Cape May, N.J., hasn't yet closed for the season

Cool to visit Victorian- looking town in the fall

Trips: road trips, regional events

October 09, 2003|By Bill Sulon | Bill Sulon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Over the summer, Cape May, N.J., endured unusually wet weather, a sewage spill in August that resulted in the temporary closing of several beaches, and the lingering effects of a sluggish economy.

But it was still crowded.

Even in sunny, booming times, the pace slows after Labor Day at this self-proclaimed resort for all seasons.

By October, the water's too cold for all but northern Canadians on hiatus from the tundra, so swimming is not an option. Don't worry. If you like shopping, nature walks, sightseeing, dining out, bird-watching, fishing, canoeing and looking at animals (at the Cape May Zoo and elsewhere), you won't be bored.

Cape May, named by 15th-century Dutch explorer Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, became a popular hotel resort community in 1800. Fires in 1869 and 1878 damaged its economy, as did the Civil War, which put a crimp on Southerners' travel plans.

By the mid- to late-1800s, more summer cottages and fewer hotels were built. Many of those "cottages" - Victorian-style houses - stand today and represent the heart of the city.

A National Historic Landmark, Cape May has more than 600 wooden Victorian structures, the greatest concentration of such buildings in the United States.

Many of those houses are businesses in the Washington Street Mall, where you can buy everything from stained glass and gourmet coffee to fudge and SpongeBob Squarepants T-shirts. Most of the mall is closed to vehicle traffic.

Nearby, you can get a bird's-eye view of what remains of South Cape May. Incorporated in 1884, the Victorian village was destroyed by a storm and pounded into splinters by the Atlantic in the early 1950s.

Now, the marshy remains of South Cape May are part of the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, accessible only by foot from Sunset Boulevard.

During autumn, the Cape May peninsula is flyover country for migrating songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. Cape May, dubbed by birders as the migration capital of North America, is a common resting place for bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey and several species of owls.

What to see

Cape May County Park & Zoo (Route 9 at Crest Haven Road): It's hard to tell what's best about this 128-acre park and zoo - the clean, pleasant setting and more than 250 species of animals or the fact that admission is free. The reptile house, aviary, enormous tortoises and giraffes, the latter of which roam in a "safari"-like setting, are among the highlights. The adjoining park features picnic tables and a playground for the kids. Open every day, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

Cape May Point State Park (Seashore Road, Cape May Point): You can easily spend a day here, with a trek up the 157-foot-Cape May Lighthouse, a stroll through the 153-acre Cape May Point Natural Area, or a digging expedition for "Cape May Diamonds," colorful or clear stones rendered smooth by eons of pounding surf. The Natural Area features several boardwalk loops, which you can take on your own or with a guide. Want to see some 20th-century concrete relics? Check out the World War II bunker and a portion of the Atlantis, a World War I concrete ship torn loose from its moorings and sank in 1926. Call: 609-884-2159.

Washington Street Mall (Washington Street, one block from the ocean): Don't let the name fool you. This mall, situated in the heart of Cape May's historic district, is open only to pedestrian traffic. The mall features a dizzying but tasteful array of gift shops, sidewalk cafes and specialty stores. A fun experience amid a stunning Victorian setting.

Wildwood Boardwalk (North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest, just north of Cape May): Enjoy your youth or relive it on this 2-mile, five-pier East Coast icon. Many of the rides and stores close after Columbus Day, but a stroll down this wooden memory lane, with its relentless ocean breeze, is worth it.

Historic Cold Spring Village (720 U.S. 9, three miles north of Cape May): This unique outdoor museum features 20 antique structures, built between 1702 and 1897, that were brought in from different areas of Cape May County and set up on 22 wooded acres to represent a small 19th-century South Jersey farm village. Village crafters, dressed in costumes, demonstrate the use of tools of yesteryear. Look on as a blacksmith, weaver, potter, printer, carver, broomsmith and quilter practice their crafts. Call: 609-898-2300.

Where to eat

Frescos (412 Bank St., 609-884-0366): Regional Italian. Typical meal: $33

The Water's Edge (Beach and Pittsburgh Avene, 609-884-1717): Gourmet contemporary American. Typical meal: $40.

Stumpo's Italian Grill (318 Washington Street Mall, 609-898-9555): Casual Italian. Typical meal: $15-$20.

Martini Beach (Beach and Decatur, 609-884-4800): Contemporary American. Typical meal: $30.

The Pelican Club (501 Beach Ave., 609-884-3995): New American. Typical meal: $40. Live jazz music Thursday through Sunday.

Oyster Bay Steak and Seafood (615 Lafayette St., 609-884-2111): Steaks and seafood. Typical meal: $30.

Getting there

From Baltimore, take Interstate 95 north. Merge onto I-295 north toward New Jersey and cross Delaware Memorial Bridge into New Jersey. Take Route 322 east through Mullica Hill to Route 55 south. Follow it to the end and pick up 47 south to the Garden State Parkway. Take Parkway south to Cape May.

Feeling adventurous? Consider driving from Baltimore to Lewes, Del., and hauling yourself and your vehicle to Cape May on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. One-way fee is $25 for most vehicles and the driver. Additional passengers: $8 a person. Free for children under 6. For information or reservations, call 800-643-3779.

For more regional trips, see Page 44.

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