On Saturday, my girlfriend and I embarked on a road trip that took us to the most southern point in New Jersey. So far, in fact, that it is below the Mason-Dixon Line. As we ventured further down the Garden State Parkway, it seemed as though we were leaving the state entirely. The only thing familiar was the hundreds of yellow New Jersey license plates also flocking southward. A near three hour ride, mired in heavy traffic would be enough to put anyone in a cranky mood. When we crossed the bridge and greeted by the Welcome to Cape May sign, all negative feelings were drained from my body. Now, I was filled with excitement, joy and a yearning to explore this famed Victorian beach town.
If asked to describe out trip in one word, it would most certainly have to be serendipitous. The timing of the trip was entirely dictated by chance—which despite being subjected to hours of traffic—proved very positive for us after we arrived. I will mention these unforeseen occurrences throughout this blog post. Our timing first seemed too good to be true as though we were being smiled upon by the day-vacation gods themselves. Our first instance of good fortune transpired when we at last found ourselves a parking spot at Cape May Elementary (the only free parking in the area) and approached the welcome center. There we were met by an affable Cape May Chamber of Commerce employee, who presented us with a map and information about the town’s hotspots. Vince (our temporary guide) in addition to being very friendly, advised us to visit the bar/night club known as The Boiler Room because it was “kicky” and young people like ourselves would have a good time there. We acknowledged all of his advice and vowed to check this place out, provided we had enough time. Well-stocked with information about the town, we set out on our way.
We first traversed the touristy section of Cape May in hopes of finding some lunch. Although we had left early in the morning, it was approaching noon and our appetite was rising. Finally we stumbled upon Cape May Fish Market to sit down and have lunch. We both ordered the thing you would expect at a seafood restaurant: a turkey club and a cheeseburger for my girlfriend. The meal brought out to me was of Man vs. Food proportions. The triple-decker turkey sandwich was difficult to fit in my hands. After taking in the shocking amount presented to me, it was simply mind over matter. And after a slight struggle, I consumed (read: defeated) my meal.
On Washington Street
A big groggy after our large meal, we set out on foot to the Emlen Physick Estate, one of the oldest houses in the entire town. This was the first serendipitous moment of many during our day. As we arrived to purchase tickets for the tour, we were informed that the tour would be starting in no more than 3 minutes. We hurriedly made our way to the tour meeting point, walking briskly on the seashell driveway. This estate was everything you could expect of a Victorian Era mansion. The estate’s grand first floor gave way to even more luxuriant 2nd and 3rd floors to what our tour guide referred to as a Seuss-ian chimney. Unfortunately no photography of any kind was permitted once indoors. Suffice to say there were many interesting artifacts, replicas, wallpaper and carpet designs, and reproductions that filled this enormous manor. We saw original bath suits (made of black wool!) pianos, top hats, books and more in the house. It was an impressive sight. Afterwards, we lounged at the gazebo and plotted out our next course of action.
The Physick Estate
My girlfriend’s father was at one time in the coast guard. Cape May has a U.S.C.G. station at the far end of town. Thinking it would be a good idea to grab a picture by the institutions sign for her father’s stake, I suggested we hoof it out there, grab the picture and come back to the beach to relax. The walk was much longer than I had anticipated (and the map’s scale had led me to believe) but we got a nice tour of the residential district and away from the beaten path. I noticed that many of the town’s year round denizens were Philadelphia sports fan. I walked with trepidation, fearing my Mets cap would conjure some sort of confrontation with the town’s residents. My apprehension proved unfounded, but I realized that whether I liked it or not I was in Philly-country now. Oh, and the Mets lost to the Phillies that day, so there was little reason for taunting on their part.
Eventually we found our way to the beach and as soon as we could, we slipped off our shoes and ran for the beach. I felt strangely like a foreigner, enjoying a beach that was not my own. It also made me feel hypocritical because I had so unabashedly mocked out-of-towners for flocking the Red Bank and the greater shore area. I was Benny now.
Lying on the beach we closed our eyes and reflected on what a lovely day it had been already. And it wasn’t even half over. I was more interested in looking at the Victorian hotels and buildings than I was the water. The water I had seen a million times, but the houses…they were incredible. Even though I had taken careful measures to prevent sand from going anywhere on my body, I found myself covered in it. After a thorough brush-off, we made our way to Carney’s to grab a nice pint of pale ale and some delectable steamed clams.
At the beach
We headed back towards the tourist area to pick up some souvenirs. I had seen a navy blue Cape May hooded sweatshirt that I had to have earlier that day. On our way back, we found the public library. We had wondered whether the town would have one after seeing the tiny schools. The library was just as small. After searching through a few stores, I at last found my beloved sweatshirt. Satisfied, we hiked back to the car to head west towards Cape May Point.
Several of Cape May’s attractions are actually located in the Point. The lighthouse, Sunset Beach, World War II watch tower and nature conservatory are just a few. We want to catch get some photos of the lighthouse (even though it was closed) before the sun went down and to watch the sunset on Sunset Beach. We finally made it to the lighthouse (which is also a State Park). We grabbed some token photos of the lighthouse and then heard the shrill of children. We turned our attention to the source of the commotion and realized everyone was pointing and ogling the water. They were all watching dolphins.
Lighthouse at sunset
Dolphins leaped out of the water as a small pack of them headed north. We had considered taking a dolphin/whale watching tour during the day, but Vince told us it would be a wash. The whales are all in Massachusetts by now, he uttered. And even though we decided against spending time and money on the watch we were still serendipitously granted view of the sea mammals. I got as many photos as I could, but most just turned out as tiny black fin-shaped specks against a dark blue ocean.
That’s a dolphin fin…can’t you tell?
We left the beach with hopes of catching the sunset at the aptly named beach. Regrettably, everyone else had similar ideas as we had to park a good half-mile from the beach. The setting sun was shielded from an unlucky strand of clouds placed just at the horizon. So we were snubbed from our romantic sunset, but at least caught a glimpse as the fiery orange tinge faded into the sea. We also saw one rare sight, the remains of a concrete ship. Long story short, America ran out of steel and iron for production and constructed 16 ships out of concrete. They weren’t very fast, but they somehow stayed afloat, with the exception of this one. It crashed just off shore and the split remnants of the ship’s hull stuck out of the water, like the ruins of an ancient underwater city.
“It’s like Atlantis” my girlfriend said, as we stared at the nautical marvel.
I spent some time looking for Cape May diamonds (translucent pieces of quartz) on the beach. The setting of the sun (and possibly my girlfriend’s waning patience) dashed any hopes I might of had in finding any larger sized precious stones, but I did find a few fragments to present to my mother later. Our long haul to the car was followed by an even longer wait in local traffic. Eventually we found a beachside parking spot and set out for the Boiler Room.
Searching for diamonds
The bar, which we thought must have been this tiny hole in the wall, was located underneath the very ritzy Congress Hall hotel. We approached the bouncer, produced our IDs from our wallets and descended the stairs. Below, I was met with total surprise at what I saw. This was hardly the hole in the wall we had imagined. Instead, it was a hip (dare I say kicky) night club, with an ample bar and stage for performance. The ambience is best described as a Manhattan-esque bar that plays live music, with the tranquil neon lights fluttering on the wall. It was both exciting and low-key at the same time.
Though well nourished by the clams form Carneys, we ordered some appetizers. My girlfriend had the friend calamari and I had a buffalo burger. Both meals were delicious. We savored the bar food as well as our accompanying spirits (a River Horse Pale Ale and Long Trail Blackberry Wheat). When we entered the Boiler Room, it was a bit quiet and the band was just doing their sound checks before their performance. This was our last serendipitous moment.
The bar soon began to fill up and the band began their set as we were eating. They were a soul/jazz/blues band that covered some classics as well as performing some of their own work. The lead singer was everything you’d expect to be a band of this ilk. The bluesman came onto the stage after the band’s terrific instrumental rendition of Oye Como Va to sing what had to be a Ray Charles song. He was tall, old and wore a weathered face of a man who had done this all his life (spending his days on the beach and his nights performing in nightclubs and bars). He was linen clad and was topped by a worn Panama hat drawn over his eyes. As he sang he danced around in his chair as best he could; waving his arms to the rhythm of the blues he sang. It was all too good to be true. We absorbed the pleasant feeling of the set and became entranced as the band played on. Tempted to say this was once again like our Nick and Norah/Good Old War experience, I refrained from mentioning it (even though it really was). We just enjoyed the presence of each other’s company, the band’s company and the experience of the day. After finishing their first set, we removed ourselves from the bar (for fear of being hypnotized longer by the music of the bluesman) and set out for our way home.
Any other two-hour plus car ride home would have been a little tiresome and even annoying. Still doped up on the high of our music experience, we conversed about the day and how wonderful it had been. And it was truly wonderful…