The Buttonwood

One measure of hospitality is the guest who arrives as a stranger and leaves as a friend. That’s certainly true of the Buttonwood in West Cape May, where I enjoyed a brief but delightful stay in early January.

The charming Colonial Revival inn operates on a self-service model. There’s no front desk; guests check in and out using access codes, a la Airbnb. I confess, I’m so accustomed to dealing with a receptionist or concierge, I had to get used to the concept. But once I did, I really enjoyed it, because I felt like I was home—a bigger, more opulent, and better-appointed version of home. When my friend Joan joined me for a pre-dinner drink, I welcomed her at the door as if I were the hostess. It was a little bit of let’s-pretend, and a lot of good fun.

The inn was built as a single-family home in 1920, and in 1999 became a bed-and-breakfast called Buttonwood Manor. Now the Buttonwood Boutique Hotel, it takes its name from the big sycamore trees outside (sycamores are called “buttonwoods” because their extra-hard timber was once used to make uniform buttons and shoe buttons).

Two years ago, innkeepers Ross and Lauren Hammer acquired the inn and undertook a stem-to-stern renovation. Each of the seven suites was updated and redecorated, as were two larger units in a cottage on the premises.

The self-service approach was vital in 2021, when the inn reopened. With social distancing still in place, people could come and go at their leisure and avoid undue interactions. (But if you need help, no worries—when a staff member isn’t nearby, someone is always available by phone.)

I was greeted by the polite, friendly property manager, Matthew. He helped me understand the digital keypad, then offered me a choice of refreshments and built a nice, crackling wood fire in the living room, right off the center hall.

It was an “ahhh” moment—all at once, I felt utterly tranquil.

The living room is light and bright. A brick-faced fireplace mantel is flanked on both sides by plush green velvet sofas, with occasional seating here and there. In one corner is an ebony lacquer baby grand piano that is both playable and self-playing. In another is a writing desk piled high with love notes from past visitors.

There’s a full kitchen in the back, and an adjoining sunporch with a coffee and espresso station, plus a juicer and fresh fruit. In the morning, guests can help themselves to hot and cold drinks, croissants, and fresh parfaits, and enjoy it all in rattan chairs that look out on Broadway and West Cape May’s Wilbraham Park.

Soon I was joined by the Hammers, young entrepreneurs who, at not yet 30, own multiple properties in and out of Cape May. Ross is a city native. Lauren grew up in Vineland and was a lifelong summer visitor.

Their design aesthetic departs from the hallmark Victorian style, with its flourishes and furbelows, said Lauren. “It’s a B&B feel, but with a modern twist.” The inn is sumptuously appointed, with an understated elegance—at once comfy, classic, and just this side of contemporary. “We wanted to hit all five senses,” said Ross, referring to the soft background music and a light “signature scent” that wafted through the premises, with hints of jasmine, orange blossom, cedarwood, and vanilla.

I stayed in Suite 6, a second-floor unit overlooking the main street. The décor was simple and sophisticated, with a subdued palette and creamy pinstriped walls. The queen-sized bed was just right, as Goldilocks would say: not too hard, not too soft, with an ivory tufted headboard, fluffy white bedding, and a windowpane quilted coverlet. The room has rough-hewn wooden side tables, a seating area with comfy gold velvet armchairs, plus a microwave, mini-fridge and outsized smart TV.

The bath is a study in cool style: a spacious walk-in shower featuring blue-black subway tiles, heavy brass fixtures, and a wooden plank floor. The rainfall shower head was a special treat.

Of course, it’s the little details that really make the experience. In my room, a split of Prosecco awaited, along with a pot of local honey. Also on hand: striped beach towels in a canvas sack, and deck chairs ready to pitch in the sand. In the summertime, a golf cart shuttles guests downtown or to the beach. And beach tags are on the house.

All guests get a wooden chip worth $10 off at Taco Caballito Tequileria, a Mexican restaurant at Decatur and Beach avenues, also owned by the Hammers. After Joan and I polished off the Prosecco, we headed downtown.

I was quite happy to break my still-new New Year’s diet resolutions, ordering Nachos Grande with chicken tinga (shredded chicken, sliced onions and a tomato-chipotle sauce). It was way more than I could have eaten alone, so Joan dug in, and I shared her Seafood Sampler, with a mahi taco, a coconut shrimp taco, and a crispy fish taco. The guacamole was ultra-fresh and slightly tangy—again, just right.

Taco Caballito—Ross called it “a swanky taco bar”—offers more than 70 varieties of tequila, many from small, artisan distilleries, and handcrafted cocktails made with fresh juices.

The real revelation was the DJ! I usually cringe at the thumping music played in clubs and restaurants; I endure rather than enjoy it. This young man played such an eclectic mix—seventies, eighties, new stuff—I was tempted to embarrass myself by dancing in the aisles. Joan too. (The bar also features live music on a regular basis.)

Hats off to the bar’s lovely manager, David. After we left, he chased us several blocks in the cold because I had left my card behind. We were impressed by his good humor and gave him a lift back.

To jumpstart business at the Buttonwood that first pandemic year, the Hammers offered live music on the lawn, which is outfitted with fire pits and wrought iron tables and chairs. “People would bring their own wine and champagne,” said Ross. All good reasons to go back when the weather warms up.

This is not a full B&B in the sense of a bang-up breakfast, but no worries. You can get anything you want across the street, at Dock Mike’s Pancake House. It proves its motto (“We’re serious about breakfast”) by serving every kind of pancake imaginable: buttermilk, buckwheat, sweet potato, pina colada, along with creamed chipped beef, Southern-style biscuits and gravy, pigs in a blanket—the works.

Long story short: for a restful retreat any time of year, check out the Buttonwood Boutique Hotel. You’ll feel right at home. ■