Great Days in Cape May

There's plenty for everyone at Jersey's southernmost resort.

Ann and Noot Canoles of Timonium, Maryland, observe the abundance of avian species at the Cape May Hawk Watch.
Ann and Noot Canoles of Timonium, Maryland, observe the abundance of avian species at the Cape May Hawk Watch.
Photo by Jauhien Sasnou

The two families could not be more different. The Hirsch brothers are sons of Holocaust survivors. Their father, Harry, came to the Jersey Shore in the 1950s to sell fresh eggs from his South Jersey farm. Curtis Bashaw, on the other hand, is the grandson of a Fundamentalist preacher who first visited Cape May in 1962 with a vision of establishing a Christian Bible study center.

Yet the Hirsch Brothers and Bashaw share this: They are successful hoteliers whose properties are among Cape May’s most popular, bookending the busiest stretch of the town’s oceanfront.

Larry Hirsch, 65, and his brother, Joe, 57, own the Montreal Beach Resort and operate it with Larry’s son, Jonathan, 32. Bashaw, 56, is the managing partner of Cape Resorts, which owns, among other Cape May enterprises, Congress Hall, the grandest of Cape May’s carefully preserved architectural treasures.

Cape May emerged as a popular resort in the 19th century, but with the arrival of large hotels in nearby Atlantic City, it gradually lost its luster. Luckily for us, local preservationists were determined to polish this Jersey gem and, through their efforts, the entire city was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. That turned the tide. Today, Cape May has been restored to its deserved place as one of the East Coast’s finest resorts. The southernmost town in New Jersey, Cape May (Exit 0 off the Garden State Parkway) has an unmatched array of restaurants, historic attractions and recreational activities. Vacationers arrive year-round from throughout New Jersey and beyond. Naturally, summer is prime time. Accommodations come in all shapes and sizes, from romantic Victorian B&Bs to modern resorts like the Montreal.

Larry and Joe Hirsch’s parents, Harry and Sophie, opened the Montreal in 1956. Harry Hirsch (born Hersik Heiskowier) was a native of Poland and a survivor of Auschwitz. He met his future wife, Sofia Gross, at a displaced-persons camp in Europe after World War II. They married in 1947 and came to America in 1951. Two years later, with the help of a Jewish refugee organization, they started their poultry farm in Corbin City in Atlantic County.

Vacationers traveling to and from the Shore on Route 50 bought fresh eggs from Harry and Sophie’s farm stand for 29 cents a dozen. Soon, Harry was selling eggs and other provisions to seaside resorts in nearby Ocean City and the Wildwoods. When he learned of an opportunity to buy a parcel of land facing the water in Cape May for $12,200, he jumped.  “They were entrepreneurial enough to know what to do,” says Larry Hirsch.

On Memorial Day weekend, 1966, Harry and Sophie opened the 27-room Montreal Motel on their small Beach Avenue parcel. They chose the name in the hope of attracting the Canadian tourists who, to this day, are drawn to the area.

One year later, and nine blocks south on Beach Avenue, Curtis Bashaw’s grandfather, Carl McIntire, purchased Congress Hall. Built in 1816, the first Congress Hall had burned to the ground in the disastrous fire of 1878 that consumed 38 acres of Cape May waterfront. Rebuilt in grander style the next year, it became the summer retreat of four U.S. presidents. Throughout the 20th century, the hotel drifted from glory to disrepair and back. Then McIntire stepped in as owner.

McIntire, whose Christian radio broadcasts had made him a national figure, operated Congress Hall as part of his Chautauqua-style religious community until 1995. By then, his nonprofit had fallen into bankruptcy, dragged down in part by the cost of maintaining Congress Hall and his other grand Cape May hotel, the Christian Admiral. Seeking to save at least one of the hotels, Bashaw, with his new Cape Advisors partnership, made a deal to demolish the Admiral and sell its land to pay off creditors and start the restoration of Congress Hall. Cape Advisors eventually raised $22 million to renovate and reopen Congress Hall in 2002.

Bashaw and his partners renovated Congress Hall again in time for its 200th anniversary last year. All 108 guest rooms, suites and junior suites were refreshed and refurnished under the direction of Bashaw’s sister and design partner, Colleen. She describes the new design scheme as “American heritage” with a “seaside-cottage feel.” In the hallways, new carpets have a key motif based on a 100-year-old room key discovered in a nearby road excavation.

The common areas of Congress Hall have an understated, upscale ambience—from the memorabilia-filled Victorian lobby to the clubby Brown Room, the hotel’s popular bar and lounge. The moderately priced Blue Pig Tavern serves breakfast, lunch and dinner (there’s plenty of outdoor seating on the comfortable patio); downstairs, the Boiler Room is a family-friendly eatery by day and night club after dark.

Congress Hall’s signature is the colonnaded, L-shaped veranda facing the sea. With its wooden rocking chairs, there’s no more appealing spot on the Shore for an evening cocktail or a chat with the kids. Across the lawn from the patio, the pool beckons with comfy lounges and attentive service. And then there’s the beach, just across Beach Avenue, decked out with Congress Hall’s distinctive yellow-and-white beach tents and umbrellas.

Up the beach, the Montreal also pampers guests with a row of cabanas on the sand and its own trademark orange umbrellas. The Montreal, too, underwent a recent redo. In 2013, the building was taken “down to the studs,” says Jonathan Hirsch. The 70 rooms and suites (including 42 efficiencies) were redecorated in warm browns and golds; most have ocean views.

The pool-and-patio area abuts Harry’s Ocean Bar & Grille, an indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar, relaunched last summer for the resort’s 50th anniversary. The restaurant’s new look is an attractive blend of  nautical and industrial. The varied and moderately priced menu runs from burgers to seafood specialties, such as mussels with five different sauces and Hawaiian poke; the beer menu focuses on local craft brews. Above the restaurant, Harry’s serves food and libations on a large sundeck with a panoramic view of the beach. “People come for the food, the drink and the atmosphere,” says Jonathan. “We wanted to create an experience.” (You can also order from Harry’s menu on the beach.)

My day begins with a bike ride. On this morning, a heavy fog has rolled in from the ocean. I ride north on Beach Avenue in the mist, barely able to see 15 feet in front of me. Still, I’m not alone. Other riders, joggers and walkers are out, too, taking advantage of the eerie stillness. Few cars are about at this hour. Fog like this has rolled over Cape May since long before Dutch sea captain Cornelius Mey set foot here in 1611.

Back from my ride, my wife and I ponder breakfast. We opt for another oceanfront tradition: Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. It’s early enough to snag one of the nine outdoor tables. In high season, you can expect a line for breakfast; so too at neighboring George’s Place, Cape May’s version of a Greek diner—where the priciest item ($9) is the Kojak, an omelette of roasted red peppers, feta and kalamata olives.

A Cape May day can proceed in a multitude of ways. Naturally, the 2.1-mile beachfront always beckons; Congress Hall, the Montreal and most of the Beach Avenue hotels provide amenities such as lounges and umbrellas for their guests. The Montreal cabanas are available to the public for a daily fee.

I’ve decided the rest of this morning is for the birds. I drive the short distance to Cape May Point and pull into the Cape May Lighthouse parking lot. Here I can catch an 8:30 am guided walk with the Cape May Bird Observatory. Cape May is one of the East Coast’s premier birding destinations. Some 428 species pass through each year; the annual count of hawks alone is 50,000, says Sam Wilson, a teacher/naturalist with the nonprofit New Jersey Audubon Society. The Bird Observatory—operated by NJ Audubon—helps visitors appreciate the area’s avian splendor.

Two NJ Audubon naturalists and a field-trip assistant lead my small tour group onto the dunes, along boardwalks and into swampy woodlands. Sightings are plentiful: Forster’s terns, the common yellow throat (heard but not seen), killdeer, a great egret, short-billed dowagers, a European starling, a pair of double-crested cormorants, an American oyster catcher, several osprey, a lesser yellow leg, a spotted sandpiper—the list lengthens as we scan the sky and favorite perches. Looking down, we spy turtles, toads and wooly caterpillars.

Cape May Point has additional delights. For a panoramic view of the Delaware Bay, you can scale the 199 steps of the 157-foot-tall lighthouse, or climb the six flights to the top of the nearby World War II Lookout Tower. The tower was an integral part of America’s coastal defense during World War II. From the top, military personnel could watch for German destroyers attempting to enter Delaware Bay. (They never came.) Today, visitors can peer through the vintage azimuth and spot the wreck of the SS Atlantus, an ill-fated ship that ran aground off Sunset Beach in 1926 and remains there—a crumbling memorial to a failed maritime experiment in cement-hulled ships.

Back in Cape May, it’s lunchtime, and a line has formed at Hot Dog Tommy’s, the sidewalk window on Jackson Street, a few steps from Beach Avenue, where Tom Snyder—now retired—still has a loyal following for his dressed-up dogs. In the mood for something more substantial, we take a table on the spacious veranda at Aleathea’s Restaurant & Porch Bar (7 Ocean Street). Modestly priced soups, salads and sandwiches are served in a Victorian setting with a beach view.

There are plenty of other options for midday dining at the beach, including Harry’s Ocean Bar and Congress Hall’s Blue Pig Tavern for an al fresco lunch; the lively Iron Pier Craft House (429 Beach Avenue); and McGlade’s on the Pier (722 Boardwalk). McGlade’s has an inviting screened deck over the sand, the only spot where you can eat on the ocean side of Beach Avenue.

A few streets inland, the three-block Washington Street Mall is Cape May’s pedestrian shopping street. It’s ideal at any time of day for strolling and window shopping at an array of clothing boutiques, art galleries, gift shops, jewelry shops and specialty food stores. Good lunch choices beckon, including Delaney’s Irish Pub, the Ugly Mug, Louisa’s Café and Tisha’s Fine Dining. For Southwestern fare, try the nearby Gecko’s (31 Perry Street).

No matter how often they come to Cape May, visitors are wowed by the abundance of preserved Victorian buildings in the historic district. Rows and rows of tastefully fussy, colorfully painted homes and guest houses dress up the tree-lined streets; it’s the largest concentration of Victorians in America. You can view these Cape May marvels in a host of ways: by foot, by bicycle, or on one of the many trolley tours offered by MAC, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities. These include kids’ tours, mansion tours, night-time ghost tours, and new this year, an Underground Railroad tour that follows the steps of abolitionist Harriet Tubman—who settled in Cape May in 1852 after escaping slavery in Maryland. Also new is the two-hour Wild Side trolley tour (co-sponsored by Cape May Bird Observatory), which hits hot spots for birding and natural history.

A standout Victorian is the Southern Mansion (720 Washington Street), an opulent villa dating to 1863. Meticulously restored and reinvented as a B&B in 1997, the mansion has 24 guest rooms and offers guided tours for a fee. Nearby, the 18-room Emlen Physick Estate (1048 Washington Street) is the town’s only Victorian house museum. It’s frequently used for special events and holiday celebrations. MAC offers daily guided and self-guided tours of the historic estate.

Indeed, Cape May is big on celebrating history. Historic Cold Spring Village (720 Route 9), a short drive from downtown, entertains and educates guests with 27 restored buildings, costumed interpreters, guided walking tours, twice-weekly ghost walks and special events. There’s an ice cream parlor for the kids and a restaurant and brewery for the grown-up kids.

Nearby, the Cape May County Zoo (707 Route 9 North, Cape May Courthouse) delights visitors with its collection of critters, plus the Tree-to-Tree Adventure park, with a zipline and kids’ climbing area. Additional stops to consider: The Nature Center of Cape May (1600 Delaware Avenue), offering hands-on activities, bike tours and harbor safaris; Bay Springs Alpaca Farm (542 New England Road), open to visitors on summer weekends; and the Cape May Airport Aviation Museum (500 Forrestal Road, Rio Grande), with its collection of historic aircraft.

You can also enjoy daily tours and tastings at Cape May Winery & Vineyard (711 Townbank Road) and Cape May Brewing Company (1288 Hornet Road). Or slake your thirst with fresh fruit juices and iced teas at Beach Plum Farm (140 Stevens Street). The farm offers daily tours, nature walks and farm-fresh breakfast or lunch. For a sea-going tour, Cape May Whale Watcher (1218 Wilson Drive) offers trips of various lengths. Sightings are guaranteed, although in summer you are more likely to lay eyes on dolphins than whales.

As afternoon fades, we head to Sunset Beach on the Delaware Bay in Cape May Point. Here, throughout the summer, the flag is lowered at sunset as taps is played in a solemn ritual. Each evening, a different veteran is honored and the flag presented to his or her family.

The bay itself is another Cape May attraction. There is indeed a beach at Sunset Beach, with plenty of parking and a seaside snack shack. For a more isolated experience, try nearby Higbee Beach (at the end of New England Road). A favorite of nature lovers and families, Higbee has no crowds, no waves and, unlike the ocean beaches, it’s free. But come prepared; Higbee has no amenities beyond a portable toilet in the small parking lot.

From Sunset Beach, it’s a quick hop for dinner at Red Store in Cape May Point (500 Cape Avenue). Chef Lucas Manteca’s creative cuisine has landed this casual spot on NJM’s Top 25 for two years running. West Cape May dining spots convenient to Sunset Beach include Black Duck on Sunset, a romantic little BYO (1 Sunset Boulevard); Sapore Italiano (416 South Broadway); and the Indian-accented Exit Zero Cookhouse (109 Sunset Boulevard).

Back in downtown Cape May, the dining choices range from seaside simplicity to classic elegance. Topping the list on the sophisticated side, the Ebbitt Room (in the Bashaw-owned Virginia Hotel, 25 Jackson Street) artfully serves beautifully constructed dishes in a softly lit, lush atmosphere. Other white-tablecloth stalwarts include the Blue Rose Inn (in a beautifully restored Victorian B&B at 653 Washington Street); the Washington Inn (another Victorian beauty at 801 Washington Street); the waterfront Union Park Dining Room (727 Beach Avenue); the Peter Shields Inn (with front-porch seating overlooking the beach at 1301 Beach Avenue); and the New Orleans-style 410 Bank Street (a perennial winner in NJM’s annual Jersey Choice Restaurant Poll in two categories: Caribbean and French).

For more contemporary atmosphere, Sea Salt (1035 Beach Avenue in the Ocean Club Hotel) stirs up a South Beach vibe; Fins Bar & Grille (142 Decatur Street on the Washington Street Mall) is brightly lit and bustling; and Oyster Bay (615 Lafayette Street) offers a warm, tavern-like setting. Family-friendly favorites include the Mad Batter (19 Jackson Street), Lucky Bones Back Water Grille (1200 Route 109 South) and the Rusty Nail (205 Beach Avenue), where beachgoers gather at night around the roaring firepit. And if it’s just lobster you crave, the old standby in Cape May Harbor is the Lobster House (905 Schellengers Landing Road).

For all its prim-and-proper demeanor, Cape May can’t be accused of rolling up the sidewalks after dinner. Couples stroll the Washington Street Mall under the stars, while kids hit the waterfront arcade for Skee-Ball and Whack N Win—or maybe 18 holes of mini-golf at Ocean Putt. Cocktail aficionados head for Congress Hall’s Brown Room, the bars at the Ebbitt Room and the Washington Inn, or—for sipping under the stars—the deck at Harry’s Ocean Bar.

Uniquely, Cape May has two Equity theaters, both with full summer schedules of worthy productions. Cape May Stage (in the Robert Shackleton Playhouse, 405 Lafayette Street) presents top performers in Broadway classics and premiere productions. The theater teams with several local restaurants for dinner-and-a-show packages. East Lynne Theatre Company (in the First Presbyterian Church, 500 Hughes Street) is committed to quality productions of American theatrical works, as well as specialty programs, such as Murder Mystery Weekends. And at the Emlen Physick Estate, MAC and the REV Theatre Company present open-air Shakespearean performances; this year’s production is Hamlet (July 19 to 23 and 25 to 29).

Apart from theaters, drama is in short supply in Cape May. Which is just one of the reasons people keep coming back.

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