By Joan Rattner Heilman
Cape May on the New Jersey coast is my kind of place—leafy streets lined with Victorian houses painted in inspired hues and lushly decorated with gingerbread trim, long stretches of open beach,spectacular sunsets, affordable accommodations, a walkable downtown, restaurants good enough for repeat visits, and birds, birds, birds. In fact, as any ardent birder will tell you, this is one of the best spots on the entire East Coast for viewing songbirds, shore birds, water birds, eagles and hawks that stop over here during their spring and fall migrations, and others that hang around all year.
On a recent visit with my spouse and two friends, all of them much more interested in the turn-of-the-century architecture than they were in a bunch of birds, I talked them into a two-hour Salt Marsh Safari tour of the Cape’s extensive watery marshes aboard a 40-foot pontoon boat called the Skimmer, run by Ginny Powell and her ebullient partner Ed Garrison, both of whom have spent years here and can tell you every interesting fact about every creature out there. My three companions became instant converts to birding, at least by boat, enthralled by the sights we saw—members of the largest colony of breeding laughing gulls in the world getting ready to nest, red-billed oystercatchers, huge ospreys swooping into the water and coming up with fish clutched tightly in their sharp talons, small white-billed gray ducks called coots, greater yellowlegs, an adolescent green heron, great blue herons, snowy egrets, red-winged blackbirds, common mergansers, cormorants, ruddy turnstones, brants, willets, little beige dunlins, plovers, and others whose names elude me. No eagles but a few red-tailed hawks. And the clattering call of a clapper rail who refused to emerge from the reeds.
The next morning, I convinced my group to walk the Nature Conservancy’s one-mile trail on the water’s edge to look for more birds. Here the major spottings were herons, terns, and blackbirds, and a pair of bald-headed turkey vultures consuming an expired turtle.
But when I then proposed heading for the Audubon Center for a guided walk, I was promptly outvoted in favor of an escorted tour through the Emlen Publick Estate,a marvelous authentically restored and furnished 1879 Victorian mansion constructed in the then-avant garde stick style of architecture. The hour-long tour was narrated by an amusing old gentleman who led us through the house and grounds with elan and stories of the family that had owned it for three generations.Later we strolled around the streets, admiring the “summer cottages” built by rich Southerners as retreats from the heat of the cities.
We had chosen the Dormer House, our B&B, from a Groupon offer and we were lucky. A large wooden “colonial revival” edifice constructed in 1899 by a moneyed marble dealer from Philadelphia, it is filled with the usual funky old furniture, lace curtains, marble fireplaces, and faded knickknacks, very comfortable, clean, and cozy. The beds were comfortable, the rooms were large, the breakfasts were sumptuous, afternoon tea came with homemade cakes and cookies, and the owner, Dennis Doherty, was always on hand with local lore and helpful tips. All of the other 20-or-so guests turned out to be birders,this being spring migration time, eager to compare notes on where they’d been and what they’d seen with what kind of binoculars.
There are, however, other things to do in Cape May. You can take a narrated trolley ride through the Historic District to see the historic houses, hotels, and public buildings. Or stroll the downtown pedestrian malls, stopping here and there to shop, sample fudge, buy an ice cream cone. Forays in and out of town include riding the ferry and back across Delaware Bay to Lewes, Delaware; driving to Wildwood for an amusement park and a real boardwalk; climbing up the famous Cape May Lighthouse for the view; riding a bike along the shore and inland roads; attending a tasting at a nearby winery; or just hanging out on the beach.
And now, to get to one of the most important issues, how is the food in Cape May? We spent only three days there but we managed to find good eats, most notably at a small trendy restaurant called Tisha’s and the imposing Lobster House where we stuffed ourselves with excellent fried clams and shrimp. The Blue Pig was a good choice too among the eateries that remain open all year. And if you’re looking for a simple lunch or, even better, a cocktail or two after a hard day of vacationing, stop in at the Pilot House where you’ll fast feel like family and ready to get going again.
For more information and specifics, get in touch with the Cape May Chamber of Commerce, 609-884-5508, www.capemaychamber.com. Or, once you’re there, go to the Welcome Center at 609 Lafayette St.
Joan Rattner Heilman, a New York travel writer is the author of scores of magazine and newspaper articles and columns and over a dozen books, including Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can’t Get Unless You’re Over 50.