Weekenders: Cape May’s Sea Change

America’s oldest seaside escape is livelier than ever.

By Aarti Virani

With its horse-drawn buggies, taffy-toned cottages and iconic promenade, Cape May, a slip of a peninsula on New Jersey’s southernmost point, has long been considered a perfectly preserved Victorian-era relic, confirmed by the National Historic Landmark status it scored in 1976. Initially documented by Capt. Henry Hudson in 1609, the city was officially christened nearly a decade later by Capt. Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, who was sailing the area on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. Cape May’s first flock of vacationers arrived via sloops and schooners from nearby Philadelphia in the late 1700s, sparking a lodging boom.

These days a peninsula-wide transformation is afoot. It comes in the form of a jewel box of a theater showcasing Broadway alums and boundary-breaking plays; a crop of innovative wineries, where the grapes thrive thanks to the region’s balmy winds; and an acclaimed young chef and his inventive South American plates. At this centuries-old shore town, your helping of classic Americana—rest assured, Skee-Ball and shucked oysters are still within reach—now comes with an infusion of summertime cool.

High Tide and History

Start by the sea—fortunately, there’s a stretch of sand for all types of beachgoers on this windswept coast. Striped cabanas and umbrella drinks dominate bustling Cape May Beach; it’s also the backdrop to a sought-after morning yoga class, where sun salutations are fortified by the salty sea breeze.

From May to September, kites dot the fiery sky at Sunset Beach on the Cape’s quieter western side, where visitors can take in the remains of the S.S. Atlantus, a hulking 2,500-ton concrete steamer that was part of an experimental fleet built toward the end of World War I. This beach is also the site of a nightly flag-lowering ceremony, a stirring and patriotic ritual that pays homage to deceased veterans; during the high season, it draws crowds of up to 500. Across town, The Cove is a shape-shifting surfer’s paradise (it shrinks and expands after every passing storm) that’s known for the occasional dolphin sighting. Farther west, another national landmark, the Cape May Lighthouse, beckons: If you brave the spiraling 199-step climb, the 157-foot summit rewards you with a breathtaking Atlantic Ocean panorama.

Cruising for Culture

The town’s more than 600 Victorian buildings—many of which have been converted into quaint bed-and-breakfasts—invite a closer look. For an informed peek at their ornate gingerbread trims and mansard roofs, hop on the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities’ 45-minute trolley ride that winds around the historic district. Pair it with a walking tour of the Emlen Physick Estate, an elegant, geometric Stick-style manse, with 15 meticulously restored rooms, that once belonged to the Cape’s wealthiest physician. If you’re lucky, your guide will be in costume as Dr. Physick’s sprightly Aunt Emilie. For a more contemporary arts experience, catch a show at the 134-seat Cape May Stage, a former Presbyterian church built in the 19th century. The theater’s ambitious 2018 lineup includes a weekly Broadway series during the months of July and August featuring renowned songwriter Jimmy Webb and Newsies star Andrew Keenan-Bolger, among others. For entertainment of the alfresco variety, check out the 29th annual Cape May Music Festival, a monthlong celebration of orchestral, chamber and jazz performances with gigs by local favorites, such as the 30-plus-piece Atlantic Brass Band (in late May).

Sip and Shop

The Washington Street Mall, a warren of thumbprint-size boutiques, is spread across a three-block expanse between Perry and Ocean Streets. During the warmer months, most establishments here keep their doors open till 9 p.m. Skip the typical T-shirt and trinket shops and make your way to jewelry emporium Splash instead. Owners Hilary and Chuck Pritchard curate an elegant collection of marine-accented baubles crafted by artisans such as Janet Payne, who combs the vicinity’s beaches for sea glass and Cape May “diamonds” (smooth, semi-opaque quartz pebbles). A few steps away, you’ll find The Original Fudge Kitchen, a 47-year-old confectionery that was started by a pair of teenage brothers, Paul and Joe Bogle, who now run a Willy Wonka-esque kingdom consisting of six candy shops spread across the Cape and nearby Wildwood and Stone Harbor. The Bogles, firm believers in the try-before-you-buy philosophy, are known to hand out nearly 27,000 pounds of their creamy chunks in flavors like mint chocolate chip and sea-salt caramel chocolate during the summer.

For a healthier spin on sweet treats, trek to Sunset Boulevard, home to a relatively younger player on the souvenir scene: Cape May Honey Farm, a sun-drenched gift shop piled high with jars of raw and unpasteurized honey run by beekeeper Douglas Marandino and his wife, Andriana. The store’s healing goodies (which include a generous collection of beeswax candles and bath products) are laced with an intoxicating range of accents, from vanilla bean to wildflower to blueberry. You’re close to the Willow Creek Winery, a 50-acre vineyard that’s one of seven in the locality—the microclimate here bears a strong resemblance to Bordeaux’s. Sipping a flight of fruit-forward cabernets on the breezy brick patio or in the grand post-and-beam tasting room is practically mandatory. Splurge on a cheese and charcuterie platter laden with nibbles like decadent Burgundy triple cream and slices of paprika-spiked chorizo.

The Culinary Coast

The Cape’s eclectic restaurant scene is a mix of stalwarts, such as George’s Place, a snug family-run space with only 10 tables that has served hefty portions of Greek classics, including whole branzino with eggplant orzo and flambéed kefalograviera cheese, since 1968. (Reservations are highly recommended; the restaurant takes same-day dinner bookings starting at 5 p.m.) Other mainstays include The Lobster House—here, diners can feast on crab-cake sandwiches and steamed mussels aboard a moored 130-foot Grand Banks sailing vessel—and Mad Batter, a stained-glass-encased breakfast-to-dinner bistro, where must-tries include the orange-and-almond French toast as well as the Belgian waffles, studded with pieces of pecan.

Subtly revolutionizing the dining landscape are new entrants such as two-year-old Shamone, a swanky tapas joint serving a 15-course chef’s tasting menu, which might consist of spiced-watermelon-and-gazpacho shooters and miniature meatloaf meatballs. At The Red Store, a rustic farm-to-table spot, James Beard Award nominee Lucas Manteca dips into his Argentine heritage to create bold seasonal menus for his restaurant, which also houses a bakery and general store. At the latter, you can pick up bottles of tomato jam, Manteca’s spin on the revered sweet-and-savory Jersey staple, featured prominently in his fish tacos and chorizo tortas. In many ways, the remixed 19th-century condiment is a stand-in for Cape May itself, simmered in tradition, prepped for revival.

Explore
Cape May Lighthouse

215 Lighthouse Ave.; capemaymac.org; adults, $8; children 3–12, $5

Cape May Music Festival

May 27–June 15; capemaymac.org; for more information and tickets, call the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities at 609-884-5404

Cape May Stage

405 Lafayette St.; 609-770-8311; capemaystage.org

Emlen Physick Estate

1048 Washington St.; 609-884-5404; capemaymac.org; combination trolley and estate tours, $22; children 3–12, $14

Relax
Cape May Beach

251 Beach Ave.; $6 for a beach tag, required between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day

The Cove

Beach Ave. and Second Ave.; $6 for a beach tag, required between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day

Sunset Beach

502 Sunset Blvd.

Willow Creek Winery

160–168 Stevens St.; 609-770-8782; willowcreekwinerycapemay.com; wine tastings, from $10 a person

Yoga class

200 Congress Place; 888-944-1816; caperesorts.com; visit the concierge desk at Congress Hall for details and registration

Eat
George’s Place

301 Beach Ave.; 609-884-6088; kararestaurantgroup.com; dinner for two, $44*

The Lobster House

906 Schellengers Landing Rd.; 609-884-8296; thelobsterhouse.com; dinner for two, $80

Mad Batter

19 Jackson St.; 609-884-5970; madbatter.com; brunch for two, $17

The Red Store

500 Cape Ave.; 609-884-5757; capemaypointredstore.com; dinner for two, $130

Shamone

421 Washington St. Mall; 609-884-6088; kararestaurantgroup.com; dinner for two, $60

Shop
Cape May Honey Farm

135 Sunset Blvd.; 609-425-6434; capemayhoneyfarm.com

The Original Fudge Kitchen

513 Washington St. Mall; 800-233-8843; fudgekitchens.com

Splash

513 Carpenters Lane; 609-846-7100; whalestalecapemay.com

Washington Street Mall

Set on Washington St. between Perry and Ocean Sts.; heartofcapemay.com

STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts near Cape May include:
Atlantic Palace 5302

Right on the boardwalk so you can play all day and unwind on the resort’s sundeck afterward. Only 48 miles from Cape May. 1507 Boardwalk, Atlantic City
Member Review: “We will come back here again in the future; it’s very peaceful and relaxing.”

FantaSea Resorts at Atlantic Palace D676

Shares amenities with Atlantic Palace. 1507 Boardwalk, Atlantic City
Member Review: “We absolutely loved it, and we are going back this week, so thank you RCI and FantaSea Resorts!”

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Cape May include:
Congress Hall

A majestic 200-year-old resort (once the summer White House for Pres. Benjamin Harrison) with cottage-inspired interiors, beach access and a private pool. 200 Congress Place; 888-944-1816; congresshall.com; doubles from $299 a night

The Beach Shack

Laid-back and family-friendly, this thoughtfully revamped motel has some of Cape May’s most spacious rooms and a lively outdoor fire pit. 205 Beach Ave.; 877-742-2507; beachshack.com; doubles from $199 a night

  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Summer 2018