A world away from the carnival atmosphere of the Wildwoods, Cape May, the oldest and most serene of the New Jersey beach towns, sits at the southern tip of the state. First settled in the early 1600s, Cape May’s glory years ran from the 1850s to the 1890s as an upper-crust summer resort, when it rivaled Newport, Rhode Island, as the destination of choice for the power brokers of Philadelphia and New York City.
At the southern tip of Cape May, an extensive wetland and beachfront nature reserve offer wide-open spaces for beachcombing and bird-watching, while protecting the town from coastal storms. There was a town here until 1944, when a winter storm washed it away. A few modern motels and miniature golf courses spread north along Cape May’s broad beaches, while the compact downtown district retains all its overwrought Victorian splendor. Century-old cottages now house cafés, boutiques, and art galleries, and it seems as if every other building has been converted into a quaint B&B. The town’s ornate gingerbread mansions were constructed in the aftermath of a disastrous 1878 fire; among the better examples is the elaborate Emlen Physick Estate (1048 Washington St.), eight blocks north of downtown, designed by noted Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. It now houses the nonprofit, preservation-oriented Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities and is open as a museum of late Victorian life (609/884-5404, daily Apr.-Dec., limited hours Jan.-Mar., $15 adults).
Pick up walking-tour maps of some of the town’s 600 listed historic buildings and do a taste-test of Cape May’s many architecturally magnificent, mostly Victorian-era bed-and-breakfasts. These include the mansard-roofed Queen Victoria (102 Ocean St., 609/884-8702, $195 and up) and the Mainstay Inn (635 Columbia Ave., 609/884-8690, $199 and up), which has a spacious veranda opening onto gorgeous gardens. Cape May’s oldest and most atmospheric place to stay is the Southern Gothic Chalfonte Hotel (301 Howard St., 609/884-8409, $85 and up). What the Chalfonte lacks in TVs and telephones it more than makes up for in hospitality: a bank of front-porch rocking chairs, full breakfasts, and huge, down-home dinners.
Places to eat, including a dozen or so bakeries, cafés, restaurants, and bars, can be found along the pedestrian-friendly few blocks of Washington Street at the center of town, while the seafood restaurants, naturally enough, are near the marina and ferry terminal on the north edge of town, off US-9. Two great options are downtown, right across from the water: George’s Place (301 Beach Ave., 609/884-6088, cash only) mixes diner-style breakfasts with authentic Greek gyros and mezze, while across the street Uncle Bill’s Pancake House (261 Beach Ave., 609/884-7199) serves thousands of pancakes daily along with waffles, eggs, and french toast.
Running between the tip of the New Jersey shore and the heart of the Delaware coast, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry carries cars and passengers on a relaxing ride across the mouth of Delaware Bay. The trip ranges in cost depending upon day and season (Friday to Sunday in summer being most expensive), from about $21 to $35 each way for a car and one passenger, plus fares for each additional passenger. Schedules change seasonally, with boats leaving about every hour in summer and every three hours in winter. Crossings take about 80 minutes, and if the seas are calm you can often see porpoises playing in the swells.
Call for up-to-date times and other ferry information (800/643-3779). Reservations ($10 extra) are a good idea at peak travel times and should be made at least one day in advance.