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Cape May, N.J., is like an old love

The gingerbread Victorians. The lively beach. The preening before the lifeguard stands. All here, as they have been for years.

August 04, 2011|By Alison Shore, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Cape May, N.J., is home to more than 600 ornate Victorian structures, most built after an 1878 fire. The town is a National Historic Landmark.
Cape May, N.J., is home to more than 600 ornate Victorian structures, most… (Alison Shore, Alison Shore )

Reporting from Cape May, N.J. — Poor New Jersey. Long the butt of jokes and a source of nationwide scorn, the Garden State's reputation has taken countless beatings over the years. And thank you, "Jersey Shore," for doing nothing to elevate the maligned state's image. So it came as no surprise to see the reactions of fellow Angelenos when I stated our plans last August: a vacation in the seaside hamlet of Cape May, the southernmost town on the Jersey coast and America's first seashore resort. The responses ranged from pity to bewilderment to smirking, with only a few registering as enthusiastic understanding. For as anyone who has been there knows, Cape May, with its lovely stretch of sand and swaying sea grass, historic Victorian architecture and village-like ambience, offers the quintessential American beach experience.

My trip was a homecoming of sorts. Almost every summer in my youth, my family drove from our home in Pennsylvania to a rented vacation house at "the shore" (it is indeed referred to as the Jersey shore, not the Jersey beach), to the towns of understated Stone Harbor or boardwalk-centric Ocean City. Ocean City is also where I spent college summers waitressing and testing how little sleep I needed to survive. But if those places beckoned in my youth, Cape May became the go-to spot as I grew older, and my husband, Steve, who had made an annual trek there with his sons as a respite from the hot asphalt of Philadelphia, shared my fondness for the town's old-fashioned authenticity.

So Steve and I and our 7-year-old daughter Caroline flew to Philadelphia, and from there drove to Cape May with my mother. My brother, his wife and their two sons (ages 3 and 7) followed, their vehicle loaded with enough beach gear and supplies to help us survive the apocalypse. We headed to a house we had rented for a week (many monthly and seasonal rentals are available too), as has been the custom for generations of so many families, some returning to the same house year after year.

Crossing the bay bridge into Cape May, I nearly teared up at the familiar scene of boats in the tranquil harbor, bordered on one side by the Lobster House, a seafood institution since the 1950s. As we drove the leafy streets populated by numerous Victorian homes, I was reminded of architecture as anchor — the power of beautiful, well-maintained buildings to create a sense of place. Cape May boasts more than 600 Victorian buildings, most of them built after a devastating fire in 1878, and its inhabitants value the entire town's designation as a National Historic Landmark.

The "painted ladies," as the colorful Victorians are called, are private residences, bed and breakfasts, restaurants or, in our case, vacation rentals. Our sherbet-hued, three-story Queen Anne, boasting classic characteristics such as a turret and gingerbread trim, delighted the kids, who thought it looked like a big dollhouse. I had focused mainly on convenience when searching for a house: It was within walking distance of the beach and a grocery store, and one block from the bustling Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare of restaurants, shops, ice cream parlors, and saltwater taffy and fudge vendors. In the middle of it all sits the venerable Ugly Mug, a tavern where I had spent many a night and more than a few dollars.

Beach traditions

Activities over the next several days revolved around, naturally, the beach. The long-standing New Jersey requirement that beachgoers purchase beach tags was intact, and almost every day, someone was left talking his or her way onto the beach because the tags were elsewhere.

Other traditions had endured too — teenagers manning the beach chair/umbrella/raft rentals, girls preening for the buff lifeguards perched on blinding white, open-air stands, and other beach lovers claiming their own sandy turf.

The warm water was a nice change from the eternally chilly Pacific of Southern California and a welcome antidote to the notoriously hot and humid East Coast weather. I had almost forgotten the salve of a refreshing ocean dip on a sweltering day. The kids bounded around like puppies, chasing each other in the waves, swimming, boogie boarding, building sand castles, collecting sand crabs — and, of course, occasionally squabbling. Mostly, though, the gang was a happy one, with children and adults content and exhausted by day's end.

Rainy day outing

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