Look up! My one bit of advice to visitors to Cape May, New Jersey. That’s where so much of the city’s delights is encapsulated. Let me explain.
First, a little history. Cape May, New Jersey, the nation’s oldest seashore resort, has been catering to vacationers since pre-Revolutionary days, although there were probably a lot fewer T-shirt shops at the time. There’s evidence that even earlier tourists in the form of local Kechemeche Indians came there in summer “to hunt and fish.” Later, the shady tree-lined streets and colorful homes of Cape May became the playground of presidents. Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison all sought refuge there from the humidity of D.C. summers. Those are not bad references!
Although this delightful town grew beyond its colonial trappings, it instead became stuck in the late-19th century Victorian Era, when it was rebuilt after being demolished by fire for the third time. Thankfully it has remained there. With over 600 structures, most of which have been refurbished, Cape May has been designated a National Landmark City. The whole city. The only city in the U.S. to be wholly designated as a national historic district. Hard to compete with that.
Street after street — house after house — enchants, charms and captivates visitors intrigued by the intricate detail that distinguishes one from the other. Despite the similarity in architectural style, there is infinite variety in their beautiful presentations.
Most of the homes, ablaze in multiple shades of browns, greens and mauves, sport some strange appendage on the roof alternately identified as a turret, cupola, gazebo, or belvedere. This is where the looking-up advice comes in handy: so many of the interesting adornments — the extra little touches — are near the roof. They also are everywhere else.
Wraparound porches adorned with decorative balustrades and whimsically designed gingerbreading give each structure its personal charm and distinction. Bay windows are surrounded by individualized brackets and barge boards that vary in size, detail and decor.
The diversity of the slits, slices, slats and slots, which contributes to the intricacy of design defining each structure, is bound to fascinate even those who have never before given a single thought to architectural motif. As one guide summed up the Victorian philosophy: “If a little is good, more is better, and too much is still not enough.”
The Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian walkway in the center of town, is reminiscent of what a beach town boardwalk might have been like in the 1890s. The many outdoor benches, cafes and quaint shops decked out in their Victorian finery reflect an earlier easier era. Once again, just the presence of individualized shops is such a welcome antidote to the sameness of suburban malls – at least those that are still left…..
Though the ubiquitous Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlor somehow found a home here, even its exterior hints at a turn-of-the-century facade. A sign on the Great White Shark T-shirt Store proclaiming it “A Cape May Tradition since 1988” ironically lends authenticity to the otherwise historic ambiance.
To further personalize the transformation in time, make time to take a walk on Hughes Street after dark. Walking down the quaint, quiet street, its only illumination provided by gas lamps — and occasionally, the moon — picture yourself returning to your turn-of-the-century summer home. To a time when life was simpler — the pace was slower — the streets safer — and all was well with the world — even if just for the moment.
Welded to history, Cape May recently found some new old history to celebrate. The Harriet Tubman Museum opened in 2021 in a neighborhood that was not only the center of the African-American community but played an outsize role in the abolitionist movement in the mid-19th century – spearheaded by Harriet Tubman herself. After attaining freedom herself, Harriet worked as a Cape May hotel maid to earn the funds to finance her journeys further south to help free more slaves.
The museum site itself, built around 1799, was the center of an active anti-slavery movement at the time. The Underground Railroad ran through this Cape May neighborhood with Harriet Tubman and her allies as the conductors. I couldn’t help but wonder why it took them so long to honor this remarkable heritage!
And in addition to this new history, there’s other older history. Sightseers have several options: tour the Emlen Physick Estate, an 18-room Victorian house and museum; climb the 199 steps to the top of the Cape May Lighthouse (circa 1859) for sweeping views of Cape Island and the Delaware Bay. Check out the vestiges of a sunken 250-foot-long concrete war ship of WW1 vintage. In 1926, attempts to turn it into a Lewes-Cape May ferry failed, 36 years before it actually became a reality. A necessary reality. That’s how you get to Cape May from Lewes, Delaware.
Once back in the real world, there’s more to do in Cape May than just gawk at lovely old homes. Fairs, festivals, special interest tours and other activities attract and delight visitors throughout the year.
For bird-watching addicts, nearly 400 species of birds during peak migration periods are just waiting to be added to “sightings” lists. With Cape May listed as one of the top ten birding “hot spots” in North America, there’s ample diversity in terms of habitats and feathered creatures.
But Cape May singularity doesn’t stop there. Many people have heard of the “Sanibel Stoop,” the term attributed to seashell seekers along Florida’s coastal Island. But do you know of the “Diamond Droop”? That’s what you get when hunting for Cape May Diamonds along the Delaware Bay at Sunset Beach. Despite its local popularity, the sport is little known outside the area. And it’s one the whole family can play.
Here’s the scoop on the droop! Cape May diamonds are semi-precious quartz stones that resemble cubic zirconia diamonds. They are found in abundance along the water’s edge and are fairly easy to recognize. Dull and cloudy when dry, they become bright and translucent when wet. Jewelry made from the stone has been featured on the QVC Television Shopping Network, but you don’t have to tune in to get some. Take your diamond discoveries to the Sunset Beach Gift Shop and they’ll tell you how you can have a brooch or pair of earrings made to order.
And oh yes, lest you forget why many come — there’s always the beach! Several miles of it — with rolling waves and white sand – very white sand. And everything else you’d find in nearby, better-known beach towns — except perhaps the crowds. Hey, life is full of trade-offs. And as an added plus, there’s Tommy’s Hot dog stand – another revered Cape May tradition.
For more information, log onto capemaymac.org or call 609-884-5404.