Cape May, New Jersey: lovely, breezy and Victorian

The goal was to escape the steaming sidewalks for a few days and to limit the drive to four hours, my highway stretching point. What I didn't count on was escaping the present, but such is the effect of Cape May, a breezy, lovely Victorian redoubt at the southern tip of the Jersey shore.

I wouldn't have been out of place with a straw boater, nor milady with a parasol. The mistake I made was not to bring a jacket, still a nightly requirement at the Chalfonte Hotel, but the house produced a facsimile, and did so cheerily, as is its wont. Surely the Chalfonte and Cape May itself are less stuffy than they are restrained, and who can argue with that quality nowadays?

Cape May (off-season population, 4,500; summer habitation, 50,000) was once a favorite summer retreat of high society from Washington, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. History-minded citizens, who are legion here -- the entire city was made a National Historic Landmark District in 1976 -- are likely to know the date June 20, 1917, the way a San Franciscan knows April 18, 1906. That was the day Wally Warfield of Baltimore, later the Duchess of Windsor, was introduced to Cape May by her aunt at the Colonial Hotel, a turreted, green-trim Victorian relic that still stands on the oceanfront. Those were the lazy summer days when John Philip Sousa played on the Iron Pier, now long gone, and guests planned winter holidays at the Homestead and Greenbrier.

There is no escaping the present if you stay at one of the brick-fronted motels opposite the beach, but the past is alive if not totally well preserved at a handful of Victorian hotels and inns. The most substantial of these are the Chalfonte and the Colonial, where wide verandas, wood rockers, creaking corridors, and rambling, screen-windowed dining rooms are the rule.

Two blocks from the beach but well within the range of crashing surf is the century-old Chalfonte, its wraparound porches shaded by worn green awnings. Riding atop the building like a steamboat's pilot house is a lovable cupola, more functional than it looks. It is a Cape May trademark, and it serves as a vent for the summer heat that rises through the airy old buildings. If the Chalfonte seems somewhat weathered and worn, it is in far better shape than it was in 1976 when its two managers launched a gradual overhaul, using college architecture students and federal- grant money.

Judy Bartella and Anne LeDuc, schoolteachers the rest of the year (the Chalfonte is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day), run the hotel for Mary Satterfield, 86, whose candid conversation one can enjoy any summer evening on the first-floor veranda.

"Our main thrust," said Judy Bartella of the ongoing restoration," has got to be the roof. When it comes to tin roofing, it's hard to get volunteers. And we have a coal-fired hot water heater -- it has to be stoked all night long -- that should be replaced by gas one day soom."

There are no such changes planned for the kitchen, overseen jointly by Helen Dickerson and her daughter Dorothy (Dot) Burton, able practitioners of the art of Southern cooking. You get breakfast and supper with the rent ($50 to $77 for two per day) -- spoonbread and biscuits every morning, fried and greaseless chicken twice a week at night. Lunch you find on your own, and I can recommend an unVictorian spot called the Filling Station which does good hamburgers and puts out the most imaginative salad bar I've seen -- watercress, fresh spinach, succulent Jersey tomatoes, and other juicy products of the Garden State.

There is nothing lavish about the Chalfonte's rooms, but that is part of the Victorian flavor. "The Victorians weren't interested in room decor," I learned on a walking tour given four or five days a week by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. "They used their rooms to change into their next costume -- it was the public rooms that had all the style." Only 11 of the Chalfonte's 103 rooms have private baths. The rooms are cramped, the iron-frame beds may sag, but the ocean breezes carrying the sounds of surf and crickets beat the hum of an air conditioner any night.

The 100-room Colonial, where Wally Warfield bowed, hasn't been as loyal to Victorian decor as the Chalfonte has, and it's joined by a 50-room motel on one side, but the rates are right ($49 to $53 for two with two meals), and it seems well managed. Perhaps the most attractive hostelry in Cape May is the 8-room Mainstay Inn, a Victorian jewel operated by Tom and Sue Carroll, a tireless young couple who do most of the housework and give teas and tours four days a week. Tom Carroll is also chairman of the local planning board, which is fighting to preserve Cape May's historic architectural purity. Sue Carroll, who is willing to promote some of her competitors in the interest of promoting Cape May, told me that the 7-room Washington Inn -- more colonial than Victorian -- is a comfortable place to stay.

Cape May's beach has lost some of its breadth to recent erosion, but it is still a splendid strand, wide and firm at low tide, crowded but not tumultuous on a hot afternoon. One of the better kept secrets of the Jersey Shore is Cape May Point, a fine, uncrowded, dune-backed beach a few miles south of town. This is where the Atlantic meets Delaware Bay, and the water is almost Caribbean-warm. There is indeed a scalloped, sloping, desert-island character to Cape May Point. All this is only 3 1/2 hours from New York City, and though the driving was easy on the Garden State Parkway in the new Fiat Strada I was trying out, there was no need for a car once I arrived. Cape May Point was a (rented) bike ride away, but otherwise everything was in walking range. That's the way the Victorians did it, too.

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