Credit: Photos by michael ventura

IT’S 5:30 PM. on a Thursday in the clubby Brown Room lounge at the Congress Hall hotel in Cape May, New Jersey. Happy hour is in full swing here in the “nation’s oldest seashore resort” city, and the rattle of the cocktail shaker behind the bar blends with noisy laughter and conversation. I’m sipping on a bottle of the local Blue Pig Tavern ale (the beer brewed especially for the historic hotel’s adjacent restaurant), kicking back on a soft sofa and watching the scene unfold in a room that no doubt has lots of stories within its walls.

Having arrived via the Cape May-Lewes Ferry only an hour ago, I soon discover that the chatty couple sitting near me drove down from Philadelphia this afternoon for a long weekend. Like many of the tourists or “shoobies” who made the trip at the turn of the last century, it seems Philly folks are still finding Cape May’s slower seaside appeal a welcome relief from big-city life.

Of course, I don’t learn this particular detail until the next morning, when I take the Historic District Trolley Tour of Cape May. There, an informative guide, John, shares the origin of the term “shoobies”—i.e., tourists who used to arrive via the train from Philadelphia, often carrying a shoebox filled with lunch or a change of clothes for the beach. Still, I can’t help thinking the ferry seems like the more poetic way to land in this beauty of a town, which is surrounded by water on three sides.  

I learn a lot more about Cape May as the polished red-and-green trolley scoots past dozens of well-kept Victorian mansions, including a long-ago “house of mutual affection” and gingerbready residences decked out in the “too-much-is-not-enough style.” John jokes that the former homeowners “loved to decorate their decorations.” These valentine-like, 19th-century structures (one of the largest groupings left in the U.S.) are what designated the entire city of Cape May a National Historic Landmark in l976—one of the few awarded to an entire town.

Many of the mansions have since been transformed into beautiful bed-and-breakfast guesthouses. But it’s not until the trolley takes me out to the town’s eccentric and imposing 1879 Emlen Physick Estate that I get my first glimpse inside one of the homes, with its Oriental rugs, lace curtains, coffered ceilings and floral wall coverings. The estate—now a museum—is an entertaining way to understand what life was like in Cape May when the only AC was the ocean breeze, and social events revolved around cakewalks, concerts and dinner parties.

Congress Hall is Cape May’s landmark luxury hotel, boasting private beach cabanas, a lively happy hour scene, a pool, shops and a spa.

Since I am here during the Cape May Music Festival (late May-early June), my trolley ticket includes a “Bach’s Lunch” on the patio, where my meal also features a concert by a few members of the Bay-Atlantic Symphony. If you’re here in the summertime, the Carriage House Café & Tearoom—also on the estate grounds, in the original horse stalls—is a great spot for afternoon tea, too.

AFTER LUNCH, the sun disappears and clouds move in. Instead of a walk by the beach, I opt to drive over to the Cape May Artists’ Cooperative Gallery on Sunset Boulevard.

As in many upscale summer enclaves, art abounds in Cape May. At the Artists’ Cooperative, a group of local artists have joined together to showcase and sell their work, including paintings, prints, jewelry, woodwork, mosaics, and stained and fused glass. When I ask about several unusual collages of china plates and teacups on weathered wood that catch my eye, I discover the creator is Catherine Bosna—who is in the shop today.  

A horse-and-carriage ride provides visitors with an up-close view of local sites.

“I used old porch posts I rescued from one of Cape May’s Victorian home renovations,” she explains. These found objects, along with seashells and other salvaged local pieces, figure prominently in her whimsical and artful “Wabi-Sabi Tea Party” assemblages.

My next stop is the West End Garage, where old and new come together in an entirely different way—with 50 vendors housed in a former gas station/garage selling their wares.

Wandering through here, I find a treasure trove of unique items: vintage Champagne coupes, new ceramic honey pots, metal mermaids, nautical memorabilia, home-sewn designer clothes and handcrafted jewelry.

In addition to these art and antique emporiums, Cape May offers plenty for shoppers at the Washington Street Mall, a 3-block pedestrian concourse lined with upscale clothing boutiques and specialty shops, plus candy and toy stores. An especially popular spot is Dellas 5 & 10, where I pop in to pick up sunscreen and can’t resist a root-beer float at its old-fashioned soda fountain with the spin-around stools in the back.

There’s no shortage of eating options, either. Beachside favorites include the Rusty Nail, where a beer and a bucket of peel-and-eat shrimp can be enjoyed at the longest bar in Cape May (and shoes are actually discouraged); and the Ugly Mug, where the grilled crab cakes are among the best in town.

John Mistretta, Rockwell Cottage’s current owner, says painter Norman Rockwell visited the home during the summers.

At Lucky Bones Backwater Grille, a guy leaving the place with a takeout cod sandwich tells me: “Everything’s good in there. I’m not a local; I came down here just for the food.”

Tonight, I’ll end up at The Lobster House, a sprawling mecca located on Fisherman’s Wharf that serves up fresh seafood, hauled in daily from the local fleet.

Willow Creek Winery, just 3 miles from Cape May, produces seven kinds of wine on 50 acres.

But before I dine, I take a spin out to Sunset Beach, the southernmost point of the Jersey Shore. Famous not only for its namesake dazzling sunsets, it’s also known for bits of weathered quartzite called “Cape May diamonds” that can be found on the beach. The stones are actually pure quartz crystals, which the local Kechemeche Indians once believed to possess supernatural powers for good fortune.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING I awake to the clip-clop of a horse and carriage as it rounds the corner outside my window. I can’t help thinking it appropriate that this town, so evocative of the past, would offer such charming transportation. Still, it’s cool and sun-scattered outside, and although biking is another popular means of getting around (there are rental bike shops in town), I’m more interested in a walk.  

Left: Valentine-like, 19th-century structures are what designated the entire city of Cape May a National Historic Landmark in l976—one of the few awarded to an entire town. Right: The Red Store is part general store, coffeehouse and restaurant.

Cape May is made for strolling. In addition to its 2-mile stretch of beaches, the city sidewalks pass by picket-fenced mansions wrapped in old-fashioned porches—many flying the American flag, and all shaded by leafy trees that form a canopy over the streets. It’s enough to make me feel as if I’ve stepped into a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.

So much so, in fact, that as I walk on Hughes Street in the town’s oldest residential neighborhood—and pass by a gate with a “Rockwell Cottage” sign—I ask the man outside on the porch if Norman Rockwell once lived there.

“No,” says owner John Mistretta, walking over to the fence to chat. But according to his own house history and local lore, “Norman Rockwell’s brother lived here, and Norman spent some time in this home during the summers.”

Fifty vendors sell their wares at West End Garage, one of the town’s arts and antiques emporiums.

Mistretta is as friendly as the other folks I’ve already encountered on my walk about town—from those sweeping off front steps and greeting me with a “good morning” to others who wave a friendly hello while watering plants on their porch railings. It feels so downright neighborly that the town suddenly strikes me as not just another beach resort, but a place where people love to live. And thanks to the preservationists in the 1970s, many are living in some beautiful vintage buildings within walking distance of the ocean.

With lunchtime nearing, I head out to Cape May Point and The Red Store. Many bike over here to visit the nearby Cape May Lighthouse, which was built in 1859. If I were so inclined, I could climb the spiraling 199 steps to the top for a view of the Jersey Cape, but I rationalize that it’s cloudy out, so the climb wouldn’t really give me the full view as a reward.  

Housed in the tiny borough’s (population 285) former general store, The Red Store is part general store (farm-fresh baskets of strawberries for sale today), part coffeehouse and part restaurant. A farm-to-table menu is the focus, with pitchers of house-made sangria a popular accompaniment. I skip the sangria and order sparkling ginger lemonade, along with a sandwich of blackened local flounder that is fantastic.

Later in the afternoon, I do partake of some sangria at the Willow Creek Winery. Situated 3 miles from Cape May, it’s one of several wineries to have sprung up in the past several years on the south Jersey coast. Apparently, the maritime effects of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay create a micro climate reminiscent of Bordeaux’s, and Willow Creek Winery takes advantage of those conditions, producing seven kinds of wine on its 50 acres.

After the electric train-cart tour of the vineyards—which passes by one of the most artfully decorated chicken coops I’ve ever seen (“We may be the only winery where you can buy fresh eggs, too,” says the guide)—visitors can stop in the spacious and spectacular tasting room. For $10, I taste five wine and sangria samples while wine educator Katie Panamarenko explains each with enthusiasm and knowledge.

Back at Congress Hall that night, I see there’s music being offered in The Brown Room until 10 p.m., and in the atmospheric basement Boiler Room, a dance band is playing until 1 a.m. But from the locals I’ve chatted with earlier, I’ve learned that Cape May is more of a family place than a late-night partying spot. If I felt like hitting an authentic boardwalk, I could visit Wildwood, which is only 16 miles away.

But the truth is, tonight I’m not feeling the urge to do anything more than head to my room, where I can fall asleep with a cool sea breeze gently lifting the curtain.

Donna Tabbert Long lives in Minneapolis, and writes about travel and food for numerous publications including National Geographic Traveler, The Dallas Morning News and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.