By Karen Rubin

Cape May, nestled on the tip of a peninsula in southern New Jersey, reawakens in spring, after a partial hibernation that follows the warmth and holiday cheer of Christmas festivities and events. The level of activity builds to crescendo by summer in this Victorian seaside town which has been welcoming vacationers since the Indians and early European settlers, in the 1630s. Autumn resumes the peaceful retreat with the return of the birds on their migratory route.

Probably America's first true resort, Cape May, named for Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, began as a fishing and whaling center, but people have been coming for health and pleasure as far back as 1766. At one point, Cape May had the largest hotel in the world, the Mt. Vernon, accommodating 3,500 patrons (it burned down four years later, in 1856). Cape May became known as the Queen of the Seaside Resorts.

The completion of the railroad from Philadelphia to Cape Island in 1863 ushered in the next phase of the island's development, the Cottage Era, with the parceling of lots for Philadelphia families to build their summer homes. After a devastating fire, Cape May decided to rebuild itself as a smaller scaled-down version, helped along with an incentive from the railroad. Homes and businesses were built in Queen Anne, Gothic and American bracketed styles. And then, as if everyone decided that perfection could not be improved, that is where time seems to have stopped.

Cape May is the very definition of "quaint" (the city even won a national award in 2000 as one of America's Prettiest Painted Places). The architecture of the homes, many that now welcome guests as bed and breakfasts, is itself a major attraction. There are more than 600 late-Victorian wood structures within 2 sq. mile area--the greatest concentration of Victorian homes anywhere-and the entire town has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976. The architecture is as much of an attraction (and becomes the focus of activities and events) as is the sea and vast powder-sand beach, where you can revel in the sun sinking below the horizon, unobstructed by land, as if you were in Key West, Florida.

The charming, for the most part, cottage-style accommodations also set the tone: a laid back seaside community where you can instantly become a resident, even briefly. And though Cape May is only 169 miles (about three hours drive) from New York, it is just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and offers a southern style of hospitality.

Cape May is best known as a couples place (though not in the way of the Poconos). There is romance and understated elegance, a charm and grace that goes along with antiques and period furnishings. Most of the bed-and-breakfasts even disallow children (though we found a few that welcome youngsters and a marvelous beachfront condominium-hotel, the Hotel Marquis Lafayette, that is very welcoming for families).

But we found so much to do in Cape May that would delight families and children, including special activities and living-history tours, nature programs and whale watching. In fact, there is much for couples as well as families to enjoy in Cape May, in a low-key, unfrenetic way, with each season offering a special appeal. It is worthwhile to seek out those places that do welcome families, such as the Hotel Marquis Lafayette, and for those who want the complete Victorian experience, an 1869 Victorian home, Antoinette's, offering guest apartments and suites.

Spring is an ideal time to visit Cape May, which is notably on the migration route of so many birds that this may be the one time when non-feathered visitors outnumbered the two-legged ones (the equation could shift during summer). Cape May is considered one of a dozen birding "hotspots," a "mecca" for birders. During spring and autumn migration, hundreds of species have been known to come through, and more than 400 species have been seen on the peninsula. The peninsula is known for spectacular flights of peregrines, merlins, ospreys, and sharp-shinned hawks, as well as migrating warblers, owls, shorebirds, waders and waterfowl. Besides the migratory times, though, Cape May is known for birding year round. Various birding events are offered through the Cape May Bird Observatory (609-884-2736), which has a 24-hour "Cape May Birding Hotline," for rare bird sightings (609-884-2626).

We visited at Christmas time, the winter temperatures not interfering with delightful walks along the beach and through the nature preserve at Cape May Point State Park, biking to visit the Cape May Lighthouse, touring the Emlen Physick Estate (which offers special holiday tours at Christmas time) and getting immersed in Victorian Cape May. Even without the opportunity to swim in the ocean, we found Cape May provided a delightful and distinctive retreat.

Victoriana is Attraction

One of the key attractions in Cape May at any time of the year is the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate, a stunning example of Victorian architecture (to think, it was nearly demolished in 1970 and for many years, was so derelict, it was known as Cape May's "haunted house"). Designed by renowned Victorian architect Frank Furness as a Stick Style mansion, it offers some 15 rooms authentically restored to their original grandeur, and decorated with some of the family's own belongings.

Some of the tours of the Emlen Physick Estate are "living history," hosted by costumed interpreters who may play the part of Dr. Physick's mother or aunt (Emlen Physick was the son of a prominent doctor and though he earned his degree, never practiced); "The Doctor is In," and at Christmas time, "A Physick Family Christmas," which is offered from mid-November through New Year's. (Cape May's Victorian Christmas event was a key reason we wanted to visit at Cape May during this season.) You can combine the visit to the mansion with a visit to the Carriage House Gallery (a Victorian quilts exhibit was on view during our visit), and enjoy an authentic tea luncheon at the Twinings Tearoom. The Emlen Physick Estate is open daily from April through December, and weekends from January through March (Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, 609-884-5404, www.capemaymac.org).

We entered the house as if were Christmas, 1895 and were greeted by Francis Ralston (Physick's mother) and Emily Parmatere (her sister), who were preparing for a dinner party (buffet-style, the newest rage), that evening. It was delightful to hear what would have been au courant for the time, and see the latest gadgets and customs.

We also enjoyed a tea luncheon at Twinings Tearoom, located in the restored 1876 Carriage House on the Emlen Physick Estate grounds. We chose four sandwiches from a selection: cucumber with mint butter; chicken salad; smoked salmon with dill and cream cheese; egg salad with watercress; and enjoyed various tea breads, sweets, and a steady stream of tea brewed to perfection. The tearoom also serves an elegant afternoon tea (609-884-5404).

These tours would delight children of any age, but periodically during the year and especially in summer, MAC offers Trolley Tours and Physick Estate Tours especially designed for children 5 to 10. MAC also offers various other programs for children, including a harbor safari, fisherman's wharf tour, an "Around Cape Island" boat cruise; a trip on Cape May Seashore Lines train; "teddy bear teas" at the Twinings Tea Room; and children's trolley rides.

At Christmas time, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts also hosts Lamplighter tours, where you get to visit five festive inns; $15/adult, $7.50/child 3-12), and marvelous Evening Wassail tours and Holley Tolley tours which combine a narrated tour in a heated, decorated trolley, with a visit to the Physick mansion, $15/adult, $7.50 for children; advance reservations strongly recommended, 800-275-4278, 609-884-5404). During the year, MAC also offers walking tours, and various themed programs, including a Sherlock Holmes mystery weekend.

The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts also operates the Cape May Point Lighthouse, an 1859-vintage structure that is still operating. Visiting the lighthouse is a delight: you climb 199 tower stairs to a spectacular panoramic view of the Jersey Cape, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse has been repainted in its original colors and has a reconstructed lantern. The Oil House, at the base, has an orientation center. At various times through the season, there is a living history event, "The Keeper's On Duty," where actors play Harry or Belle Palmer, the Lighthouse's last keepers, greet guests at the top and relate tales of their life and work in the 1920s. There are also nighttime tours that begin with a narrated trolley ride and include a guided tour of the lighthouse.

The lighthouse, which presents a marvelous subject for photographers or painters, is adjacent to the Cape May Point State Park, offering nature walks, slide shows, lectures and programs for kids, all free (609-884-2159); we found the trails through the nature preserve marvelous trails, leading to wonderful sightings of birds. Just next to the park is the William D. and Jane C. Blair Jr. Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, affording a pleasant one-mile loop trail, reached from Sunset Boulevard.

Nearby, at the end of Sunset Boulevard, is Sunset Beach, one of the few places on the Eastern Seaboard where you can watch the sunset unobstructed by land. The interplay of the sea breezes across the Delaware Bay waters produces exquisitely colorful sunsets. Each night, there was a veritable show of color and light shimmering on the water, as the sun melted into the horizon. Sunset Beach is also where you might discover another treasure, "Cape May Diamonds"-pure quartz crystal which look like a white frosted pebble, but when it is polished, becomes a clear sparkling gem-like looking stone. The Kechemeche Indians felt the stones had supernatural powers influencing the success, well being and good fortune of the possessor, and bonds of friendship and lasting good will were often sealed with the gift or exchange of the sacred stones (www.sunsetbeachnj.com).

Just off shore is another intriguing attraction of Cape May: the Concrete Ship. Indeed, during World War I, because of a critical shortage of steel, the federal government experimented with building concrete ships. Cape May's Atlantus was the second prototype, and actually served for a year as a commercial coal steamer. Eventually, it was towed to Cape May where in 1926, it was supposed to be used as a ferry dock, but it broke loose of its moorings and went aground.

Other fun things for families:

Check out Elaine's Dinner Theater and Elaine's Haunted Mansion Restaurant, offering a combination of animatronics, magic and comedy with dining; you can even take an outdoor walking ghost tour (513 Lafayette St., 609-884-4358).

There is the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, where you can take a marine mammal sightseeing cruise (afternoon and sunset cruises), 609-898-0055; Nature Center of Cape May, 1600 Delaware Ave., an environmental facility which offers workshops, field trips and seminars for adults and children (609-898-8848); Cape May County Historical Museum, in the John Holmes House, circa 1755, presenting 300 years of Cape May County history (609-465-3535); Cape May Firemen's Museum, offering a free exhibition of fire-fighting artifacts (open daily, Washington & Franklin).

You can take Wildlife Unlimited's Salt Marsh Safari, a trip on a 40-foot boat, the Skimmer, into the Cape's wilderness, the Atlantic coastal back bays (New Jersey's equivalent of Florida's Everglades), to see great egrets, black skimmer, marbled godwits, laughing gulls, a heron rookery, diamond-backed terrapin. The boat sails daily from Miss Chris Marina: a 10 a.m. morning refuge cruise, a 1:30 p.m. afternoon osprey odyssey, and 6 p.m. sunset on the marsh (609-884-3100, www.skimmer.com).

You can also take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry across the Delaware Bay to Lewes, Delaware, where there is tax-free shopping, dining, entertainment, NASCAR and live hardness racing in season, as well as special trips, such as a Historical Lewes Tour, and a DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum tour (800-64-FERRY, 609-889-7200, www.capemaylewesferry.com).

Then, just 25 minutes drive across the bridge from Cape May, there is Wildwood, which is much like the way I fondly remember Atlantic City before it became overrun with gigantic casinos. Where Cape May is sedate and Victorian, Wildwood is honky tonk, with a mile-long boardwalk lined with arcades and amusement parks. An interesting attraction is the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, an 1874 Victorian Gothic 4th Order Lighthouse, located in the old Anglesea Village, in the north section of Wildwood (609-522-4520).

There is also golf, year-round, at the Cape May National Golf Club, a top-ranked course which flows through wetlands, natural grasses, mounding and ponds (609-884-1563).

Cape May Day Spa offers massages, hydrotherapy and such (607 Jefferson St., 609-898-1003, www.capemaydayspa.com).

You can take a half-hour horse-drawn carriage ride through the historic area ($8/adult, $4/child, 609-884-4466).

Accommodations as Attractions

In a city made famous by its cottages, the Marquis de Lafayette is actually a throw-back to Cape May's era of large hotels, but with an updated twist: condominiums. This sprawling property, with 73 ocean-view rooms and suites commands an incredible location, just across Beach Avenue from the ocean, and is a best bet for families coming with children. It is almost ironic that Cape May offers such a marvelous seaside holiday for children, and yet most of the bed-and-breakfasts discourage youngsters (though we found some that welcomed families). The Marquis de Lafayette proved perfect, providing an actual apartment with kitchenette, bedroom with king-sized four-poster bed; parlor/living room with sofa, settee and chair (other suites have a sofa-bed); two televisions, and a lovely balcony with chairs, facing the ocean.

Other amenities that add immeasurably to the experience, as well as the value of staying at the Marquis de Lafayette, is an outdoor heated swimming pool (in season), complimentary parking (a significant amenity in Cape May), complimentary beach tags, plus complimentary American buffet breakfast served in a pleasant dining room, (eggs, breakfast meats, cereals, breads and muffins, fruit, yogurt) is provided daily. The hotel also offers an elegant sixth floor restaurant, the Pelican Club, with picture windows and a stunning view. Marquis de Lafayette, 501 Beach Ave., 800-257-0432, www.marquiscapemay.com).

Many of the lodgings are also attractions that make you feel very much a part of Cape May.

The Southern Mansion, for example, is a stunning example of Victoriana: the largest and most opulent mansion dating from the mid-1800s, set on two acres of award-winning gardens, offering luxurious amenities (720 Washington St., 609-884-7171, 800-381-3888, www.southernmansion.com).

Constructed in 1875, The Chalfonte Hotel is Cape May's oldest hotel. A stunning structure, with Italianate decorative elements, large gingerbread-trimmed verandas, and a roof-top pavilion, it was built for Civil War hero Colonel Henry Sawyer, a Confederate prisoner who was exchanged for the son of General Robert E. Lee.

For families who wish to enjoy the experience of living in a charming 1867 Victorian Home, Antoinette's, 717 Washington St., offers guest apartments and suites and does welcome children, year-round. The house has 70 windows, most of them dressed with handmade curtains and drapes; a famous 40,000-stick hand crocheted wall hanging, made by Antoinette, was finished when she was 94 (and won a blue ribbon); there are 20 handmade Victorian-style lampshades, handcrafted by the proprietor, Deanna Brown, Antoinette's granddaughter. Guest accommodations feature fully equipped kitchens, microwave oven, private bathrooms, color cable television, air conditioning and ceiling fans, working fireplace, outside patio and grill. Units accommodate from five to eight people (609-898-0502, www.antoinettescapemay.com).

The John F. Craig House (609 Columbia Ave.), just a block from the ocean, is an 1866 Carpenter Gothic (reputedly the oldest house on Columbia Ave.), and was a summer home for the Craig family of Philadelphia from 1891 through the 1950s. Guests here are treated to early morning coffee, full breakfast served in the candlelit dining room, afternoon tea, a parlor with fireplace and library; and can make use of a guest refrigerator. The inn, offering seven guest rooms and a suite, is furnished with Eastlake and Renaissance Revival antiques. Children over 12 are welcome (877-544-0314, www.johnfcraig.com).

For further information, contact the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May, 609-884-5508, www.capemaychamber.com.

Photo Captions:

1. Victorian architecture is a major attraction in Cape May, New Jersey, where some 600 Victorian structures are concentrated in a 2 mile area. The Landmark City is still very much the "Queen of America's Seaside Resorts" ( 2002 Karen Rubin).

2. The 1859-vintage Cape May Lighthouse, where you can climb 199 stairs, and possibly even meet the keeper or his wife ( 2002 Karen Rubin).

3. The Emlen Physick Estate, a Victorian showplace, offers special tours for children ( 2002 Karen Rubin).

2002 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. E-mail questions or comments to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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