Victorian Holiday

With its gingerbread architecture outlined in twinkling lights, Cape May is a lively wintertime destination.

By: Matt Smith

Above, a Cape May house with its Victorian charm outlined in twinkling lights.

   Almost every self-respecting New Jerseyean has a favored spot at "The Shore" — one of those resort towns that inspires annual family pilgrimages each and every July or August.
   It wouldn’t be summer without Saturday-morning traffic on the Garden State Parkway, hastily purchased "Kiss Me I’m (insert ethnicity here)" T-shirts on the boardwalk, or that one rainy day playing a musty old edition of Parcheesi.
   For me, it was weeks at my great aunt’s cottage on Cape May Point — the regally named "Hoot-n-Holler" — where my mother spent her summers in the ’50s and ’60s. Cape May always offered a little more calm and a little less seafoam green than, say, Wildwood, especially when my mom was young. I have some great memories from my not-so-long-ago halcyon days in Cape May — morning runs to town on the beach, late-night teen-age dreaming on lifeguard chairs, and evenings spent people watching on the Washington Street Mall with whatever friends my sister and I had brought down to the beach that year.
   Up until two Saturdays ago, however, I had never made my way to Cape May when its Victorian charm is outlined in twinkling lights. Instead of packing suntan lotion and a cooler full of soda, my friend and I made sure to bring gloves and scarves on this chilly December day — and a Jimmy Buffett holiday album for the hour-and-45-minute ride on Route 206, the Atlantic City Expressway and down to the southern tip of the Parkway.
   Our day began at Cape May Point State Park, strolling through some of the 190 acres of fresh water wetlands adjacent to the ocean, which seemed to lack its usual wildlife on this barren, late-autumn day. After paying homage to the bizarre, anachronistic World War II bunker decaying on the beach, we started up the 199 steps of the 157½-foot-tall lighthouse, built in 1859. Despite somewhat gray skies, the view was, as always, fantastic — but the bitter winds (and my slight fear of heights) quickly sent us back down to the warmth of my car.
   The next stop was Sunset Beach for another tradition — a visit to the S.S. Atlantus, the "Concrete Ship." One of 12 experimental concrete ships built during a World War I steel shortage, the Atlantus sunk off Cape May Point on June 8, 1926. Every year I go to Sunset Beach to see how far the cracked, weather-beaten hull has receded into the ocean — and make a half-hearted attempt at collecting "Cape May Diamonds," beautiful translucent stones found beneath the sand on the beach but more easily unearthed in the gift shop.
   With the afternoon light beginning to fade, we headed into town for a little Christmas shopping on the Washington Street Mall before the day’s main event — the 29th Annual Christmas Candlelight House Tour. After watching a little of the West Cape May Christmas Parade that was winding through town, we only had an hour or so until the tour, so I managed to keep my spending in check. I limited my purchases to a bag of melt-in-your-mouth vanilla salt-water taffy from Fralinger’s, a jar of pickled herring from my half-Swedish mother’s favorite shop, Swede Things in America, and a delicious apricot pastry from La Patisserie, a French bakery across from Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic church (known for its beautiful marble architecture and short, get-you-to-the-beach summer Masses).
   The self-guided tour, which takes you to 20 or so immaculately decorated bed and breakfasts throughout town over the course of three hours, is the centerpiece of Cape May’s ever-increasing holiday tourism business. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, the non-profit organization that coordinates most Cape May events and manages the lighthouse, estimates it sells 4,000 tickets for the three nights of the tour (usually the first, second and last Saturdays of December).
   As we made our way to places with names like the Majestic Star and the Rhythm of the Sea, the sell-out crowd was apparent: A couple of the more popular stops, closest to the center of town, had lines out onto the sidewalk, and the complimentary trolleys were jam packed all night long, making it easier to walk from house to house if you could withstand the cold wind.
   Each one of the bed and breakfasts was decked in ornate detail — theme-decorated Christmas trees, trains running through garland-draped front rooms and innkeepers cooking up homemade hot cider for guests. All I could think about was my sad little 3-foot artificial tree back home — with its dozen or so ornaments and tiny colored lights. Not exactly Martha Stewart living.
   Tasteful "No Vacancy" signs hung on all the B&Bs on the tour, and a number of owners said they book six months to a year in advance for the first two weekends in December. Many of the grand old 400-room beachfront hotels have plenty of space, though, according to Jenn Heinold, communications coordinator for Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. Ms. Heinold, a lifelong resident of North Cape May, says holiday tourism in Cape May has increased dramatically in the past decade.
   "Over the past 10 years, Christmas in Cape May has really grown into a huge event," she says. "A lot of Christmas traditions — trees, decorations — really started in the Victorian era, and I don’t think there’s a better way to see the architecture with lights and greenery.
   "It doesn’t snow too often, and the weather is usually much milder than when you were here," she adds.
   Tired, hungry and cold, we headed to another Cape May institution for dinner — the Lobster House, located on Fisherman’s Wharf in Cape May Harbor. In addition to the freshest-possible seafood, the Lobster House offers a 1970s ambiance you can’t help but enjoy — lots of dark wood and waitresses dressed in what looks like white nurses outfits with some red, white and blue nautical trim.
   Full on clams casino and surf and turf — there called "Port & Starboard" — we hopped back on the Garden State Parkway for the late-night ride home. As I drove, I thought about the joy of all those summers, and how I had another reason to call Cape May my favorite spot at "THE Shore."
Cape May Point State Park and Sunset Beach in Cape May Point are open daily, dawn to dusk.
Cape May Lighthouse is open most weekends throughout the winter. Admission costs $5, and includes one child (ages 3-12) free; additional children $1. The final Christmas Candlelight House Tour takes place Dec. 28 from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tickets cost $22, $11 ages 3-12. For information on these and other events in Cape May, call the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts at (609) 884-5404 or (800) 275-4278. On the Web:
Off-season hours at the Lobster House vary; call (609) 884-8296 for information. On the Web: