Last Updated on December 16, 2023
When a co-worker suggested I spend a weekend at the Jersey Shore – in mid-December– I let out a laugh. The very idea seemed absurd. Yet, he was earnest, pointing specifically to the idyllic Victorian town of Cape May.
I took his suggestion, and soon found that Cape May, nestled at the southern tip of New Jersey where the Atlantic’s waves kiss the Delaware Bay, offers more than just sandy shores and ocean waves.
Arriving in town, I felt as if I’d stepped back into the late 1800s. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clopped down tree-lined lanes past grand houses with towers, turrets, and gingerbread trim.
I noticed that the town’s eateries sport whimsical names like The Ugly Mug, The Mad Batter, and the Blue Pig Tavern. Along the seaside promenade, the plaintive caw of a seagull echoed, blurring the line between past and present.
Cape May History
I found a parking spot easily – one benefit of visiting off-season – and took a walk through the town’s picturesque streets. Winter’s tranquility lent a peaceful rhythm to my wanderings.
Captivated by the thought that Cape May’s story stretches back to 1620 when Dutch sea captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey founded the town, I strolled the same paths as those early settlers and felt a deep connection to the town’s rich history.
In 1761, thanks to the building of two new railroads, Cape May officially became the first seashore resort in America and was considered among the top vacation resorts in the country. Early visitors to the town included Henry Clay, Ulysses Grant, and possibly Abraham Lincoln in 1849.
Tragedy struck in 1878, though, when a fire ravaged the town. It destroyed about 30 blocks and some of Cape May’s finest resorts, such as the original Congress Hall.
Wandering past the Victorian buildings lining its streets today, I marveled at the town’s resilience after the fire. It was inspiring to see how Cape May had reinvented itself, preserving its charm through the modern style of the Victorian Era.
Today, these elegant homes, once the exclusive retreats of Philadelphia’s elite, have been transformed into the romantic bed and breakfasts that give Cape May its allure.
The Bedford Inn: A Victorian Retreat
After a refreshing stroll, I checked into the Bedford Inn, a burgundy and umber Italianate villa located just a block away from the beach.
Paula Murray, the innkeeper, welcomed me warmly, and as she showed me around the house, her enthusiasm for the inn’s history was palpable.
Authentic Victorian elements adorned each room, from the ornately carved dark wood furnishings to the gilded mirrors and vintage lighting. The heated, enclosed porch looked especially inviting, a sanctuary where I could relax with a cup of coffee and a good book.
When Paula handed me a three-page list brimming with the town’s activities and events, though, I knew I was going to be busy. Options included everything from art gallery exhibits and theater performances to whale and dolphin-watching cruises.
Cape May has an impressive list of year-round events as well, including the intriguing Sherlock Holmes Weekend, Restaurant Week, and Christmas Candlelight House Tours.
The Charms of Walkable Cape May
Murray recommended taking the trolley tour, so I set out toward Cape May’s walkable downtown.
I boarded the shiny red and green MAC (Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts) trolley at the Washington Street Mall, a three-block pedestrian area where many of Cape May’s shops are clustered.
As the trolley trundled through town, Kathleen, our guide, painted a vivid picture of life of Cape May before and after the devastating 1878 fire.
“When you came to Cape May in Victorian times, you came by steamboat or train, and then you would rent a horse and carriage once you got here,” she said, explaining the purpose of the Carriage Houses we passed.
Then she pointed to a home designed with a gray Queen Anne tower and a witch’s cap on top.
“That’s the only one-person porch in Cape May,” Kathleen said, grinning. “It’s called the Mother-in-Law’s Porch.’ It only accommodates one person, and the door only opens out.”
Congress Hall: A Festive Delight
After riding by the town’s many Victorian homes, I headed to the historic Congress Hall where the holiday spirit was in full swing.
I couldn’t help admiring the hotel’s grandeur, knowing it rose from the ashes of the devastating 1878 fire. As I explored its fascinating halls, rebuilt within a year of the disaster, the sense of history was evident, blending seamlessly with the joy of its present enchanting ‘Winter Wonderland’.
The air was alive with the sounds of holiday music, the aroma of gingerbread, and the laughter of children meeting Santa. Outside on the lawn, thousands of tiny lights glittered as a merry-go-round delighted the kids and a festive Christmas Market beckoned.
Dining at The Mad Batter
That evening, I ventured to the Mad Batter, a whimsical dining spot inside the Carroll Villa Hotel on Jackson Street. The naming nods to ‘Alice in Wonderland’ were clear, adding a playful touch to the ambiance.
As the enthusiastic server led me to my table, she pointed to the quirky local artwork on the walls. The restaurant also features live music.
I listened to a local singer sitting by the fireplace, savoring the Mad Batter’s signature crab-cake sandwich, a generous creation that balanced sweet, succulent crab meat with a perfectly crisp exterior, complemented by a fresh side salad.
The relaxing atmosphere, with its tribute to the local art and music scene, was exactly how I wanted my day to end.
Sunrise Solitude on the Beach
While the brisk air of December might deter some from the beach, the allure of an early morning sunrise was irresistible. Bundled up against the cold, I hurried to the beach, where a squawking great blue heron waded belly-deep in the water.
As the sun rose, a canvas of orange and pink hues painted the sky, the sun casting a shimmering golden path across the ocean. It was a peaceful reminder of nature’s simple yet majestic displays.
Back at the Bedford Inn, the sweet scent of blueberries filled the air. I was lucky to be there for the ‘Very French, French Toast’ breakfast. The brioche topped with brie and a homemade blueberry sauce was exquisite. Hand-cut peppered bacon and roasted pineapple rounded out the scrumptious meal.
Discovering Cape May Point State Park
After breakfast, I returned downtown to do some holiday shopping. However, the sunshine and a desire to be outside led me to Cape May Point State Park instead, just a few miles away. Amidst the park’s 244 acres, I found solace in hiking trails that meandered through diverse habitats.
The park’s crown jewel, the gleaming white Cape May Lighthouse, offers panoramic views of the ocean and the haunting remains of the S.S. Atlantus, a concrete bunker that ran aground during a storm in 1926. You’ll have to climb the 199 knee-trembling steps first for the views, though.
I saw several birdwatchers standing atop the park’s Hawkwatch Platform, despite the cold weather. Cape May’s birdwatching scene is vibrant year-round; National Geographic considers it the best birding destination in the world!
The Emlen Physick Estate
My exploration of Cape May culminated with a tour of the Emlen Physick Estate. This 18-room Victorian Stick Style house, built in 1879, stood out with its eccentric architecture and the intriguing story of its owner, Dr. Emlen Physick. The tour revealed tales of luxury and quirks, offering a glimpse into the life of Cape May’s gentry.
As I left Cape May, the town’s distinct character lingered in my thoughts. Unlike other New Jersey beach destinations that quiet down after summer, Cape May revealed itself as a year-round treasure. Its rich blend of historical elegance, diverse cultural activities and natural serenity set it apart.
This Victorian jewel, I realized, doesn’t just endure beyond the summer. It flourishes, inviting those who seek its unique beauty in the quieter, contemplative times.