Historic Cape May
Jun 1, 2019 at 8:00 AM in Things to Do by
Known as the oldest seaside resort in America, Cape May envelopes you in an historic charm that’s classy, rich and well worth the visit. There’s no ugly development at this elegant resort destination. No siree Bob. Classified as a National Historic Landmark District, the entire city of Cape May figures within the Cape May Historic District. What exactly does that mean? Well, expect to see one of the biggest proliferations of Victorian homes in the country. It’s second only to San Francisco and we all know that that’s a big city. Here, it’s much more concentrated–no wonder every building seems to outrank the next. Such stunners!
Sadly this all came about due to the unfortunate happening of a massive fire in 1878. It was a five-day-long event that destroyed thirty blocks of the town center. Once Cape May regrouped, a massive reconstruction effort rebuilt the structures in the fashion of the day, one known as the Victorian Style. This architecture marks the period in history that corresponds with the reign of Queen Victoria in England (1837 to 1901).
As you stroll, pedal or drive through the streets of Cape May, you’ll notice many variations of this grandeur, including Queen Anne, Shingle, Stick, Richardsonian Romanesque and Second Empire styles. Even if you’re not an architecture aficionado, you’ll find them all to be quite interesting and striking. Characteristics include irregularly-shaped, steep pitched roofs, often with a front-facing gable, huge sweeping porches, asymmetrical facades and textured shingles. Very gingerbread-like indeed. Just imagine the work required in painting these intricate old homes–no wonder they are often referred to as the “painted ladies.”
Almost one hundred of these architectural gems have been converted into B & Bs, guest houses, inns and restaurants. So anyone visiting Cape May can have the opportunity of experiencing these distinguished properties firsthand. Know that their interiors will wow you whether you have a propensity for lace doilies or not.
You can also do an historic walking tour in a variety of manners. Check with the tourism office to find one that sounds good to you. Many maps and audio tours are available, so maybe a self guided version from your bike will best suit you. You can rent a bike or even a surrey (with the fringe on top!) from Cape Island Bike Rentals, Shields Bike Rentals and Cape Island Bicycles. A visit to the Emlen Physick Estate, a bastion of Victorian history, decorative arts, customs and the story of a revered Cape May family, is a good place to start. If you’re tired, take a MAC Trolley tour or a get-about with the Cape May Carriage Company. Either way, there will be lots of photo opps all around.
If you like old airplanes, the Aviation Museum at the United States Naval Air Station in nearby Wildwood, New Jersey is a must. Open year-round, it’s terrific for young and old.
Although not Victorian in style, Congress Hall remains perhaps the most historic building in all of Cape May. This beloved resort began as a boarding house for summer visitors in 1816, just as Cape May was making its mark as one of “the” places to vacation (along with Newport, Rhode Island and Saratoga Springs, New York). Despite the fact that it fell into disrepair a few different times over the more-than-two centuries of its existence, it has always been a Cape May institution, attracting distinguished politicians from the DC area and Philadelphia, so much so, in fact, that it was at one time called “the summer White House.” Go ahead and sip a libation at the Veranda Bar at this lovely resort, take in the views and savor Cape May life the way so many have done over the years.