Cape May, New Jersey, is one of the prettiest towns on the East Coast, with over 600 Victorian buildings. Cape May’s Historic District encompasses the entire city, and it’s been a national historic landmark since 1976. The proliferation of Victorian-style buildings is so impressive it’s the only city to receive this designation.
The wide white sandy beach, about 2.5 miles long, is often praised as the best in NJ. The beaches of Cape May and the peninsula have won multiple awards, including the Travel Channel’s top 10 beaches in America. The calm waters and beaches are popular and pricey in the summer, but the town is cheaper in the off-season and worthwhile to see year-round.
Cape May has a cute library on Ocean Street with cheap used books for sale for the ultimate beach read. The library is a short stroll from Washington Street Mall, an open-air walking street filled with shops and restaurants. An aquarium and nautical collection bring the beach atmosphere inside the library.
Tourists began arriving in the mid-1700s, so it’s considered the country’s oldest seaside resort. In 1878, a devastating fire wiped out 30 blocks of buildings and rebuilt them in the trendy Victorian style. This change transformed the city, and costly Victorian gingerbread designs paid off with more tourism. Cape May has the second most extensive collection of Victorian homes in the USA, right behind San Francisco. Located at the southern end of the NJ Garden State Parkway, some locals call the town “Exit Zero.” Philadelphia is about a two-hour drive away, and the gambling mecca, Atlantic City, is 50 miles northeast.
Staying at a hotel, or one of the many historic B&Bs, in town with parking makes Cape May easier to navigate. You can wander along the small streets to see the houses and ride the town’s free trolleys. Many roads have bike lanes, and traffic speeds are relatively slow.
Earlier, this area was home to the Kechemeche people, part of the Lenape Native American tribe. The town’s namesake is Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, a Dutch sea captain. He explored the area from 1611 to 1614, claiming the site for New Netherland, but he didn’t stay long. A decade later, his ship brought the first European settlers to Fort Orange near Albany, NY, and Governors Island in New York City.
The 1879 Emlen Physick Estate, a restored Victorian house museum, was saved from destruction and real estate development in the 1970s. Tours will bring you inside the beautifully refurbished 18-room Victorian Stick Style mansion, built by Philadelphian architect Frank Furness. And there’s even a library! More information is in this link.
On Juneteenth (June 17), 2020, the new Harriet Tubman Museum opened in an area of town known for abolitionists. Harriet lived and worked in Cape May during the early 1850s to fund her Underground Railroad missions and bring enslaved people to freedom. The museum is in the Howell House, which used to be the Macedonia Baptist Church’s parsonage facility. For museum info, here’s the link.
From Sunset Beach, you can still see the S.S. Atlantus, one of 12 experimental concrete ships built during World War I. Since the ships were so heavy, they weren’t used. In 1926, the SS Atlantus was purchased as a ferry between Cape May and Cape Henlopen, Delaware. Soon afterward, she broke loose from her moorings during a storm and ran aground 150 feet from shore. Attempts to free her were unsuccessful, so now she provides a bird landing zone.
Sunset Beach is also where you might find a Cape May diamond. These “diamonds” are quartz stones that wash ashore from the Delaware River, and after erosion during their 200-mile journey, they look like diamonds. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any!
The Cape May Lighthouse from 1859 is the second-tallest operating lighthouse in the USA. For a small fee, you can climb 199 steps to the top for spectacular views. And if you are wondering where the tallest lighthouse is located, it’s in Cape Hatteras, NC.
During World War II, the East Coast was at risk of attack, so hastily built defense facilities protected this strategic area. Along the beach, an old bunker with six-foot concrete walls remains from WWII. The bunker was covered with sod and built 900 feet from the ocean in 1941. But erosion and storms washed away the land around and under the bunker. A similar bunker lies across the bay in Lewes, Delaware.
Nearby, the 200+ acre Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge in Cape May Point is run by the National Association of Audubon Societies. In the late 1800s, hunters began shooting thousands of birds – sometimes daily during migrations! The refuge began in 1935, with a resident warden to protect them. The wild birds needed a sanctuary and resting spot for their long migrations. Today over 400 bird species pass through here, and it’s one of the top bird-watching locations in the Eastern USA.
Every September, Monarch butterflies migrate along the coast to their warm winter home in Central Mexico. These special butterflies need milkweed to eat and lay eggs. But with the encroachment of civilization and heavy use of pesticides, their numbers are dropping rapidly, and they may even go extinct. If you have a garden and can plant some milkweed, please help the monarchs survive! Here’s a link to find out more.
Wineries and microbreweries dot the area, along with many excellent restaurants. The town has plenty of evening events such as historic ghost tours, trolley tours, live music, and theater. Cape May’s location provides a perfect southwest sunset view. A dolphin cruise at sunset, booked through the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, is a great way to experience this! For info on their cruises, here’s the link.
Karen Stensgaard is a novelist and recently published her third novel, PROJECT ONION. That novel has nothing to do with Cape May or NJ, but there’s a scheming Dutch yacht captain and a Monarch butterfly tattoo. That’s it for the spoilers!