Holiday Magic in Cape May
December 18, 2013

Victorian Cape May, NJ, may be best known as America’s oldest beach resort town, established in 1761, but it should be just as well-known as a pedestrian’s paradise and the most quintessential Christmas town on the Eastern seaboard. Meandering through the Historic District—with all its Victorian mansions-turned-B & Bs brightly lit for the holidays—feels like walking through a picture-perfect Yuletide scene that resides inside a department store window along Fifth Avenue.

On our recent visit, Cape May insiders Aunt Loraine and Uncle Simon led us on the self-guided Christmas Candlelight House Tour. For three weekends in December, at least fifteen homes, inns, hotels and churches are open to visitors so they can see Christmas past in grand Victorian style. It happened to be pouring on the night that we did this, so the carolers and musicians who were supposed to be strolling the streets were confined to front porches and under tents, but visitors still came in droves, and a few houses had lines to get in.

Lessons Learned!

There was no Santa on hand, but as budding history buffs, Riley and Halina (ages 10 and 8) were just as thrilled to talk to homeowners and innkeepers who were decked out in elaborate period dress to explain the history of their home and many of the objects in it.

“OMG! That would be so dangerous!” Halina exclaimed when she saw one enormous Christmas tree covered in (unlit) candles, the way it would have been a century and a half ago.

“Indeed,” said Aunt Loraine, “That’s probably part of why they had so many fires back in the day!” Though the town was largely spared by Hurricane Sandy last year, major fires and floods are as much a part of Cape May’s history as the beach itself. In 1878, an enormous fire destroyed about half the town, and in 1945, the entire borough of South Cape May ceased to exist following a major hurricane.

Other Holiday Spots

The pedestrian Washington Street Mall is also thoroughly decked out for the holidays, with treats for children and adults on hand in various shops. Not to be outdone, the massive and historic Congress Hall is thoroughly decorated and teeming with activities for children. The Congress Hall Express train chugs around the expansive yard (which is currently filled with a holiday market), and the outdoor carousel gives riders a great view of the beach.

With a pang of regret, we thought that Riley and Halina would declare themselves too old for both of the rides, but there’s something about bright lights, boughs of garland, teams of gigantic nutcrackers, and holiday music playing in the background that brings the little kid out in bigger kids—and thank goodness!

Room to Roam

Cape May’s summer population of some 50,000 dwindles to about 3,600 in winter. That means plenty of space for strollers, toddlers, and rambunctious young children on the asphalt promenade that runs a mile along the beach. To speak nothing of having wide stretches of beach all to yourself! The sidewalks on any given street may also be virtually deserted, and although many shops, coffee houses, and restaurants are closed for the non-season, more than enough remain open.

All in all, winter is a great time to visit!

Logistics

From New York City, take the New Jersey Turnpike to the Garden State Parkway at Exit 11. Stay on that to Exit Zero. The drive is about three hours. The town hosts tours and events throughout the off season, and of course during summer.
 

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