Friday, August 7, 2009

Combine time travel and a beach vacation: Cape May, New Jersey

victorian bed and breakfasts

Your beach vacation

Going to the beach has been synonymous with a family vacation for as long as I can remember. I have visited several East Coast beaches and have very strong opinions about all of them. I started counting and realized that this has been my fourth trip to this Victorian beach town, and while four trips might not make me an expert, I hope to give you a little more insight into what a vacation to Cape May, New Jersey might hold for you and your family. This post will review all that is good (and divulge some things bad) about a recent return trip.

The town

The atmosphere in Cape May is like no other; streets leading up to the beach are lined with quaint Victorian style houses and stately mansions, all brightly painted with two or more colors and most adorned with gingerbread trimming.
the abey

Massive trees that line the paved, and sometimes cobblestone, walkways provide a blanket of shade from the afternoon sun, and walks around town are quiet because you are still often awestruck by the sights around you.
walk around cape may

victorian house victorian house

You can spend your days going back and forth between two worlds; my family decided to do the "beach thing" from when it opened (11 AM) until 2:30-3:00, grab a shower and a quick bite, then do the sites in town. There isn't really a boardwalk in Cape May, although there have been several new sandwich joints and small stores to open along Beach Avenue -this is where you will see most cars – but there are instead a couple of blocks down the center of town full of unique shops and eateries known as the Washington Mall. Here is where people gather in the evenings to find that one-of-a-kind trinket, or grab a quick snack of ice cream or homemade fudge.

There is also an information booth located at the end of the mall for information concerning house tours or trolley excursions, or take a horse drawn carriage ride to see some of the sites you might have missed.
carriage rideOk so you can already tell that I am very enamored with this little town, but as with life there are some downsides.
Unlike other seaside resorts, you there are not any hotels, condos, or the more popular bed and breakfasts right on the beach. The closest you can get is across from the beach. Ocean Boulevard is the street that runs between the ocean front accommodations and the beach itself. There is no strolling out of your hotel and right on the sand, you must cross the street, and traffic can be heavy at times.
inn of cape may


The next negative point lies with finding suitable accommodations, although couples may fare better than families just because it is easier and less costly to rent a single room. My family rents a condo when we visit Cape May because it helps keep the costs down, but a hotel we stayed in at the last minute-because of an error with our reservations elsewhere-was the Marquis de Lafayette. Now the room we got was a fancy albeit small standard, but they do offer suites with kitchenettes, and all rooms have an ocean view. (Those on the upper floors also have a private patio with rocking chairs, and it is pretty relaxing rocking and watching the surf while you drink your morning cup of java.)

Places to Avoid

A few places to avoid like the plague are The Grand Hotel of Cape May,The Victorian Motel, and Summer Station Condotel. The Grand is an older hotel and you will notice this as soon as you make your way to your room. We stayed there because it was reasonable for two separate rooms and kitchenette, but the room was dirty and wore out, and we couldn't help feeling like we would have been better off somewhere else. *(They do have two floor townhouses attached to the main building but pictures of them online are pretty dated.) On the plus side they have an indoor pool which is a rareity for hotels in the area, plus a view from most rooms, but they are far from the Washington Mall, and hoofing it while pushing a baby stroller was a pain, and we didn't think it was worth a second visit.

Summer Station Condotel boasts having the conveniences of a condominimum (separate bedroom, bath, kitchen and living area)that are rented out like hotel rooms with available maid service. Unfortunately, if you have small children, the only view you are going to see is one of the parking lot, and entrance into your room is from the outside. (The upper floor rooms are for older guests only.) The rooms were cramped, there were dark stains on the carpet and furnishings, and we had a severe case of ants from the moment we walked in. We had to keep all food in the refrigerator for our entire stay, but we were able to get assistance from the front desk.

The Victorian Motel is about a block from the ocean at the start of the Washington Mall and right behind the recently renovated Congress Hall, but these are the only good things I can say about the place. The rooms include a kitchenette in the living area, but the rooms are dirty and worn and even though ours was a non-smoking room, it reeked of cigarette smoke. There is no private deck but instead a couple chairs right outside your front door-yes entrance is from the outside just like the Condotol- on a concrete "deck" you share with everyone else on your floor. You can see the light displays of the Mall in the evenings, but there were so many rowdies living it up, we rarely sat outside.
behind Guerny street

Best Bets

Unfortunately, if you want more than a bed in Cape May, it will cost you. Bed and breakfasts are somewhat cost effective for couples-although not welcoming to children-, and they are your best bet for enjoying the Victorian vibe along with 21st century conveniences. Unlike the hotels in the area, these are privately run and more apt to be concerned with guests' comfort and appearances. A negative comment about their establishment can have dire consequences for them. A downside to staying at a bed and breakfast falls under the area of privacy because there is usually a common porch for all guests, and you are staying in someone's house. You also have to remember that these houses are quite old, and though most are immaculately kept, they smell of old wood, just like the smell you experience when you first enter your grandmother's house.

We just stayed in the carriage house of a wonderful bed and breakfast, the John Wesley Inn . The pluses were that we were in a private location behind the bed and breakfast, our accommodations included a living area with pull down Murphy bed and full kitchen, and a spiral staircase led you up to a very substantial bedroom and bath. The apartment was outfitted with period pieces and tastefully decorated in all the Victorian splendor but with comfortable furnishings and the place was immaculate. On the downside, we did give up our ocean view for space and location (1/2 a block to the beach and a short stroll to the mall and market), the living area is smaller than we originally thought from the pictures we saw online(the kitchen is not separate and there is no dishwasher), and the central air and refrigerator ran awfully loud. (We turned the ceiling fans on and opened our bedroom porch door up at night and that kept us pretty comfy.)

There is also very tight parking on the premises, especially for our Grand Caravan, but when we spoke of our concerns upon arrival to the owners, Bonnie and Lance Pontin, they immediately assigned us the front parking space when a guest left the following day. (Because everything is within walking distance, most guests park and walk during their stay, but we wanted to visit some other attractions besides the town, and would need to use our vehicle.) Another consideration are the porches at the apartment. There are two carriage house appartments and each shares at least the downstairs porch, but the lower level porch is not at ground level, but rather a few stairs up, so if you have mobility problems, this will be an issue for you.


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