When you first meet Maria Walters, you’ve made a friend and found a confidant in one of the most knowledgeable and caring ambassadors Cape May has to offer.
In 1995, Maria Walters began a 25-year innkeeping career at Cape May’s Queen Victoria. For her first nine years, she worked under the inn’s founders, Joan and Dane Wells, who established the Queen Victoria in 1980 and expanded the inn to encompass three additional sister properties. She is now the manager of Bath Time on the Washington Street Mall.
Joan Wells remembers Maria as “a stand-out among greats” with an unrivaled attention to detail. “Most importantly,” Joan told Cape May Magazine, “we trusted her judgement implicitly, even in difficult situations.”
How did you become a local?
I’m from Philadelphia. We used to vacation in Wildwood Crest starting when I was about two or three, until 1975. The lady we used to rent from called my father mid-season and said she was returning the deposit because the house was being torn down to build a motel. I have a very vivid memory of that because I thought our vacation would never be the same. That happened to be the year my father decided that we were moving here, and in the summer of ’76 we stayed in North Cape May for a week with family. My sister and I were back in September to start school. And I’ve been here ever since.
Was your first winter here a shock for you?
At Trick-or-Treat, there was nowhere to go because no one lived in any of the houses. That was totally different from the city, where there were row homes and at least four or five members of my father’s family right on the same street. What people who vacation here never realize is just how isolated it is in the wintertime. Especially years ago, when there was no shoulder season. I can remember going through Cape May on Labor Day afternoon and being amazed at how empty the town was. Like a bell rang and everyone ran. Now September is one of the busiest months we have.
What was one of the things you enjoyed doing here as you grew up?
I loved sitting on the rock pile and watching the sunsets. I lived within walking distance of the bay and would carry my chair to the rock pile as much as I could.
Did you get involved with high school activities?
In the winter I used to love roller skating at the Convention Hall in Cape May and school dances. But by the time I was 15 I was done with all that. I had my son Chris at 16 so I didn’t have the complete high school experience that the other kids had.
When you worked as an innkeeper, what were the misconceptions people had who were not from here?
Everyone thinks that if you live here, it’s a year-round vacation. Their experience here is a vacation experience, not a living experience. I can’t tell you how many times people at the Queen Victoria would say, “You’re so lucky to live here, you must go to the beach all the time.” If I got to the beach twice in one summer, it was a big deal. They also think that you eat in all the fancy restaurants, which is not affordable when you’re trying to live your regular life. I had to make it my business to know what was good and to know the menus and the pricing so that I could direct people, but I had very little personal experience with that.
Did you point that out or did you not shatter the illusion?
My response was that I felt very privileged to live here. People spend thousands of dollars to spend a few days or a week where I get to live every day.
Joan and Dane Wells established such a prestigious inn with the Queen Victoria. Did it feel intimidating as a working-class girl from Philly being the front line of such an upscale place?
My previous job was 11 years at Marine Bank after my first son was born, where I was on a different footing with people. I was first hired to work the front desk at the Queen’s Hotel (one of four Queen Victoria buildings). There was a desk between me and the people, I gave them what they needed, and everyone was happy, so it wasn’t intimidating. When I moved over to the inn, I was very nervous because then I was hosting. You’re expected to have conversations.
Is there acting involved with that sort of innkeeping?
It wasn’t acting; it was being prepared to provide them with what they needed during their stay. My biggest anxiety was that my personal experiences didn’t come close to the experiences of the people who stayed there. I raised six kids, I never went beyond high school or traveled. These were educated, well-traveled, successful people. I always felt that I would have nothing to talk about. But I learned that they just wanted to hear what my life was like and what the town was like. I learned that I have much more in common with people than I ever thought.
You made and maintained friendships with many of them. I know that at Bath Time you get at least a visit or two each day from Queen Victoria guests who come to see you.
That makes me feel so blessed to know that they still feel that connection. It was more than a job to me. I loved taking care of them. It’s so special that people still come to look for me.
How did you end up at Bath Time?
It started out as a part-time second job when my husband Bill was sick, but didn’t even feel like a job because it was so pleasant. When Bill died, I just needed a change. When I left the inn, I was offered full-time hours at Bath Time and moved into managing it.
Joan and Dane Wells were two of Cape May’s movers and shakers in the early days of our renaissance, setting a standard of excellence at the Queen Victoria. How would you describe them?
They were visionaries. In the early days of the bed and breakfast craze, they saw that it was going to become an industry. They had already been there 14 years by the time I started with them. They were already teaching people how to be innkeepers. They were a huge force in creating the shoulder season in Cape May. They brought Christmas to town with many of the events that still go on today. As a couple and as business partners, they brought their talents together and were stunningly good at it. They truly cared about the town.
You’ve also said how kind they were as employers.
They cared about the staff. They ran a small business like a large corporation in the best possible ways. They offered benefits you wouldn’t normally get at a job at the shore. They were concerned with employee health and wellness. They had employee assistance like counseling before it was even a thing. And they paid for it.
Was there ever a time when their kindness directly helped you?
Several times. Once we had to take my oldest son to culinary school in New York and needed to stay overnight. I mentioned to Joan that I’d booked a room at a Motel 6. She said, “You can cancel that.” When I got to work the next day, she handed me an envelope to give to the innkeeper at a beautiful select-registry inn in Hyde Park. It was fancier than any place I’d ever seen in my life. She knew it was a special trip for us and wanted it to be memorable.
Can you comment on the bed and breakfast boom and its decline in the 2000s?
I saw a definite swing among those in the B&B industry. People didn’t want to be innkeepers with the passion the first crop of them had. I saw those first pioneering innkeepers retire and their inns turned into whole-house rentals. The art of innkeeping was no longer the same. It seems like it might be coming back again but nothing will ever match the vision and passion of those first innkeepers from the 70s and 80s.
Did any celebrities walk through the door during your time at Queen Victoria?
Linda Ronstadt stayed with us. She was very nice. Dan Hedaya from Cheers, Mariska Hargitay from Law & Order stayed once. Peter Nero from the Philadelphia Pops. Oh, and Gene Hart, the Voice of the Flyers! That’s a funny story. I was working late one evening and had a comp from MAC for one of the Music Festival people. The note that I had was written as the woman’s name Jean and the last name was spelled with an e at the end. So, I was waiting for a woman to show up. The doorbell rang, I went to open it and Gene Hart was standing there. And like a dope, I said, “You’re Gene Hart!” And he said, “Well, yes I am.” I am the biggest, dorkiest Flyers fan who ever lived. He walked in and looked around and said, “Boy, is my wife gonna’ be jealous to find out I stayed in this place!” He was the biggest celebrity to me.
What are your hobbies?
Right now, it’s gardening which totally started as a quarantine hobby. I’d never gardened at all.
At 56 years old, how did you come to choose a hobby you had never tried before?
After Bill died, I was struggling as anyone would. When your life was always a certain way and then it’s no longer that way, it’s nice to have something beautiful to focus on. I’d been living in a condo for a couple years and wasn’t able to garden or touch the outdoor surroundings. When I began staying with my boyfriend Garry, he had all this land and wanted to try it himself. I had never grown a thing in my life. He supports me in my hobby and it’s good for both of us.
That’s wonderful to find a boyfriend to share your life and interests with.
Both of us were married for a long time to people we loved tremendously. We both had solid, loving marriages. You don’t ever think you’re going to find that again. And when you do, it makes you want to try new and exciting things. For me it was the garden, and also cooking—anyone who knows me knows I never cooked. I was spoiled before with a husband who cooked wonderfully! It always seemed so difficult to me. Now I cook the things I grow, and it’s something Garry and I can do together. I am loving learning new things.
How are things different for families relocating to Cape May today than they were for you and your family in the 70s?
It’s still a great place to live but it’s now a difficult place to make a living. The pay scale in this area is very low to begin with for what things cost. Applying for a mortgage isn’t easy if you’re someone who’s making money only 8 months of the year. If you’re coming from a place where you just sold a home for $750,000, you’ll be fine here because you’ll be able to buy something nice and still have money to rest on. We’re at a turn where people are selling their houses because they can get over $400,000 for them. Why would they want to be a landlord? I see another crisis coming like in the 90s when rentals started disappearing.
I know businesses are having a hard time finding help this summer.
Sure, and you remember when people used to clamor to come here and work for the summer because they could rent a small room and still have money to take home. I worked with a woman who remembered coming here in college and renting a room for $25.00 a week in the building that is now the Queen’s Hotel. That sort of thing simply doesn’t exist anymore. I hear local people complain that the foreign kids get all the jobs, but many of those kids come over on programs that give them affordable housing. What group of college kids can afford a seasonal rental of $40,000? I just read the other day that an arcade on the Wildwood boardwalk is offering a thousand-dollar hiring bonus—an arcade! My kid didn’t even get that kind of incentive when he joined the Coast Guard! This is how desperate businesses are this summer.
If you wrote an autobiography, what would the title be?
(Maria smiles and sits quietly for a moment) My Happy Mess. (laughing) Seriously, we’re all a mess on some level, right?
You told me earlier your youthful place of solace was on the rock pile at sunset. Where is your “rock pile” today?
The Pine Barrens. I spend at least half of any given day off walking through the woods and it’s wonderful. So peaceful and removed from all the chaos. Here’s a picture of another happy place from the other day. (Maria scrolls through her iPhone, holds it up and shows a picture of a smiling girl with pigtails and a rainbow-colored basketball.) That’s my granddaughter, Mariah, she’ll be seven.
Is your life still a happy mess or is it just happy?
(laughing) It’s still a happy mess and I am very blessed to have it.