Where Victorians Still Reign

Seasonal celebrations of past and present in Cape May.

Cape May Days: Locals in Victorian garb stroll past the Mainstay Inn.
Photo by Steve Greer

When the fall chill chases beachgoers from the water’s edge, Cape May, Jersey’s southernmost Shore town, embraces autumnal outdoor fun while offering off-season elbow room for shopping, dining and overnight stays.

Often cited as America’s first beach resort, Cape May, now a national historic landmark, has attracted vacationers with its stately Victorian architecture and fine beaches since the 1800s. The town, once decidedly formal—a product of its years hosting society’s elite, including presidents—has morphed into a well-heeled, casual resort town with plenty to see and do.

A horse-and-buggy ride from Cape May Carriage Company (Washington and Ocean streets) will trot you through town to view highlights such as the impeccably restored Victorian homes and bed-and-breakfasts throughout the historic district. Or you can stroll through the shops that line Beach Avenue and the Washington Mall, a pedestrian shopping strip in the center of town. From beach souvenirs to art galleries, high-end jewelry and clothing outposts, there are lots of year-round stores to peruse. A short walk from the mall, and definitely worth a visit, is the West End Garage (484 W. Perry Street), a spacious warehouse-style co-op, where vendors sell specialty foods (such as artisan peanut butters and balsamic oils), artwork, handmade jewelry, quirky vintage finds and clothing.

A bevy of outdoor activities are on tap during October. The first weekend of the month brings Oktoberfest. Historic Jackson Street is lined with vendors selling German food, hearty beers, fine art, crafts and collectibles. Stop at the Virginia Hotel’s (25 Jackson Street) Brown Cottage beer garden, where Cape May Brewery offers local craft brews on tap during the festival. October 4 also kicks off the Beach Plum Farm Festival, with corn mazes, hayrides, tie dying and pumpkin picking. The 62-acre farm (104 Stevens Street) produces fruits, vegetables, herbs, honey and flowers for its affiliated eateries. On the farm tour during the hayride guests will see an array of chickens, Berkshire pigs (and piglets!) as well as a tiny cluster of Clun Forest sheep.

October 10 through 13, Cape May salutes its past with the annual Victorian Weekend, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities. Festivities include living-history programs, house tours, arts and crafts, chocolate tastings and trolley rides. At the museum tearoom on October 13 at the Victorian Emlen Physick Estate (108 Washington Street), guests are given a peek under the formal garb of the day with the Show Us your Undies brunch and period-dress fashion show.

Trick-or-treating gets an early start at noon on October 19 at the Washington Street Mall. At 3 pm ghosts and goblins take to the street for the Halloween parade (registration begins at 1:30 pm). The 13th annual Phantom Ball at Congress Hall (200 Congress Place) offers an adult fright night on October 31 with a costume contest, spirits, food and dancing.

Fall is prime time for migrant species to be spied at Cape May Bird Observatory (600 N. Delsea Drive). October 24 through 26, the New Jersey Audubon Society offers a birders’ festival that includes field trips and boat rides, plus evening workshops led by the observatory’s new director.

There is no shortage of options for fine or casual meals. Try the Blue Pig Tavern (251 Beach Avenue) for farm-fresh eggs, bacon and berries from Beach Plum Farm, or venture to Red Store (500 Cape May Point), another of NJM’s Top 25 restaurants, for general-store atmosphere, house-baked goods and memorable food. Take advantage of the off-season to visit George’s Place (314 Beach Avenue), where during summer lines wind around the corner. The fare is Greek/Mediterranean and the menu is broad. At M’Ocean (429 Beach Avenue), a newcomer, the view is the ocean and the ever-evolving menu is from the sea. Longtime favorites like Tisha’s (322 Washington Street) and the romantic Ebbitt Room (25 Jackson Street), with its farm-to-table cuisine and artisanal cocktails, are satisfying year-round.

Fall is a fine time for a weekend stay; when the temperature drops, so do the rates. Choose from intimate Victorian bed-and-breakfasts and classic boutique hotels. The Mainstay Inn (635 Columbia Avenue), a grand, 12-room, 19th-century B&B, is appointed with period finery. Fall rates from $185. The 24-room Virginia Hotel offers fine dining and classic decor. Fall rates from $129. Family-friendly Congress Hall has 108 rooms, energized with bright colors. Built in 1818, it has been updated with modern comforts like air conditioning and sumptuous marble baths, while retaining period touches like sash windows with Dutch-door bottoms. There’s an on-site pool, a full-service spa, a dance club, restaurant and cocktail bar. Fall rates from $129.

Looking ahead, the Exit 0 International Jazz Fest (November 7-9) will host well-known musicians throughout town. In December, Cape May sparkles with holiday lights, decorations and lots of festivities including a tree-lighting ceremony and weekly parades.

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