Our Favorite Downtowns: Cape May

Quaint shops, a pristine beach and blocks of perfectly preserved Victorian homes and B&Bs are the keys to Cape May’s allure.

Perfectly preserved homes and B&Bs are the keys to Cape May's allure.
Perfectly preserved homes and B&Bs are the keys to Cape May's allure.
Illustration by Greg Betza

Harriett Sosson and her then husband, Richard Samuelson, both artists, were vacationing from New York and painting in Cape May in the summer of 1976 when a friend said, “This place is really going to take off. You ought to buy something.”

“We weren’t looking to be innkeepers, but that is what we became,” says Sosson, whose Poor Richard’s Inn is nearing its 40th year in operation.

The current boom can be traced to 1971, when four blocks of Washington Street were closed to vehicles, and the street’s shopkeepers began to spruce up their storefronts. The walking street—along with the nearby beach and surrounding blocks of perfectly preserved Victorian homes and B&Bs—are the keys to Cape May’s allure.

To Sosson’s delight, many Cape May businesses have deep local roots. Pioneering developer Curtis Bashaw’s Cape May restaurants and hotels include Congress Hall, which was managed by his grandfather, the radio evangelist Carl McIntire. Dan Casale, whose grandfather had a shoe store here, and his wife Lindsay, whose great-grandfather was the last keeper of the Cape May Lighthouse, own the Makers Making, a craft store. Mark Kulkowitz’s children are starting to take over the Mad Batter restaurant and adjacent Carroll Villa hotel, both opened in 1976 by his dad, Harry.

WHERE TO EAT: Bashaw’s mini-empire includes the Ebbitt Room for fine dining; the indoor/outdoor Blue Pig Tavern for upscale casual (at Congress Hall); and the Rusty Nail for funky seaside eats. Other downtown notables: 410 Bank Street for New Orleans-style French; Louisa’s Cafe for back-to-the-70s hip; George’s Place for the classic Greek diner experience, and its tonier relation, the Y.B.; and Hotdog Tommy’s for its irresistible weiners and clowning proprietor, Tom Snyder.

WHERE TO SHOP: Washington Street is the epicenter. Lindsay Casale recommends Whale’s Tale for nautical-inspired crafts and Galvanic for men’s casual clothing. Dellas 5&10, an old-time apothecary, has everything from beach needs to a good cup of coffee.

DON’T MISS: Cape May’s two equity theaters (Cape May Stage and East Lynne Theater Company); world-famous birding opportunities; and year-round special events.

THEN AGAIN: Parking is a real challenge. Try the residential area west of downtown.

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