Conde Nast States Cape May is a great Vacation destination!
Cape May is the way!
COURTING CAPE MAY
The primary-coloured Jersey Shore is as all-American as Bruce Springsteen, its Born in the USA son. We pledge allegiance
words by ANTONIA QUIRKE
MY TERRITORY RUNS from the top of Asbury Park to the bottom of Cape May.' So says Boardwalk Empire's Prohibition-era gangster hero Nucky Thompson, king of the USA's infamous Jersey Shore, a unique stretch of seaside incorporating every fun and crazy thing, from 19th-century lobster shacks to down-and-dirty pinball alleys, that starts an hour south of New York City and continues 100 miles to the very tip of New Jersey where the Atlantic Ocean meets Delaware Bay. Forty resort towns, each with its own stroll of wooden boardwalk; beaches and stalls, funfairs and guesthouses. Neptune City. Avalon. Sea Girt. White sand bordering million-dollar mansions giving way to faded Deco blocks and Fifties doo-wop motels. Some towns are madly kitsch, some charming as hell, and most have been here since the 1850s when doctors in Philadelphia started to persuade patients about the health benefits of the sea. I love the Shore and have been coming here every summer on and off for the last 20 years. I especially love that the beach holiday wasn't invented in Malibu or St Tropez but in New Jersey, the gum-chewing, blue-collar state where baseball also began and the record player was invented, along with the drive-in movie and the lightbulb. Ah, the Dionysian potential of American life! CAPE MAY
Drop to the southernmost point of the Shore and you'll find its unsung answer to the Hamptons. Cape May, once home to the Kechemeche Indians, was first spotted in 1609 by the captain of a Dutch sailing vessel and by the early 1870s was a cherished seaside resort. By the 1970s the little coastal town was super-sedate, creakingly historic and, frankly, deserted. A friend of mine worked here as a waiter then, in his teens, polishing cutlery in a too-quiet diner, humming along to Fleetwood Mac's 'Hypnotized' on the radio while the manager patted her curls, both dreaming of razzier places further up the coast. On the walls, pictures of Cape May summers long past: guests in bonnets gathered around tables of lemonade and dice; lifeguards, belts white as starch, smiling at mothers with shy, ribboned daughters; local boys curing a hangover with coffee and cognac in the 1920s. Then you could buy up a whole house here, abandoned and full of furniture, in a garden exploding with cow parsley and hawthorns, for a few hundred dollars.
Today the town is carefully renovated (some houses date back to 1650), with Victorian turreted mini-mansions, immaculate clapboard hotels and sweetly various B&Bs, painted pink and pea-green, and all within walking distance of a broad, white beach. In the holidays, over sun-cracked picket fences, 10-year-olds sell iced tea from jugs next to piles of dimes for change, and people sit out on their porches all afternoon and evening. It's a clubbable town, dainty, winningly eccentric - the tacos place on Sunset Boulevard with its large shrine to Ernest Hemingway; the ice-cream stall that hands out notices for lectures on Freud. There's a tomato festival which has no tomatoes to speak of, only earthenware birds' nests and boxes of rusting lapel pins. With the sea running on one side of the town and salt marshes along the other, Cape May's outlying long roads are lined with cedars rustling with tiny hummingbirds. Sweetbay magnolia, richly fragrant honeysuckle, blue mistflower and foxglove beardtongue. When in 2013 the Hamptons were officially declared too developed, too much of a party scene, the wise of Cape May turned their pushbikes windward and watched the Atlantic pour bean-green near the lighthouse at the southern tip of the resort, the Point, where there is nobody on the pristine beach, even during cherry-coloured sunsets.
At the famed and imposing Congress Hall hotel, extended families of guests share sun lotion and gossip and a general pervasive sense of well-being, sitting on rocking chairs and pausing to read the New Jersey Star-Ledger or stretch their legs down the long, lawn-fronted veranda that has been here since 1816 and feels sheltered like a cloister. Presidents Pierce, Buchanan, Grant and Harrison stayed at Congress Hall between the 1850s and 1880s. Sometimes the whole White House (200 miles away) would decamp to the hotel for August. Enormous and pristine, it has original bricks painted a sugary yellow; the endless sea-bright corridors and mottled, dim mirrors overlook an Atlantic that regularly bursts with dolphins. This afternoon, well-to-do New Jersey families and couples on honeymoon watch as teenagers haul whopping suitcases up steps and chefs hand out lobster salads.
It's the week before Labor Day and absolutely nothing is happening, the New York Times casting around for diverting stories and reporting on a snow leopard born at the Bronx Zoo. Sunlight drenches guests in bright shards. Lunch is steamed clams and corn. A delivery man pulls a small cart of freckled mangoes past a hibiscus bush. After a few days of this, time becomes mere background noise. As staff absentmindedly clean glasses in the cool gloom of a ballroom after a wedding, their dreamy gaze, like everybody else's, is perpetually drawn not just towards the striped hotel cabanas on the sands but to the sand itself, which actually glints with miniscule Cape May diamonds: polished quartz stones washed 200 miles down the Delaware River and propelled onto the beaches by the tides. The Kechemeche used them for jewellery and traded the stones with other tribes, but now New Jersey children sift through the dunes all afternoon for larger morsels, trudging home in the evening with pockets drooping, turning them out onto tables like pirates gloating over an Arabic treasury.
THE SMELL HERE IS OF SALTINESS. SALT DRYING RINGS ONTO SKIN. HAIR FRIZZED INTO GYPSY MADNESS
On a storm-close, late-August afternoon I cycle towards Ocean Drive, part of the old state highway before they built the Garden State Parkway, cutting through the salt marshes. I pass the shops for clairvoyants that you find on the outskirts of every New Jersey town, the marine-junk stores and bait stands advertising squid and blood and minnows, suggesting that serious fishing is to be had: striped bass and bluefish, black sea bass and summer flounder. A slight, hot breeze kicks in as the road stretches down through the marshes. Unfeasibly tall sea oats tremble with bellowing frogs. The occasional crane - startlingly white - stares intently into dark water. Even the names around here make me think of whaling captains and ghosts: Snug Harbor, Mill Creek. A distant, faceless person squats with a net fishing for crabs and I toil further, past a crab shack marked by a gigantic wooden sailor. The smell along this road is hard to describe. My fifty-something friend Rachel says that this is the smell of summer, the smell of youth, and is as immediate and eye-lollingly potent to her as the smell of damp in a cupboard is to me, bringing with it childhood memories of holiday cottages in the Lake District. Cape May's smell is of a deep and ancient organic saltiness. Salt drying white rings onto the skin. Clothes rigid and double-thick with it. Hair frizzed into gypsy madness. Even the honey here has a slight salinity, a delicious and unexpected kick that is almost imperceptible but keeps you pouring it addictively onto spoons and fingers to taste it again until your heart thumps with all the gorging sweetness.