We first noticed The Chalfonte during our maiden
visit to Cape May in 2005. What immediately intrigued us was its
striking “Southern appeal,” thanks in part to an architectural style
more akin to Louisiana than New Jersey. Naturally, there is a method
behind the madness. The hotel was established in 1876 by a Civil War
Colonel named Henry Sawyer. He chose the location "where the South
meets the North" as an homage to his career with the Union Army that
later resulted in special recognition in 1875. (Cape May was
technically south of the Mason-Dixon even though New Jersey and Delaware
were aligned with northern states.)
The oldest continuously-run hotel in town, the 63-room Chalfonte was later taken over by a Virginian family who retained strong Confederate ties. The Satterfield’s “southern hospitality” is ever-present even to this day, regardless of the fact that the property has been expanded considerably, and changed hands three times, since their occupation in the early 1900’s.
We were so impressed by the Chalfonte grounds that we cancelled reservations at the hotel we had intended to stay at in order to move in here our first night in town. Since there was no vacancy in the main building, we were offered accommodations in the “Southern Quarters” annex next door. (Large wedding party takeovers are common on weekends!) The humble decor inside our converted attic room was basic yet still comfortable, a holdover from the modest Chalfonte lobby that feels more like a quaint family-run country store-cum-art gallery than anything else.
From inside, our room’s inverted mansard roof afforded us with a slight feeling that we were not alone. And while a few unusual things happened during our stay (lights popping off, etc.), we did not feel the least bit threatened by any potential ghosts who may have been sharing our bed. Our guess is that with so much history attached to the Chalfonte, there’s bound to be a specter or two on-site! (In fact, ghost tour rumors suggest that it’s the former caretaker who walks the stairs of the main house by night!)
Chalfonte’s overall vibe is very relaxed, perhaps best exemplified by the sweeping veranda that wraps around the front of the building. With a collection of rocking chairs, the porch is the perfect complement to a balmy summer evening, and the best vantage point in which to watch those lazy horse and buggies pass by. And did we mention the adjacent bar? Tucked away to the side of the Chalfonte’s main building is the King Edward Room, a tiny watering hole that easily feels like a local’s hangout. We instantly found comfort in the friendly lo-key atmosphere that is still “dressed to the nines,” particularly since it so reminded us of our favorite bar in New Orleans, May Baily’s.
Elsewhere on the property, delicious Dixieland delights can be devoured at the Chalfonte’s Magnolia Room, a dining establishment famous for its Southern Fried Chicken and a variety of similarly-seasoned side dishes. The restaurant also offers a great Sunday brunch that fills up rather quickly! Make sure you book in advance as this place is hopping by 9:00 AM yet closes all too prematurely by 10:30! (Set of Drifters tip: Many Cape May restaurants shut down for a few hours in between common meal times. Keep this in mind if you have a hankering for a burger ‘n such but accidentally missed “lunch hour.” You may have to hit up a few different spots to find one that is open. See “Mad Batter” in “eats” for more information.)
The historic Chalfonte always seems to be some hosting some sort of gallery opening or other fun event, and with such great deals on rooms, the property is truly a wonderful place to introduce first-timers to all of what Cape May has on offer. Do yourself a favor and stay here; it’s a Set of Drifters MUST!
The Chalfonte - 301 Howard Street, Cape May, NJ 08204, (609) 884-8409
Cape May’s best B&Bs
to the well-intended restoration of so many grand homes (see “Victorian
architecture” in “sights”), Cape May offers a motherlode of fantastic
accommodations in which to stay. While many larger families go the
“summer beach rental” route, hunkering down for a week at any one of the
many resplendent Victorian manses, couples and smaller parties will
have no trouble finding their own “home away from home” amidst a
plethora of well-appointed B&Bs and cottages that are as charming as
they are historical.
Your “Set of Drifters” spent our first trip to Cape May at the mighty Chalfonte (see above), while our subsequent visits unfolded with family at some of the aforementioned beach rental lodging. Even still, we always have our radar out, scanning for other locations we deem interesting or potentially worthy of a future stay. Two such spots in Cape May include The Abbey on Gurney Street, The Mainstay Inn on Columbia and the Queen Victoria on Ocean.
With its imposing Gothic facade, “the Abbey” came to prominence in 1869 as the “summer retreat home” for wealthy coal tycoon John B. McCreary of Pennsylvania. McCreary hired celebrated architect Stephen Decatur Button to design the masterpiece. (Button had already spread his Victorian metal-frame construction magic on towns up and down the Eastern seaboard from Georgia to Pennsylvania.) The home in Cape May immediately impresses with its beautiful ruby red glass arched windows and a 60-ft. tall tower that looms large over Gurney Street. A second property was added only four years later by McCreary’s son. It debuted a Second Empire style with a striking mansard roof that, even today, makes it one of the more fascinating edifices along Columbia.
Like many of Cape May’s finest homes, the Abbey fell into disrepair at the turn of the 20th century and the properties were ultimately sold off at different times. A restoration project in 1986 finally brought them back together, turning them into a B&B property that has only flourished in the years since. According to praise, innkeepers Jay and Marianne Schatz are a marvelous host duo, turning up the charm a few notches with tasty breakfasts, daily “tea ‘n tidbit” get-togethers at 4:30 PM, and... a startling collection of wacky hats? They certainly sound like our kind of people. We will definitely make it a point to stay here in the future, if only for the sumptuous interiors, which include floor-to-ceiling mirrors, impeccably opulent furniture and evocative gas lamps!
Guided tours of the Abbey Villa are also available at 4:00 PM three days a week. Call to inquire about schedule and fees. You’ll not want to miss one of the few buildings in town that has been selected as a landmark by the Historic American Building Survey.
Just down the block from the Abbey lies the Mainstay Inn, an equally exquisite property that bursts at the velveteen seams with Victorian lavishness. Its history, however, is a bit more, how shall we say... lascivious? Constructed in 1872, also by John B. McCreary, the Mainstay was originally dubbed “The Clubhouse,” and according to the inn’s brochure, was a “pleasure palace” that catered to “gentlemen” who sought a discreet location for gambling and “other amusements.” (In other words, a bordello!)
With a sweeping wrap-around veranda, private terraces and some serious tree foliage hanging over the front yard, a visit to the Mainstay Inn comes with a bit more privacy than other B&Bs that dot Columbia Avenue. Inside, plush interiors decorate a cozy Drawing Room and Parlor with 14-ft. ceilings. It’s the perfect setting in which to meet fellow travelers. Individual rooms come with more modern features such as flat-screen TV’s, Wi-Fi and Bose radios. Some even have their own whirlpool tubs and private fireplaces! If you are looking for comfort at the beach, the Mainstay seems a safe bet, but book in advance as there are only 12 rooms!
It’s another quick stroll over to the Queen Victoria Bed & Breakfast, featuring at its heart one of the most aesthetically pleasing structures in town. Erected in 1881 by Delaware river pilot Douglas Gregory, the manse houses nine guest rooms, each with a private bath, as well as the two-story “Crown Jewel” carriage house complete with gas-log fireplace, leather sofa and a 42-inch television with accompanying Bose surround sound system! Sounds like the perfect marriage of “old” and “new” to us.
If booked, visitors can also take a look at the Queen Victoria’s other annexed properties, the handsome Prince Albert Hall, the House of Royals across the street and the Queen’s Cottage, a romantic choice designed for couples. At the Queen Victoria properties, impeccable attention to detail is king… errrrr, Queen as the case may be.
The Abbey - 34 Gurney Street, Cape May, NJ 08204, (609) 884-4506, http://www.abbeybedandbreakfast.com/
The Mainstay Bed & Breakfast Inn - 635 Columbia Avenue, Cape May, NJ 08204, (609) 884-8690, http://www.mainstayinn.com/