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DESTINATION: NEW JERSEY

Gingerbread-by-the-Sea

The restored resort town of Cape May is a feast for the eyes. The food is fine too.

March 26, 2000|THOMAS MILLS | Thomas Mills is a Los Angeles writer

CAPE MAY, N.J. — The pull of nostalgia has turned more than one American town into a tourist-hungry theme park of ersatz 19th century facades. When I set out one day last summer to visit the Jersey shore towns of my childhood, I was afraid of what I would find in Cape May. It had turned itself into a model Victorian village, a place whose quaintness and civility defined its charm. It looked pretty on the Internet, but I feared it had gone commercial.

Crossing the bridge on the road to town, I was relieved to see the funky fishing harbor unchanged. But a few blocks farther in the village, everything had changed. And most of it looked for the better.

"Renaissance" would not be too strong a word here. I remember this as a shabby, sleepy town, literally the last stop on the Jersey shore, a place that once was grand and no longer even had pretensions. Now it is a national treasure, a seaside resort of impeccably restored century-old buildings and a thriving year-round vacation destination.

Yes, with this rebirth come more people and more traffic, but even in the summer high season it didn't feel crowded. The trade-off for Cape May is that more visitors bring more money, and that means another old house restored, another bit of history preserved, another spot beautified. Popularity doesn't always shoot itself in the foot, I guess.

Cape May is the flat, sandy southern tip of New Jersey, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Delaware Bay on the other. It began attracting well-to-do people from Philadelphia, 90 miles away, in the early 1800s, and in 1853 claimed to have the world's largest resort hotel. A fire 25 years later leveled much of the town, and the mass rebuilding in the styles popular in the 1880s and '90s is what gave Cape May the look for which it's celebrated today. But it took another disaster to make the renaissance possible: A storm in 1962 did tremendous damage to the town, which was by then down at the heels. The rebuilders' impulse naturally was to go modern (and a few modern buildings were put up), but the history lovers prevailed and in 1976 got the whole town designated a National Historic Landmark. If not for that, it would look like Wildwood, a boisterous beach town a few miles up the road, which I much preferred as a teenager.

Cape May is still a family kind of resort, where lazing on the beach is the main summer occupation. But the architecture of the Historic District is the big attraction.

The town boasts more than 600 certifiably historic buildings, and half of them take in guests. The exteriors are eye-popping in their variety of colors and elaborately carved trim. Several open their lavish interiors to tours.

But many of the antiques-filled B&Bs discourage children. One welcomes only "well-behaved children over 12"; another warns that "children find us tiresome."

My wife, Wendy, and I wanted to spend a few days in Cape May on a visit to family in northern New Jersey. Searching the Internet for the right place to stay gave me a headache. It was easy to eliminate the modern hotels and condos. But which of the dozens of B&Bs to choose? We studied them until they all looked the same, then turned to the larger inns, such as the fanciful Angel of the Sea or the stately Southern Inn, whose lawn takes up a full city block, or the elegant Mainstay. Which would offer the most comfortable Victorian experience? Photo upon photo, one glowing review beside another, made it impossible to choose. Time was running out. To retain sanity I abandoned the Victorian approach altogether.

Most of the Victorian "painted ladies" are a few streets in from the beach. Why not something seaside? Not a motel, mind you, but something that wouldn't remind me of all the other places I wasn't staying in. It was then, getting toward the bottom of the listings, that I clicked on a cute name: Rhythm of the Sea. It was in the Craftsman style, a repudiation of fussy Victorian, and it promised the sound of waves rolling in at bedtime.

A month later, under a sky deep gray from an early summer rain, we pulled up to the inn. My eyes went right to the tiny private balcony on the top floor, and I smiled, knowing it was all ours.

Inside, we were won over by the inn's unofficial greeter, a dog named Abi, and by the flower-filled lobby and main room, where breakfast was served.

The furnishings were inspired by the early 20th century Arts and Crafts movement. How non-Victorian could we go with the clean, unadorned lines of L. & J. G. Stickley furniture? I appreciated the irony. It was like visiting Hawaii and sleeping in an igloo.

Our room was $210 per night, average for summer. But this is a year-round resort, and prices don't decline dramatically in winter; in fact, the decorations around Christmas are a huge draw. In summer many places require at least two nights' stay. (One caution: Summer on the Jersey shore can be sultry, and not all lodgings have air-conditioning.)

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