My main bit of advice to visitors to Cape May, at the southern end of New Jersey´s famed Jersey Shore: Look up! That’s where you´ll find most the delights of this town of around 2,800, a drive of some 2½ hours south from New York City and just under two hours from Philadelphia. The United States´ 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 the nearby Kechemeche tribe came there in summer to hunt and fish. Later, the shady tree-lined streets and colorful homes of Cape May became the playground of 19th- and early-20th-century presidents including Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Chester Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison, who sought refuge there from the humidity of Washington DC summers. 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 destroyed by fire for the third time. And thankfully it stopped there, leaving Cape May with more than 600 houses and other structures (most of which have been refurbished), leading it to be designated a National Landmark City - the only one in the United States 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.
One´s eyes simply cannot absorb in a single glance everything these buildings have to offer. Most of them, awash in myriad 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´re also pretty much 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 which vary in size, detail, and adornment. 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 architecture. As one guide summed up the Victorian philosophy, "If a little is good, more is better, and too much is still not enough." It all certainly enough to make returning to an modern everyday subdivision feel like a letdown!
The Washington Street pedestrian street (above) in the center of town evokes what a beach town might have been like in the 1890s. The many outdoor benches, cafés, and quaint shops decked out in their Victorian finery reflect an earlier, more simple time. And the presence of individualized "mom-and-pop" shops is such a welcome antidote to the sameness and banality of suburban malls. Though the ubiquitous Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlor has also found a home here, it, too, sports a turn-of-the-century façade. There are a handful exceptions to the historical ambiance, of course, such as the sign on the Great White Shark tee-shirt shop proclaiming it "A Cape May Tradition since 1988."
To get a further sense of downtown Cape May´s time-capsule feel, make time to take a walk on quaint, quiet Hughes Street after dark, its only illumination provided by gas lamps -- and occasionally the moon. Picture yourself - even if just for the moment.- returning to your turn-of-the-century summer home, in a time when life was simpler, the pace slower, the streets safer, and all was well with the world .
Cape May also recently found some other 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 the redoubtable Harriet Tubman herself. After attaining freedom herself, Harriet worked as a Cape May hotel maid to earn the funds to finance her journeys south to help free more slaves.
The museum provides immersive insight into the abolitionist movement, and the house in which it´s located, 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 Tubman and her allies as the conductors. I couldn’t help but wonder why it took them so long to honor this remarkable heritage.
In addition, ther are several other sights and activities well worth your time. The Emlen Physick Estate on Washington Street is an 18-room Victorian manse built in 1879, now an interesting museum of the period. Climb the 199 steps to the top of the still working Cape May Lighthouse (circa 1859) for sweeping views of Cape Island and the Delaware Bay. Gawk at the half-sunken, 250-foot-long concrete SS Atlantus, of post'World War I vintage, off Sunset Beach. For birdwatchers, nearly 400 species during peak migration periods are just waiting to be added to “sightings” lists, and Cape May is listed as one of the top ten birding “hot spots” in North America, with ample diversity in terms of habitats and feathered creatures in places like the 244-acre Cape May Point State Park. (where the lighthouse is located, and which also offers nature programs).
Then there are the famous "Cape May diamonds," semiprecious quartz pebbles which resemble cubic zirconia, found in abundance along the water’s edge of Sunset Beach and fairly easy to recognize. Dull and cloudy when dry, they become bright and translucent when wet. Jewelry made from the stones has been featured on the QVC Television Shopping Network, but you can take your diamond discoveries to the Sunset Beach Gift Shop and they can turn them into a brooch, pendant, or pair of earrings..Locals have even dubbed the hunched over posture of Cape May diamond-hunter the “diamond droop” - so that-s the scoop on the droop!
And speaking of beaches, let´s not forget, that´s why many folks come to Cape May. Its strands are some of the most beautiful on the Eastern Seaboard. - some 30 miles of them along the coastline of Cape May County, with rolling waves and white sand – very white sand. Plus the two mile Cape May Promenade (not a boardwalk because it´s paved, not wooden), lined with restaurants, amusements, and everything else you'd find in nearby, better-known beach towns -- except perhaps the crowds (hey, life is full of tradeoffs). And as an added plus, there’s Hot Dog Tommy’s stand – another revered Cape May tradition.
On top of all this, fairs, festivals, special interest tours, and myriad other activities attract and delight visitors throughout the year. For more information, log onto CapeMayMAC.org.