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WHY GO: A vacation spot since the late 1700’s, Cape May NJ attracted city dwellers who traveled by packet steamers down to the shore.
There, they’d “bathe” in the Atlantic Ocean, essentially bobbing up and down in the waves wearing barbell-heavy woolen “bathing attire.”Since then, Cape May tourism has waxed and waned. A fire in 1878 destroyed nearly every home in the Historic District, leading to an almost instantaneous building boom. Thus was formed the concentration of Victorian Homes that survive till today.
In 1976, this collection of vividly colored Cape May NJ Victorians earned designation as a National Landmark Historic District. Since then tourism has once again been on the upswing.
Not only does Cape May, affectionately called “Exit Zero” – as it’s the final exit of the Garden State Parkway – draw beach-going families, it’s also is a birder’s paradise.
Considered the “Bird Migration Capital of North America” this area of the Jersey Shore was one of Roger Tory Peterson’s favorite “birding hotspots.”
Though known best for its Victorian B&B’s, we focus on one of the best family-owned beachfront hotels, with a harrowing and poignant WWII refugee back-story. Plan to stay there as base when exploring what Forbes Traveler deemed one of “America’s 20 Prettiest Towns.”
Things To Do in Cape May NJ
MAC offers a host of themed tours, from Architecture Tours to Historic District/Physick Estate Tours, Haunted Tours, Holiday Tours and more. All provide a variation on a theme – that of Victorian-Age Cape May and its relevance to modern day society.
First timers to the area will get the most out of an Historic District Tour, focusing on the history and elements of Victorian Architecture in Cape May.
Driving slowly up and down shaded streets lined with meticulously restored homes, you’ll learn that all these vibrant paint jobs are actually a latter-day attempt to jazz up the formerly muddy brown and mossy green pigments favored by the Victorians.
Hugh Street is the most picturesque. You’ll view an array of shaded private homes embellished with delicate ornate woodwork known as Gingerbread or Carpenter’s Lace.
Though the “place to be” in the 19th century, by the 20th Cape May had “fallen out of favor.” The trolley takes visitors to the Emlen Physick Estate, where you can either get off for a combination tour –highly recommended – or continue on. The Physick Estate was the first Victorian saved by MAC. It turned out to be the leading edge of a robust preservation movement to save historic Cape May.
TOUR: Physick Estate
Dr. Emlen Physick graduated medical school at the age of 22 with “his diploma in one hand and inheritance in the other.” Endowed with such riches, he never practiced medicine a day in his life.
During the late 1800’s Cape May was a popular summer resort. It was the more southern, less ostentatious Newport RI. In 1879, the year after Cape May’s Great Fire, Physick commissioned Louis Sullivan’s protégé, Frank Furness, to design this grand home. Furness incorporated linear, geometric lines based on English architecture.
Physick died in 1916 having never married. But, he did invite his mother and aunt to live with him. With two women in the house, the Estate was a familiar hub of activity and entertaining.
Physick Estate Renovation
In great disrepair by the 1960’s the Physick Estate was known to locals as “the haunted house on Washington St.”
M.A.C. historians painted it pale and dark grey with red roof, and almost completely restored the interior.
The guided tour of the home begins in the “screening room,” aka the entrance hall, where callers were announced and then either invited in or sent away.
Look up at the marvelous “sunburst” tiled ceiling – the first of many architectural details that make this house so intriguing. The French-style light and airy parlor, with its oak fireplace mantle inlayed with gorgeous turquoise Furness-designed tiles, is a departure from typical dark English Victorian décor.
The cocktail table is stocked with items of interest, such as books and stereoscopes, so that dinner guests would have topics to discus during the meal.
The dining room table is set for a dinner party, complete with a designated glass “celery stand.” Yes, the mundane vegetable was actually precious produce, costing quite a pretty penny. So those who could afford it would display it accordingly.
Upstairs, the three bedrooms are decorated in Furness’s “Exotic Revival” style – busy, repetitive patterns in all kinds of hues.
Before leaving, guests can stop into the gift shop in the Carriage House, where Dr. Physick kept the first automobile in Cape May. “He was also the first in town to have an accident,” laughed our guide. Check website for times for Trolley and Estate Tours
BEST DEAL: A Day In Cape May Package
For just $35 per adult, $20 for kids allows holders free Combination Trolley/Estate Tours, Lighthouse, and the WWII Lookout Tower.
WALK/JOG/BIKE: The Promenade
A paved path runs the length of Cape May Beach along Beach Ave. It’s a favorite of walkers and joggers – and in season, fringed surreys (which, with bikes, are allowed on the boardwalk from 7-10am).
WALK/SHOP: Washington Street Mall
A lovely landscaped pedestrian mall with a real “Five and Dime” and many more emporiums.
TOUR/TASTE: Cape May Brewing Company
It always gives me great pleasure to promote successful young entrepreneurs who put lots of people to work. Especially when that work is the making of beer. Really good beer.
Cape May Brewery owners, Ryan Krill (the finance guy) and Chris Hanke (engineer), met at Villanova University. They sold the first keg of home-brewed beer in 2011. Since then the Brewery has grown to 45 employees, including brewmaster Jimmy Valm. Each is required to carry a Core Value “Credo Card” in his or her wallet.
Core Values of Cape May Brewing Co.
Cape May Brewery’s most aspiring principal is “source every ingredient locally when possible.” It was the the first brewery lay down roots in Cape May and hews to working, whenever possible, with nearby farms.
CMB’s most prominent Core Value is its most humble: “Make It Better.” And they do.
CMB cuts out the middleman by self-distributing bottles and kegs and is currently the largest microbrewery in South Jersey.
Their motto – “Small Town, Big Brews.”
The tasting room is unlike most others – with a “please touch” aspect to the self-guided tour that takes you from grain to glass, and then to a video screen where you can take a selfie framed by CMB’s logo to send anywhere.
By the time you belly up to the bar, you’ll have smelled and felt the ingredients that go into making CMB’s Sour Beer.
Among my favorites, if only for their names – Mop Water (5-spiced ale), Coastal Evacuation (Double IPA) and I Know What You Did Last Shandy.
One Off Wednesday brews are highly experimental. When these one-keg concoctions are gone, they’re gone.
Cape May Brewery Fireside Chats
Besides coming in for a taste, you can take a short, 10 minute guided tour. Or stay till dark on select Thursday evenings in winter for a Fireside Chat. These intimate discussions around a roaring bonfire allow beer drinkers to learn the story of the beers they are sipping from the owners and master-brewers themselves.
Occasionally, you can meet the local farmers who make the ingredients (like Rabbit Hill, a former potato farm, now CMB’s sole source of malted barley), and otherwise engage with genuine beer geeks.
VISIT: Cape May Lighthouse at Cape May Point Park
Climb the 199 steps to the top of this 1859 Lighthouse for great views of the Jersey Cape where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. $8 adults, $5 kids.
Cape May Point Park also has a small, but very cool Nature Center Museum stocked with lots of very active snakes, lizards and other native wildlife. And for sure, don’t miss Bird-Watching- the best on the East Coast.
VISIT: WWII Lookout Tower
Restored in 2009, this six-floor concrete tower was used to triangulate coordinates of enemy war craft during World War II.
VISIT: NAS Wildwood Aviation Museum
If you’re wild about WWII aircraft, you’ll want to come to Hangar #1 – used as a Dive-Bomber Squadron training facility in the 1940’s – now housing planes, engines and memorabilia. Open daily, offseason 9-4, in season 9-5. $14 adults, $10 kids.
Restaurants in Cape May NJ
Eat: Peter Shields
On Beach Rd., east of the Montreal Beach Resort, this stately Inn and Restaurant provides warm comfort on winter nights. Ask for a table by the fireplace, and take advantage of the 3-course $33 prix fixe.
You’ll dine on the same ambrosial dishes – like Butternut Bisque with Smoked Trout Salad, Grilled Hangar Steak and signature Warm Date Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream – that you’d find in season for much more moola.
EAT: Locals Recommend
There are 110 restaurants in Cape May – an inordinate number – so to pin a few down is tough. Most touristy – Mad Batter for breakfast. Highly recommended by locals – The Red Store for lunch, YB (Younger Brother), a cute boutique with few tables, and Washington Inn – another contender, with Peter Shields, for special occasion, fine dining.
Hotels in Cape May NJ
The story of the builder of this beachfront hotel, The Montreal Beach Resort, nowhere near Canada, might give you goosebumps.
Fifty years ago, in 1966, holocaust survivor, Harry Hirsch, had the gumption and foresight to purchase this property in the sleepy residential town of Cape May. He built a 27-room hotel and named it Montreal Beach Inn to attract an influx of Canadians then starting to make their way South to Florida.
“This was the first warm beach they’d hit on the drive down,” said Harry’s sons, Larry and Joe Hirsch, who now run the upgraded 69-room property with Larry’s son, Jonathan.
The Origins of Montreal Beach Resort
Harry, nee Hersik, was born in Poland. During WWII, at the age of 21, he and his twin brother, Joseph, were crammed into a boxcar and sent to Auschwitz Death Camp.
Eight months later, as the Russians advanced to liberate the camp, the Nazis forced prisoners to march in cold and snowy conditions, and then lined them up and murdered them by firing squad.
Somehow Hersik and Joseph survived. Hidden beneath a heap of dead bodies, they dug themselves out and eventually found safety in a Displaced Person’s Camp. It was there that Hersik met and fell in love with his wife-to-be, Sofia Gross, who had served in the resistance as an underground partisan.
Upon immigrating to the United States, Hersik and Sofia changed their names to Harry and Sophie Hirsch. In 1951, they moved to Philadelphia before settling in Corbin City NJ as chicken farmers.
After a few years, Harry found it more profitable to buy meat and produce from area farmers. He resold these goods to homes and grocery stores in Wildwood and Cape May under the company name “Harry’s Provisions.”
Harry and Sophie Take a Gamble
While on one of these sales trips, Harry made contacts that would lead him to an empty residential lot east of downtown Cape May – on Beach Avenue. Harry and Sophie purchased the lot for $12,200 – a grand sum at the time – and planned to flip it quickly. But when the zoning law was amended to include commercial properties on the site, hotel developers offered the Hirsch’s quadruple what they’d paid.
Figuring that these developers foresaw much larger economic gains, Harry and Sophie turned down the big bucks. With no prior hospitality experience, they decided to build their own beachfront hotel instead.
Since then, the Montreal Beach Resort has become a family affair, with the third generation now involved. (Sophie passed away in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, Harry in 2011 at 88).
First Impressions of Montreal Beach Resort
The lobby is bright, pretty and small, but the welcome is big and warm. This is a family run hotel, after all, and has welcomed multi-generations back time and time again.
Some families have been returning at the same time each year for over 30 years. And it’s easy to see why.
Located in the “quieter” part of Cape May, it’s a 10-minute walk along a paved oceanfront promenade to downtown. As it’s nearly impossible to find parking in Cape May’s busiest section, parking here and walking or biking makes sense.
Rooms at Montreal Beach Resort
Recently updated in Victorian earth tone shades and flooded with sunlight, most impeccably clean rooms have oceanfront balconies or private poolside chaise lounges.
The Meridian Suite features a lovely sitting room, bed facing a bank of oceanfront windows, and large marble rain shower.
Dining at Montreal Beach Resort – Harry’s Oceanfront Grill
Harry’s Ocean Bar and Grill is named for the hotel’s founding father. Harry’s features a very popular rooftop bar with extensive ocean views and live entertainment. It’s the only open-air rooftop bar in Cape May.
Try an Orange Crush, a regional drink made with fresh-squeezed OJ, Orange Vodka and Lime Soda. Over 15,000 were served here last summer.
The resort’s Atlantic Ocean beach is a few steps (across Beach Ave.) from the front door. Beach tags (regularly $10 per person), chaise lounges and umbrellas are available to hotel guests at no charge. Cabanas can be rented, and food service is offered (soft drinks only).
The resort features its own liquor store. This makes it easy for guests to purchase a nice bottle of wine without leaving the premises.
Heated freshwater outdoor pool and baby pool.
Open April – Nov (Harry’s Grill open May-Oct) only. Rates from $250 per night off season. From $350 in season. Includes beach tags, chaise lounges and umbrellas on beach, pool, Wi-Fi, and parking.
Many visitors come to Cape May for the Victorian experience. So, of course, there are several dozen B&B’s that fit the bill. Among the best – the Queen Victoria B&B, just a block from the beach. And The Mainstay Inn – a yellow Victorian has been at the top of many “go” lists for years.