A Magical Land

The Beauty of Cape May, New Jersey

Cape May is the end. The southernmost tip of New Jersey’s 130-mile coastline. Travelers don’t come here as a stopover en route to somewhere else —there is nowhere else other than the deep blue sea. Beyond the peninsula’s shorelines are osprey-dotted skies and white sails on a blue horizon. It’s a peaceful kind of nothing as far as the eye can see.
As the oldest seashore resort in America, Cape May has been beckoning vacationers since the early 1800s. Even in troubling times —when navymen took shelter from German U-boats in the town’s newly built canal during World War II or when political battles raged over the best way to preserve the island’s history—Cape May’s energy has been one of calm. Of solace. Of simple American pleasures and rejuvenating ocean breezes.

A historic picture of a man and woman standing in front of a Victorian style building.

Tom and Sue Carroll—pioneers of Cape May’s Bed and Breakfast movement— pose for the cover of Americana Magazine in front of their B&B, the Mainstay Inn, in 1979

On the way into town is the bridge that rises over a 106-year-old harbor. Here, kayakers share the water with fleets of boats manned by weathered seafarers. Cape May is home to one of the most lucrative fishing ports on the eastern seaboard, and the restaurants in town (as well as across the world —those famous scallops and oysters!) reap the freshest benefits.
Situated on the harbor is the Nature Center of Cape May, which connects visitors with the pristine beauty of this biologically sensitive area — and all of the fiddler crabs, moon jellies and harbor seals who call it home. From the Nature Center’s tower is a clear view of the American flag flying over TRACEN Cape May, the only Coast Guard training camp in the nation. At dusk, the sound of the “Taps” bugle call echoes over lapping water.
In the heart of the city, children buy milkshakes from old-fashioned ice cream counters along pedestrian-only Washington Street Mall, which includes some of the island’s staple businesses, like The Original Fudge Kitchen, opened in 1972 by two teenage brothers, or the Whale’s Tale gift shop, only a couple years behind and still run by the same family.
There are new shops and restaurants here, run by a thriving, dynamic community of young, artisanally minded entrepreneurs — such as boutique owners Jessica Cicchitti (Cash and Clive and its new spinoff, James), Ryan and Sam Platzer of the fashion store Galvanic, Lindsay Givens and Dan Casale of eclectic boutique Givens, and Amanda Adams and Dan Uffleman of Queen May Jewelry.
Surrounding this retail enclave is the Historic District, characterized by Victorian cottages with wide porches dotted with wood and wicker rocking chairs. The island is home to a collection of Victorian architecture that’s second only to San Francisco in the nation. These gingerbread houses, affectionately known as painted ladies, sit on gas-lit streets and earned Cape May the unofficial moniker of the world’s bed-and-breakfast capital.

Two Victorian style cape may buildings

Left: Originally built in 1878, the Emlen Physick Estate was preserved by Cape May Museum, Arts and Culture (MAC), and now stands as a proud testament to the town’s commitment to preservation. Today, the Physick Estate is open to the public, housing a museum and eatery. The Estate also hosts many community events throughout the year.
Right: The Pink Cottage is a stunning example of Cape May’s Victorian archetecture in the Itallianate style.

The first of these B&Bs, the Mainstay Inn, was opened in 1972 by a young Coast Guard couple, Tom and Sue Carroll. At the time, only a handful of these accommodations existed in the country, scattered throughout New England and California. The soundtrack to a walk through Cape May’s historic streets is the clip-clopping of hooves from horse-drawn carriages, and perhaps the clinking of ice cubes against cocktail glasses.
Nearby, next to the shady, tree-lined courts of the William J. Moore Tennis Center on Washington Street —is the Emlen Physick Estate, an 18-room mansion built in 1878 that became a symbol for Cape May’s preservation movement during the 1970s, a time when half the citizens wanted to raze the city’s historic buildings in order to mimic the flashy, Doo Wop culture of neighboring shore town Wildwood. A bohemian set of artists and mom-and-pop business owners stepped in to save the estate from the bulldozers by applying for federal grant money to buy the property. After a long and contentious fight, the group —now known as Cape May MAC— was successful, and a movement to celebrate and preserve the city’s aesthetic gained momentum. For locals and tourists, the Emlen Physick Estate, now restored and open for tours, is a beautiful reminder of the island’s renaissance.
On the other side of town are wide expanses of farmland that tell of a storied agricultural past. While tourism may now be Cape May’s most important industry, the humble lima bean was once the ticket of the town. In fact, the Lima Bean Festival is just one of several food-oriented celebrations (the tomato and strawberry festivals are highly anticipated as well) that mark the calendars of island regulars.
Often spotted weaving along the produce fields are couples on tandem bicycles. With picnic baskets of wine and cheese, they make their way to Cape May Point State Park, where they’ll navigate beautiful nature trails, or climb 199 steps to the top of the lighthouse — built in 1859 — for an aerial view of the beach.
On the sand, kids still intoxicated by end-of-school excitement jump waves in gentle surf, keeping one eye out for dolphins, while parents help dig castle moats or read magazines under the shade of umbrellas. Families scramble to get their annual photo-op in the beach patrol’s rowboat, or at the base of a lifeguard stand. And on the promenade, teenagers carry surfboards and pray the breeze will soon switch offshore.

a young woman examines shells on a sun-lit beach

Left: The Cape May Lighthouse. Cape May Point State Park offers miles of easy-towalk trails through woodland, marsh and coastal areas. Trails range from a half-mile to 1.5 miles, each in a loop
Right: Cape May Diamonds, quartz stones that wash up on the beaches of the Delaware Bay, have a history that predates the birth of the United States. In the 1750s, it is said that a large Cape May Diamond was presented to Christopher Leaming, a local whaler, by the last chief of the Kechemeche tribe, King Nummy. The possession of this diamond could be traced through the Leaming family up until the 1970s. The Kechemeche believed that the diamonds contained supernatural powers, and used them to seal bonds of peace and friendship

Near the bayside beaches, where wild sassafras and beach plum shrubs line the way to the secret swimming hole called Davey’s Lake, eager birdwatchers prepare their scopes and binoculars for a day of exciting sightings — Cape May is one of the most vital birding locations in the world.
By the water’s edge, others focus their gaze downward, hoping for a glimpse of sea glass or a Cape May Diamond glittering in the sun. The latter is a type of quartz crystal that’s eroded from the Delaware Water Gap, and been polished by tides for hundreds—or even thousands—of years. Local historians will tell you these shiny pebbles are good luck; the Kechemeche Indians who roamed this area in the 1600s collected them for this reason. From the jetties, even busy fishermen in long waders will shout helpful advice to newbie searchers: “Low tide is the best time!” or “Try closer to the rocks!”
At dusk, the pace slows. No longer is anyone rushing to set up camp on the sand or find an open space on the bike rack. Sun-kissed beachgoers head to their respective outdoor showers, leaving enough time for a happy hour drink or game of mini golf before dinner. Cape May, which was once labeled by The New York Times as the restaurant capital of New Jersey, offers plenty of options.
Lifeguards call the last of the diehard swimmers out of the water. Naturalists say goodbye to their gulls (you’ll see 11 different species on the island if you know what to look for!) and oystercatchers until tomorrow. And, at sunset, everyone pauses to appreciate the orange-colored waves and pinkish clouds that signal the end of another day on Cape Island.

The sun sets behind clouds of orange and purple which grace the Washington street mall in all its glory

The sun sets behind fluffy clouds of orange and purple and graces the Washington Street Mall in all of its glory.