/Lewes (Delaware) Ferry, take Route 50 across the Bay Bridge to Route 404; follow signs to the ferry in Lewes, Del. Advance reservations are encouraged -- call (800) 717-7245 for information. The 13-mile journey across the Delaware River takes about 70 minutes, and snacks are available on board. An alternative route is to take Interstate 95 to the New Jersey Turnpike; exit at Route 49. Merge onto Route 47; follow signs to Cape May.

Cape May offers a tremendous arts and music scene, with seasonal activities ranging from crafts shows to professional classical music performances. For a schedule of events, and for information on the various tours of Cape May, contact the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts at (800) 275-4278.

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