Cape May, New Jersey
Some believe that good things come to those who wait, and finding a decent beach in New Jersey may be the best test to that theory. Far down the Jersey Shore, beyond syringe-on-the-beach jokes, beyond thong-thronged boardwalks, beyond the point where anyone says "Joizey" is the Grande Old Dame of the Eastern Shore, Cape May.
Cape May is the aristocrat of beaches with the prices and lineage to prove it. When nearby Philadelphia was the capital of the Colonial states, several of the Founding Fathers came to Cape May to let down their wigs. Later the fashionable members of New York society flocked to the area, but the flash point (literally speaking) for Cape May didn't come until 1878, when a fire devastated most of the town.
Out of the ashes arose an ornate Victorian fantasy world of elegant seaside hotels and gingerbread mansions that became the sandbox for gilded society. Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, held her debutante party in Cape May, and so many presidents have vacationed here that several hotels still vie for the title of "The Summer White House."
If earlier straw-hatted glitteratti were to return to Cape May today, they would instantly recognize many of their old haunts, thanks to the town's status as a National Historic Landmark and its preservation-mad citizens. The locals are passionate about their role as cultural custodians, and it shows. The sand is always raked and the area's signature Victorian trim, which adorns the town like cobwebs, is always fresh with paint. But Cape May is not a place full of crusty Miss Havishams. It is peppered with the same warm, easy-going personalities typical to beach Meccas around the world - it's just that the tune they march to is more Gilbert & Sullivan than Jimmy Buffet.
The Southern Mansion
The Southern Mansion represents an achievement akin to the Pyramids. When current owners, the Brays, first saw this 1863 Italian-style villa, it was abandoned and partially collapsed. The Brays set up a sawmill, imported a skilled carpenter from Russia and went to work. The result is perhaps the biggest eye-catching wonder in Cape May. The exterior and interior color schemes are exuberant but tasteful. Inside, 19th-century antiques mingle with vintage photographs and enough paintings of reclining nudes to suggest that Victoria's secrets might well be worth knowing, in which case rooms 3, 6 and 18 are especially romantic.
Best Luxurious Hotel
Dating back to the late 1800s, the Virginia looks like a dollhouse in the heart of the historic district. Step beyond the lobby's roaring fire and grand piano and find surprising decor. Rooms are contemporary and elegant and dressed in cool pastels with sleek, comfortable furnishings. Unusual for Cape May, the bathrooms are spacious and modern. The service is efficient and friendly - the staff will even baby-sit the kids. Breakfast, served either en suite or downstairs next to the veranda, is included in the room rate. The best rooms in the house are on the second floor and offer wicker-furnished balconies that overlook Jackson Street.
Best Family Hotel
The Chalfonte Hotel
The Chalfonte is a habit that lasts for generations - especially among Southern families who have spent summers here for more than a century (which may account for the hotel's hearty Southern cooking). The hotel has been open for 124 years - its sense of timelessness and endurance helped by its simplicity (rooms lack private phones and air conditioning). Ventilation comes by way of a steady sea breeze that, aided by ceiling fans, blows through the Chalfonte's shuttered windows and louvered guestrooms. The Chalfonte features a riot of in-house cabarets, kids' programs and - Exalt, O Shores, and Ring, O Bells! - a separate dining room for children.
Best Budget Accommodation
Abigail Adams' Bed & Breakfast
"Budget" is a misnomer in Cape May, though affordable accommodations can be had without resorting to the concrete motels at the edge of town. Abigail Adams' B&B offers one of the best values in Cape May. As one of the "Seven Sisters" - a row of identical gingerbread houses built at the turn of the century - the Abigail Adams is in the heart of all the action on Jackson Street. The proprietor, Kate Emerson, is a refugee from corporate America and intent on pampering those who didn't escape without plundering their bonuses. If you're looking for the best deal, you'll find it on the top floor. Rooms 5 and 6 share a bathroom but offer great views of the beach (the view from room six is better - fight for it). The rooms on the other floors have private bathrooms.
Best Inn That Time Forgot
The Mainstay Inn
The Mainstay is so filled with 19th-century antiques, you can almost hear your parents telling you not to touch anything. The owners of the inn, Tom and Sue Carroll, are not your parents, and they'll make you feel right at home - that is, if home happens to be a 128-year-old mansion with ornate brass gasoliers dangling from 20-foot ceilings, thick oriental carpets and wallpaper beyond Laura Ashley's most drink-laden fantasies. The Mainstay originally began as a men's gambling club and has changed hands only 5 times since. None of the owners seem to have made major changes to the building beyond polishing the brass. Even the full-length wooden coat hangers in the closets are ancient (you'll never want to use wire ones again). Try to get a room in the main house and not one of the newer annexes - though this will require reserving very early as the place is usually booked solid.
Food & Drink
The Ugly Mug
No prize for guessing what kind of drinking utensils hang upside down from the ceiling like bats waiting for ... a beer. The mugs belong to members of the "Ugly Mug Club"and the ones facing the sea are for deceased members - in case the tasty burgers and cozy, cave-like atmosphere can lure them back.
Best Waterfront Atmosphere
The Lobster House
Dockside at the Lobster House's raw bar or aboard its permanently-anchored boat, the Clipper America, are ideal spots for enjoying a plate of raw oysters mingled with sea breezes (in atmospheric or cocktail form). An alternative when summer crowds come to town is to order takeout from the fish counter and find a quiet dock to enjoy the harbor and all that swim within. The Lobster House indoors is not nearly as interesting and suffers from fish courses that are both overcooked and overpriced.
Best Local Seafood
The Ebbitt Room (in the Virginia Hotel)
The Ebbitt Room doesn't bill itself as a seafood restaurant but merely as a very, very good place to eat. Hence the seafood on its varied menu is, well, very, very good. The clam chowder is a poem to New England while the scallops sing sweet songs of the Atlantic in your mouth, accompanied by the wine cellar's stellar chorus.
Best Family Restaurant
The Mad Batter
A party atmosphere permeates this restaurant right to the yellow-striped veranda that spills over Jackson Street. The Mad Batter is a tolerant and entertaining place to bring the kids to run about (sometimes in the company of the owners' children) while the grownups relax over a plate of crab cakes with remoulade or Mad Batter Paella.
Locals and visitors alike are virtually unanimous in naming Washington Inn the best restaurant in town. Run by 2 generations of the Craig family, the Washington seems suspended halfway between the Jersey coast and France, in terms of both decor and cuisine. The service is enthusiastic and friendly, oftentimes encouraging patrons to linger long after digesting the last morsel. A selection of 10,000 bottles of wine also keeps diners around.
Best Saltwater Taffy
Legend holds that a long time ago, in a place far, far away - actually only 30 miles up the beach in Atlantic City - the owner of a flooded candy store needed a novel way to unload the sweets that had absorbed too much saltwater. Ever since that flood, saltwater taffy has been as much a part of the Jersey Shore as messy hot dogs are a part of New York. Seaside Sweets is the only place in town that still makes its own saltwater taffy. Distinctive flavors include anise and old-fashioned molasses. And the vintage 1920s taffy-puller at the front of the store is a hoot.
Best Kid Stuff
The wooden boardwalk that separates the beach from Ocean Avenue is a carnival of old-fashioned arcade games, vintage photo booths and cotton candy stands. This is probably one of the few boardwalks on the Atlantic where kids can be let loose with little worry of them returning with a tattoo.
Best Day Trip
The Town of Wildwood, New Jersey
It was a soul-searching decision whether to place Wildwood under the "Best Day Trip" category or the "Best Bar Masquerading As a Town" category. "Best Day Trip" won because Wildwood's populist chaos is ultimately the perfect antidote to Cape May's aristocratic serenity -- and a fun way to complete a Jersey Shore experience. It's hard to believe that Wildwood's yin is a mere 4 miles up the beach from Cape May's yang. Think Coney Island. Think south Philadelphia. Think frat party. Once there, follow these 4 steps:
1. Indulge in a cheesesteak/chilidog/clam strip.
2. Wash it down with a beer.
3. Ride the waterslide/wooden roller coaster/bumper cars.
4. Repeat as desired.
Note: Many visitors choose to skip Steps 1 and 3.
Cape May Lighthouse
Few people can look at a lighthouse without wanting to climb it, and this is no exception. If the 199 steps up this 1848 landmark don't take your breath away, the views over Delaware Bay, Cape May and the Atlantic will.
Best Victorian Home
Emlen Physick Estate
This architectural masterpiece from 1879 is so well-preserved that it looks like the original owner, Dr. Emlen Physick, could still be puttering around, fixing some tea and pondering his fellow Victorians' talent for giving people names that sound like horror movie characters. Indeed, sometimes Doc Physick - or someone dressed like him - shows visitors around his impressively furnished home while sharing gossip about old Cape May. Although the good doctor won't dole out tea personally, a tasty "High Tea" is served in the estate's Carriage House on weekends after 2 p.m.
Best Historical Village
Historic Cold Springs Village
This "mini-Williamsburg" is but five minutes from Cape May by ye olde automobile. The people of the Village are all in costume and everything is strictly 19th century. Blacksmiths, potters, milkmaids and other sturdy country folk tell tales of what New Jersey was like before the Turnpike.
Best Sunset Spots
Where: Foot of Sunset Boulevard, Cape May Point
Watching the sun dip into the Atlantic from Sunset Beach is one of the strongest drugs available without a prescription. During the summer locals gather at Sunset Beach every evening at dusk for a flag-lowering ceremony accompanied by a Kate Smith recording of "God Bless America." Adults will swear the recording sounds just as scratchy as it did when they heard it for the first time as kids.