CAPE MAY was founded in 1620 by the Dutch Captain Mey, on the small hook at the very southern tip of the Jersey coast, jutting out into the Atlantic and washed by the Delaware Bay on the west. Though the town began its day as a whaling and farming community, in 1745 the first advertisement for Cape May’s restorative air and fine accommodation appeared in the Philadelphia press, heralding a period of great prosperity through tourism, aided by the town’s superb beaches.
The Victorian era was Cape May’s finest, when Southern plantation owners flocked to the fashionable boarding houses of this genteel “resort of Presidents”. Nearly all its gingerbread architecture dates from a mass rebuilding after a severe fire in 1878. Today, the whole town is a National Historic Landmark, with more than six hundred Victorian buildings, tree-lined streets, beautifully kept gardens and a lucrative B&B industry.
Cape May’s brightly coloured houses were built by nouveau riche Victorians with a healthy disrespect for subtlety. Cluttered with cupolas, gazebos, balconies and “widow’s walks”, the houses follow no architectural rules except excess. They were known as “patternbook homes”, with designs and features chosen from catalogues and thrown together in accordance with the owner’s taste.
The traditionally blue-collar resort of Wildwood, near Cape May on a barrier island east of Rte-47, offers a counterpoint to the pretty but often pretentious olde-worlde charm of Cape May. Its 1950s architecture, left lovingly intact, includes dozens of gaudy and fun-looking hotels with names like Pink Orchid, Waikiki and The Shalimar, all still featuring plastic palm trees, kidney-shaped swimming pools and plenty of aqua, orange and pink paint. To best appreciate the town’s brash charm, take a stroll along the boardwalk and stop on the wide, throbbing, free beaches. Additionally, check out the local amusement rides and water parks, such as Morey’s Piers, Raging Waters and Splash Zone.