Victorian architecture

The most striking aspect of Cape May, and what most certainly sets it apart from other beach communities further north on “the shore,” is its architecture.  This is one of those rare places where quantity and quality have met and fallen deeply in love.  In fact, Cape May’s proliferation of top-notch Victorian Age edifices has awarded the city with National Historic Landmark status, and it’s easy to see why.  One stroll down any of Cape May’s beautiful tree-lined streets will quickly take visitors back to a bygone era when true artistic craftsmanship lent itself to a building aesthetic that is simply not feasible in modern times.  But it wasn’t always this way...

Cape May’s boom started back in, yes you guessed it, the late 1800’s when socialites from both sides of the Atlantic noted Cape May’s location as a perfect summer retreat destination.  Hordes of people flocked here to take advantage of its agreeable summertime temps and the more than 20 miles of coastline.  The explosion of tourism transformed the once sleepy Colonial-era village into the jewel of the Victorian Age resort circuit.  To keep up with the high demand, construction of hotels, guest houses, and cottages soon followed, and in varied styles of the era.  (Queen Anne, Shingle and Stick, Gothic, Italianate, and Second Empire structures can be found throughout town.) 

Sadly, the emergence of Atlantic City as a showy mecca of pleasure (and legal gambling) moved tourists’ attention further north, and by 1910, much of the original splendor of Cape May had been abandoned.  The decades that followed ravaged the wooden and shingle buildings so badly that it seemed Cape May would ultimately end up little more than a footnote of Americana from a simpler time.

It was not until the early 1970s, when the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities emerged with dreams of restoring the community to its original luster, that Cape May saw any hopes of redeeming its former “Queen of the Seaside Resorts” stature.  “MAC’s” first feather in their cap was the purchase of the Emlen Physick Estate, the 18-room manse originally constructed in 1879 that now stands in for their headquarters.  The organization’s impressive work on the house inspired others to follow suit on their own personal properties, and soon enough, a wave of re-gentrification and restoration had swept throughout the community.  By the mid-80s much of the initial work was complete, and long-time residents and new investors alike were able to reap the benefits from a destination that once again attracted tourists year round.  

Visitors who come to Cape May will probably still find a run-down house here and there, though continued progress has certainly been evident in our subsequent visits.  These days, the lion’s share of Cape May’s structures is in extraordinary shape, decorated in whimsical detailing and color that surprises from each and every turn.  Make sure to check out the “Pink House” (aka the Eldridge Johnson House) on Perry Street which has some of the fanciest porch trim in town! 

Walking tours are perhaps your easiest option to catch the “Best of the Best.”  Aside from their Emlen Physick Estate, the MAC organization also offers self-guided walking tour packages that conclude with tea and treats inside some of the city’s most beautiful homes.  (Call to schedule an appointment.)  And of course, no walking tour of Cape May’s homes would be complete without a stop at the “Seven Sisters,” a congregation of matching homes in the Italianate style that were built to keep the families of seven sisters as close as possible.  (Don’t worry; each home is painted in individual colors to differentiate one sister from the next!)

The Colonial House Museum, part of the Greater Cape May Historical Society, offers a museum-style look into the rich architectural history of the Pre-Victorian era, though the location is only open in the high season from June 15 to September 15.  (Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday from 1:00 PM until 4:00 PM; closed Sundays and Mondays.)  While the museum is also open during October’s “Victorian Week,” you may call to try and schedule an appointment at other times of the year. 

Set of Drifters tip:  In case you were wondering, Hughes Street is your “Set of Drifters” favorite in which to take in Cape May’s splendid architecture.  The slightly off-the-beaten track destination features some of the community’s most delightful homes set along a thoroughfare that feels peacefully miles away from the “tourist hell” of the Washington Street Mall only a few blocks west.  If heading north/east, continue onto Corgie Street from Franklin (or head back up to Washington Street) for more beauties.

Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities at the Emlen Physick Estate - 1048 Washington Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-5404 or (800) 275-4278,

Eldridge Johnson House - 33 Perry Street, Cape May, NJ  08204

The “Seven Sisters” - Jackson Street (between Carpenter Lane and Beach Avenue)

Colonial House Museum - 653 ½ Washington Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-9100,

Hughes Street architecture - Hughes Street (between Ocean and Franklin); continue on to Corgie (from Franklin to Madison), Cape May, NJ  08204

the beach at Cape May

In general, southern New Jersey boasts very clean beaches with nearly white sand and water that is remarkably warm in July and August.  This combination makes Cape May the perfect destination for a summer beach holiday.  And yet, in efforts to protect the beauty of their beaches, the citizens of this Victorian-era enclave have taken things a step further, charging each and every beach-goer for daily access.

For a nominal sum of $6 USD per day ($10 for three days/ $15 for the entire week), beach tags are purchased at the boardwalk and used to designate who has the proper access (or not) from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM.  Ultimately, the fees collected pay for keeping the environment both clean and safe.  (You can be assured that each evening a team of maintenance workers and sand plows scour the shoreline in effort to make it as pristine as possible for the following morning’s early birds.) 

Another great perk of Cape May’s beaches is that you can rent a “locker box” by the week to stash all of those annoying sandy chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards and other accoutrement that you would rather not ferry back and forth to your temporary housing.  There are a number of different outfits that combine this feature with umbrella and chair rentals for the day or week.  Costs are relatively cheap and usually include set-up, a nice feature when considering the arduous challenge of digging a hole deep enough to accompany your umbrella - first thing in the morning! 

The water and waves in Cape May are great!  The overall temperature, cleanliness and sizeable swells make for some great boogie-boarding and/ or hours of enjoyable body-surfing.  Beware though of the rock and pebble barrier that separates beach from ocean.  The crashing of waves seems most severe here, with the pressure of the waves almost churning up the sediment like a turbine!  Any severe wipe-out near this area will sort you out with some pretty nasty scrapes.  If the sea is rough, keep the kids at bay!  And definitely make sure you leave your beach-tag on your towel as the Cape May beach associates will not replace them if lost at sea!  

One of the best aspects of Cape May’s shoreline may just be the high proliferation of dolphin sightings!  We managed to have crazy close-up encounters with pods every day of our trip.  At one point, a dolphin swam so close to shore, it was only one swell away from Set of Drifter Doug!  Out of concern for his safety, lifeguards had to intervene, calling him back safely to shore!  Set of Drifters tip:  If you see dolphins in the distance, head under water.  Chances are that you can hear their sonic chirping from here even hundreds of meters away!  

One word of caution:  Watch for signs that tell the exact time of “High Tide,” and keep in mind that if you have perched yourself close to the shore, you will undoubtedly need to roll your camp back a few times once licked by rogue waves!  This happened to us, and other families nearby, several times as the tide rolls in quicker than expected each afternoon.  While it’s somewhat humorous to watch from afar, carrying wet sandy blankets back from the beach is a chore we’d rather not soon repeat, so plan ahead!  We even watched as some families created large sand berms first thing in the morning to protect them later in the day.    

Set of Drifters video:  For a clip from this event, check out our YouTube channel!

Cape May Beach - multiple access points along Beach Avenue, Cape May, NJ  08402 

Lucy The Elephant (Margate)

Unusual roadside attractions are a popular magnet for any “drifter-on-the-go.”  Thus, when we heard about “Lucy,” a giant beachside elephant located directly across from Atlantic City, we immediately added it to the roster for our summer 2011 trip to Cape May.

Lucy has quite a unique history.  Standing 65-feet tall, the mostly wooden elephant was built back in 1881 at a reported cost of $25,000 USD.  Designed by James V. Lafferty as a landmark “billboard” to lure families to his ever-burgeoning South Atlantic City real estate venture, Lucy could be seen from eight miles away - and without the use of binoculars!  The unique construction was materialized with the assistance of nearby shipbuilders, and any visit inside the “belly of the beast” today will reveal striking similarities to seafaring vessels of yore.  

Regrettably, Lafferty’s real estate dreams fell short in 1887.  Having overextended himself financially, he sold his South Atlantic City land holdings (and Lucy with them) to Anton Gertzen of Philadelphia.  Lucy switched gears as a result of the transaction, serving more as a tourist attraction for vacationing families.  (At the time, admission was only 10 cents a visit!)  Eventually, interest waned and Lucy was renovated into an apartment for friends of the Gertzen’s visiting from England.  (Today, you can still view the original bathtub and toilet that was used as early as 1902.)  A few years later another clever transformation imagined Lucy as a tavern!  What could have been a lucrative enterprise, at least until prohibition struck in 1920, unfortunately went sour when rowdy imbibers almost burned the structure down after knocking over a gas lamp!  

Lucy suffered additional setbacks in the decades that followed.  A hurricane in 1944 only added fuel to a fire already fostered by the ever-increasing popularity of nearby Atlantic City that left Lucy in the dust.

After falling into a serious state of disrepair, a push to “Save Lucy” was made by the citizens of South Atlantic City (now Margate) in 1969.  It was not long before enough interest pulled in the required monies to repair the faltering structure, and then relocate it two blocks down the street to its current positioning.  Six years later, the pachyderm was designated a National Historic Landmark!  

These days, a healthy coat of paint - and upgrades to their new website - suggest Lucy’s future as a tourist draw is once again bright.  Visitors who enter the structure via a spiral staircase in one of Lucy’s hind legs will find an interior that oddly resembles a turn-of-the-century courthouse!  The rounded plastered walls, a requirement to pass modern-day building codes, may hide Lucy’s wooden shell, yet still reveal the precarious nature of the original construction.  (Water damage is a constant concern.  Luckily, only Lucy’s toes received a footbath after Hurricane Sandy made landfall nearby in October 2012.)

Lucy’s ½ hour tour boasts a bevy of original photos and artifacts, as well as an informative video that documents the elephant’s history.  Other highlights include the view from “Lucy’s eyes” (porthole windows at the front that face the beach), as well as a climb up to the top of the elephant’s “howdah.”  Even grander views of the fabulous Atlantic Ocean coastline can be obtained from here, and at a height that is still fairly comfortable.  You can see just how proud Margate is of Lucy as she is prominently depicted on a water tower a number of blocks in the distance.  

Only a hop, skip and a jump from either Cape May or Atlantic City, the “Lucy” attraction is a great way to spend a morning, particularly with kids in tow.  The pachyderm is open only on the weekends during cold winter months, though starting in April, visitors are welcome Monday through Friday from 11:00 AM until 4:00 PM and Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM.   (Expect longer hours in the summer season.)  Admission prices are $8 for adults, $4 for children aged 3-12, and FREE for tots under 3.  Feeling a bit peckish?  You can enjoy basic breakfast fare and coffee from the adjacent Lucy’s Grille, while more substantial meals are available later in the day at Lucy’s “Bella Luna” restaurant.

Set of Drifters tip:  While Lucy is currently the only surviving elephant of her kind, she was originally joined by two others, one of which resided in Cape May itself!  To grab a unique vantage point of “our gal,” make sure to head out to the lovely, and clean, Margate beach!  From here, Lucy truly stands out above all the rest! 

Lucy The Elephant - 9200 Atlantic Avenue, Margate, NJ  08402, (609) 823-6473

ghost-hunting in Cape May

Despite lacking its wonderful vice and wickedness, Cape May is easily likened to New Orleans with one glance at its creepy Victorian houses that almost beg for your attention.  Now Cape May might not be as large, or congested, as New Orleans' famed French Quarter, but it certainly seems to have enough unusual goings-ons to suggest an equal amount of paranormal activity.  Here, even the street signs look as though they might be haunted!  And as within the French Quarter, Cape May’s spirited spirits can be explored on a number of tours catered to “ghost hunters” of all ages.  (If you’re feeling a bit lazy, or hot under the collar during the balmy nights of summer, trolley tours are also an option.)

During our inaugural visit to the Cape, we chose a walking tour that lasted about 1 ½ hours and tread the touristy area closest to the seafront.  Funnily enough, as our guide led us from one spot to the next we were hardly surprised by which structures had seen paranormal activity.  Some of these manses are so sinister-looking, you had to wonder why any living family would choose them for their home.  One of our favorite spots was The Queen’s Hotel at 601 Columbia Avenue.  Rumor has it there are several ghosts roaming this former house of ill repute and gambling den.  Some visitors have even reported finding their 3rd floor room ransacked upon returning for the day!  Hmmmm.  May we suggest always tipping the housekeeping staff?    

Perhaps one of the most frightening stories we recall revolved around a young child who fell out from a window of the same building that now houses the Hotel Maycomber on Howard Street.  On certain fog-laced evenings, the child’s apparition can still be seen beckoning from the window even when no one is occupying the particular room.  (Kids tend love this story, for better or worse!)

The famed Washington Inn (also the most respected restaurant in town) is another spot rumored to occupy a ghost or two.  Here, disembodied voices are reported to echo in the dead of night!  We suppose the hotel cuts down on alarm clock purchases as a result.  

Across the street, be sure to check out the Southern Mansion, a property dating back to 1863 that also operates as a B&B, mostly for honeymooners.  The Southern Mansion appeared in the Ghost Hunters season six episode “Touched by Evil,” and it is investigator Dave Tango’s father Bruce who leads walkthroughs of the picturesque abode Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 PM.  Tours include stops at all of the mansion’s ghostly “hot-spots” as well as a short EVP session led by Bruce.  Still, with its charming Samuel Sloan design, we imagine any jaunt through the Southern Mansion will delight even those uninterested in spectral encounters.  

As for your Set of Drifters, we had our own weird experience while staying in the “Southern Quarters” annex of the Chalfonte Hotel, a property that we were also informed is haunted.  See “digs” for more information on our unusual stay.)

Ghost stories in Cape May are endless, and you can experience all the fun - and fright - by checking out the many tours on offer.  While the outfit we selected back in 2005 is no longer in business, Elaine’s “Walking Ghost Tour” seems a current popular option.  Tours leave from Elaine’s Dinner Theater nightly and cost $10 USD for adults and $5 for children.  The “Ghosts of Cape May Trolley Tour” is also $10 USD for adults, but $7 for children aged 3-12.  Depending on the day of the week, the 30 minute tour may depart one, two or three times from the Washington Street Mall Visitors’ Information booth.  Call ahead for specific schedule. 
Set of Drifters video:  For a clip from this event, check out our YouTube channel!

The Queen Victoria Bed & Breakfast - 601 Columbia Avenue, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-8702,

Hotel Maycomber - 727 Beach Avenue, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-3020,

Washington Inn - 801 Washington Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-5697,

The Southern Mansion - 720 Washington Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-7171,

Elaine’s Walking Ghost Tour - 513 Lafayette Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-1199 or 609-884-4358,

Ghosts of Cape May Trolley Tour - tours begin at the Washington Street Mall Information Booth, Cape May, NJ  08204, (800) 275-4278 or (609) 884-5404,

The Chalfonte - 301 Howard Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-8409,

Cape May Point

Your trusty “Set of Drifters” are normally not the type to seek out old abandoned military forts circa World War II, though there have been exceptions.  (Montauk, NY anyone?)  Still, when said military fort is abandoned out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and only accessible in low tide, we are so there!

We spotted the “Battery 223” structure out in the water on our first trip to Cape May in 2005.  You can’t miss it if taking in the popular side trip to the Borough of Cape May Point that boasts an impressive 157-ft. tall lighthouse.  (But more on that later.)  The Battery was constructed out of reinforced concrete in 1942 and finished with a flat roof that was meant to mimic natural beach surroundings so that it could not easily be detected by air.  Put to use in 1944 on the grounds of the Cape May Military Reservation, Battery 223 was eventually decommissioned in 1947 and laid out to rot amidst the encroaching salt water waves that thrash the shoreline daily. 

You can bet the Battery is officially “off-limits” these days, riddled with “Keep Out” signs to scare off away teenagers looking for a place to drink their parents’ spoilt beer.  Those looking to investigate further the six separate shell rooms, air compressor generator or the power station will most likely find only sand these days, not that it mattered to us!  We enjoyed making the somewhat long trek to the structure during the sunset’s low tide and snapping multiple pictures of the crumbling façade, shadowed by alternating moments of high and low light.

The aforementioned, and fully restored, Cape May Lighthouse is the area’s other main attraction.   Built in 1859 by a US Army Engineer, the lighthouse is the third, and perhaps final (?), in a succession of structures that marked the beach for seafaring vessels.  These days, the spot is popular for beachside weddings and for those hearty enough to tackle the 199-steps up to the top.  There is no better place in Cape May to watch the sunset, so if you have the time, try to squeeze this jaunt into your schedule.  

The Cape May Lighthouse is open daily, though hours vary depending on the season - and day of the week.  Check the website for detailed information, though if you are visiting between dawn and dusk you should not have any problems.  Admission costs $7 USD for adults and $3 USD for children ages 3-12.  (Kids under 3 are FREE.)  Tours of the lighthouse are also available from the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities, though you will have to call ahead to arrange.

Cape May Point State Park - 215 Lighthouse Avenue, Cape May Point, NJ, 08212, (609) 884-5404,

Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities - 1048 Washington Street, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 884-5404 or (800) 275-4278,

We also recommend:

kayaking on Cape may Harbor via Nature Center of Cape May (New Jersey Audubon) - 1600 Delaware Avenue, Cape May, NJ  08204, (609) 898-8848,