In the mid-1800s, when most Mid-Atlantic coastal towns were focused on maritime trade, Cape May, N.J., was already a tourist destination. The resort, famous for its Victorian ambiance, will celebrate that legacy during Cape May’s Spring Festival, April 24–May 3.
Sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities and the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May, the festival is a collection of activities and events, including a designer show home, craft-and-collectible shows, tours, and wine trails. Yet all the events are flavored by the 19th-century charm that makes Cape May so distinctive.
America’s oldest seaside resort
Getting there is more than half the fun. From Maryland, visitors can drive to Lewes, Del., and take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to New Jersey. The 70-minute one-way trip offers views of lighthouses, seabirds, and the occasional dolphin or two.
Lewes and Cape May have more in common than ferry terminals. For hundreds of years, both were strategic maritime hubs. (The fire control towers on both sides of the Delaware Bay were part of Fort Miles, a World War II defense base.)
Cape May, however, appealed to health-minded visitors even in the late 1700s. By the mid-1800s, its boarding houses, hotels, pavilions, and ballrooms were bustling with tourists from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.
A fire in 1878 destroyed 35 acres of homes and hotels, which were replaced by buildings favoring Queen Anne and Gothic styles. Consequently, Cape May is known for its “Painted Ladies,” grand houses whose three or more colors play up embellishments.
Cape May fell on challenging times when tourists began favoring other resorts, including Atlantic City and the more modern Wildwoods.
“In the 1970s, the town was at a crossroads,” said Susan Krysiak, of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities. MAC was founded in 1970 to promote the preservation, interpretation, and cultural enrichment of the region. The entire town is now listed in the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places.
Since architecture is the resort’s claim to fame, many festival events revolve around its landmarks. Start with a tour of the Emlen Physick Estate, designed by architect Frank Furness for Dr. Emlen Physick Jr., his widowed mother, and maiden aunt, who moved into the home in 1879. There are also private home tours on April 25 and May 2, from 11:00am–1:00pm.
Through June 14, you can tour the 2014-2015 Designer Show House in “The Ocean Victorian,” a circa-1880 property. Once a bed-and-breakfast — there are many in Cape May — it’s now a vacation rental property. Twelve rooms each salute a different holiday. “Some of the rooms are quite dramatic,” Krysiak said. “For people who enjoy show homes, this is a very interesting one.”
Antiques are big business in Cape May, and admission is free to the outdoor Spring Festival Crafts & Collectibles on April 25 and May 2, 10:00am–4:00pm, at the Physick Estate. On May 2, designer Carole Roach will tell guests how to decorate with “found” items during “Reinventing Your Home: Tea, Talk, and Tour,” held at the Inn at Cape May. A private tour of the show house follows.
The customs and people of Cape May’s Victorian past are as interesting as the architecture. On April 26 you can experience a fashion show of Victorian jewelry with living history presenters, who will talk about portrait jewelry, mourning jewelry, and cameos. The show, which includes brunch, will be held at the Physick Estate.
The trolley tour “Cape May Capsule: Travel Through Time,” offered on May 3 at 11:15am and 1:15pm, gets a boost from interpreters, who hop on and off as the trolley rolls through town. It’s one of many themed tours offered throughout the festival.
A taste of Cape May
Cape May has no shortage of culinary experiences, and festival events include the Cape May Wine Trail tour on April 25, noon–5:00pm. There are also tours and tastings at Natali Vineyards, Hawk Haven Vineyard and Winery, Jessie Creek Winery, and Cape May Brewing Company. Also on April 25, 1:00–3:00pm, historic inns and B&Bs will participate in a chocolate-tasting tour.
Most events have individual ticket prices noted on the MAC website. Accommodation options are listed on the chamber of commerce website.
For more information
Mid-Atlantic Center: capeymaymac.org.
Cape May Chamber of Commerce: capemaychamber.org.