A follow-up to our story on the dwindling “off” season
By Michele Wojciechowski
Cape May has been part of Curtis Bashaw’s entire life. So, it’s not surprising that he had big plans when he started a business here.
Having come to Cape May each summer starting in 1962, Curtis moved here permanently in 1983 after graduating from college. In 1989, he opened the Virginia Hotel, his first property as the Founder of the Cape Resorts Group. The group also includes Congress Hall, the Beach Shack, The Star Inn, Beach Plum Farm, retail destination West End Garage, as well as rental cottages on Jackson Street.
Since he opened the Virginia Hotel, Curtis says, his mission has always been to help extend the tourist season through the holidays and into the first quarter of the year. “During the 32 years that I’ve been running hotels in the market, we have strategically positioned our properties to become a weekend getaway destination during the shoulder season,” he says. “We’ve done that, in part, because we programmed and created experiences that would make people interested to come to Cape May even though it wasn’t beach weather.”
For example, he says that West End Garage is an old Model-T dealership and bakery fused together, which now houses more than 65 artisans and vendors. “It’s the type of thing you could spend a couple of hours [exploring] during a rainy weekend,” Curtis says. At Beach Plum Farm in West Cape May, you could go there for a meal, to take a walk, to see chickens and pigs, or even rent a cottage. In Congress Hall, Curtis says, they’ve been strategic about creating their Winter Wonderland, where dining, shopping, and other activities bring summer guests back during the holidays.
“It’s also started to give even more utility for second homeowners because if we’re open, and our bars and restaurants are open in the wintertime, it’s different than going to Stone Harbor, where everything’s closed,” he says.
Cape May’s location is also convenient: less than three hours from major metropolitan areas such as Wilmington, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York, making a weekend getaway year-round easy. “We’re one tank of gas away from 25 percent of the US population,” states Curtis.
Finally, he says that Cape May being at the end of the road gives it a magical allure. “Places at the end were often places that were used to welcoming strangers. Hospitality is in Cape May’s DNA; it’s a charming place. It has a small-town feel. It has the architecture of the narrow streets, so you feel safe and secure here. You feel like you’re a world away, but you’re only two hours from home.” The hotels, restaurants, and the Washington Street Mall are synergistic with “nature trails, the state parks, the biking. There are a lot of activities that you can partake of while you’re here in a setting that’s easy to get to, close to home, and beautiful.”
Benefits of Staying
Although born and raised here, Mayor Zack Mullock could have gone anywhere else but chose to stay. “Where else but in this small town that’s so community oriented could you go out to some of the finest restaurants in the country—and a lot of those are year-round now—see a play that is as good a show as you would find on Broadway, go to the beach during the daytime, go to some of the finest museums? Cape May just has so much to offer,” Zack says.
But there’s something else, says Zack, that makes Cape May busy during its shoulder seasons. “Cape May has always had a family-friendly atmosphere,” he says. “We’ve always also had a very romantic aspect to the city where a couple can come and have an awesome time together. I think there are some of the most romantic places on the East Coast in the city of Cape May. If you’re on vacation with your significant other, there are great places that are so memorable.”
What keeps people coming back to Cape May throughout the year, he says, are the results of hard work from the small businesses to organizations like Cape May MAC. Their year-round programs keep people wanting to visit.
Zack says that there’s also a new generation of people coming to Cape May because it’s so “Instagrammable. You can take a great photograph just about anywhere in Cape May, and for the younger generation, that’s so much an important part of the uniqueness of our town,” he says.
Whether you stay at a historic hotel or a B&B, Zack says that there’s so much beauty here. He credits the Historic Preservation Commission for making sure that if renovations take place, they won’t spoil the look of the town. That said, he says that sometimes folks who have been coming to Cape May for 50 years will get in touch with him because they’ve returned to find that something small has been changed. And they contact him because they love it so much they want it to remain the same.
“As much as I think I love Cape May, there’s someone else who loves it even more,” he says.
Fabulous Food Festivals
Besides having a myriad of restaurants to choose from, Cape May also prides itself on its festivals—and the ones centered around food always make people return year after year.
Once known as “The lima bean capital of the East coast,” of course, Cape May needed a festival to celebrate it. Held every year on the Saturday preceding Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day, West Cape May celebrates everything lima bean.
Theresa Enteado, the event’s organizer for the past decade, says that the Lima Bean Festival draws tourists and locals. Most food vendors offer something lima bean-related such as lima bean hummus, lima bean honey, a key lima cookie, and the very popular lima bean chili. Theresa says that the chili is such a draw that people bring containers and coolers to fill. The local Knights of Columbus sells lima bean soup. And even the hot dog vendor joins in with a topping choice of lima bean relish.
Visitors also enjoy live music, and craft and jewelry vendors also try to work the hallowed lima into their wares. “It really is quirky and fun, and people love it,” she says. The 2021 Lima Bean Festival was the busiest ever, the big change being the move from Wilbraham Park to West Cape May’s Backyard Park.
Some people plan vacations and weekend trips around it, according to Theresa, saying once they hear about it, they have to see what it’s about. “People leave with smiles and maybe a new appreciation for lima beans,” she says.
The lima bean is not the only produce celebrated in West Cape May. The annual Strawberry Festival, sponsored by the West Cape May Business Association, began in 1998 as a small festival just featuring local businesses. In 2000, they expanded it to include other vendors and, of course, the strawberry theme.
Held on the first Saturday in June, the festival has become more popular over the years, and at its peak, had 110 vendors. Sharon Flanagan of the West Cape May Business Association says that people have come to expect certain traditions with the event: the strawberry and cream cookies, strawberry honey, chocolate-covered strawberries, strawberry lemonade, pie, and shortcake. Vendors sell strawberry earrings, pottery, vintage dish ware, and bath bombs.
“We feature local crafters and artisans as well as West Cape May businesses and local musicians whenever we can. Our strawberry shortcake booth has always been sponsored by our association, and in past years, fun by local nonprofit volunteers such as the March of Dimes, the CMC Technical School, and this past year, the West Cape May Fire Department,” says Sharon. “I think that you don’t need to twist visitors’ arms too much for them to have an excuse to plan their trips to Cape May, but certainly having extra events like our Strawberry Festival helps.”
If you want to try a new restaurant—or perhaps a few—Cape May Restaurant Week and Restaurant Weekend are some of the best—and most economical—times to go.
And according to Jessica Leeburg, Creative Director at Cape Publishing and organizer of the events since the second year Restaurant Week began they will definitely be back in 2022. (Due to the pandemic, it wasn’t held for the last two years.)
Restaurant Week, which usually runs the first week of June and is sponsored by Cape Publishing, began in 2007. When you make a reservation and go to a participating restaurant, you enjoy a three-course dinner that includes an appetizer, entrée, and dessert—at a cost of just $38. Launched in 2015, Restaurant Weekend is the same concept, but lasts for one four-day weekend in November.
“For people who love food, Restaurant Week is the best week to be in Cape May,” says Jessica. “I receive emails year-round from people who plan their vacation around it and are confirming the dates.”
In 2019 Restaurant Week, 26 restaurants participated and during Restaurant Weekend, 22 joined in.
“In normal years, the event is a huge draw for the area. A few years ago, I received a call from a restaurant that had been so busy, they sold out of entrees the first night and needed me to update their menu on the event site!” says Jessica. While the events are focused on food, they benefit all of Cape May, as visitors need places to stay and other things to do.
Jessica says that some years, hotel staff members call her during the event because they have guests who want to immediately rebook for the following year. She also shares why she believes people love these events so much.
“Food is a sensory experience. Eating at a restaurant, especially with the devices put away, allows you to be fully present for the meal and to engage with the other people at the table. Eating out also exposes you to flavors and cooking techniques you might not try at home,” explains Jessica. “I hope to eventually expand the event to include a winter weekend. I just need to talk a few restaurants into it!”
Sidewalk Sales—A Shopping Bonanza
Another big reason to come to Cape May year-round is for the shopping. Although you can shop at the Washington Mall any time you visit Cape May, the annual Sidewalk Sales—usually held on weekends in mid-May and mid-September—are events that people plan special trips around.
Michele Konopka, who co-owns the shop Beachlove Cape May with her husband Tom, says that about 65 to 75 merchants on the Washington Mall participate in the outdoor sale, and all of the business owners get involved in some fashion.
“People get great prices, great deals, and really unique stuff. Some people use this as an opportunity to Christmas shop, and others are making next year’s wardrobe happen with what they’re able to get,” says Michele. This also helps merchants to move their seasonal apparel and make room for the season that comes next.
“You’ve got lots of people coming in and out of your store, and it’s a beautiful time of year,” she says. “You can go shopping, to the beach, out to dinner. You can do everything like it’s the middle of the summer.”
The sales extend the seasons, which also helps her to keep employees in work all year. “We’re happy to have people here,” says Michele.
On a Mission
Even though the initial reason for founding Cape May MAC (previously known as the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts) was to preserve the Emlen Physick Estate, according to Susan Krysiak, Director of Media Relations, part of its mission has always been to help expand the tourist season so that it would last all year.
“We are a tourism-related organization. Our mission is to welcome the public to Cape May and to give them something interesting, educational, and certainly fun to do,” says Susan.
In addition to their trolley tours of all kinds that are held throughout the year, Cape May MAC also holds beer festivals. Pre-pandemic, Susan says these festivals could attract up to 8,000 people. Two are held annually: the Craft Beer, Music, and Crab Festival each July and the Harvest Brew Festival in mid-September. Both take place on the Estate grounds.
The fall brings the group’s annual Lessons of History, Distinguished Lectures Series. A team works to get a national speaker every year during Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend. In 2021, instead of a guest speaker who would talk about a historical topic, they had Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of Harry S. Truman, who performed a first-person interpretation called “Give ‘Em Hell Harry.”
“It was a great success,” says Susan.
We’ve Got Beer
For the past decade, Cape May Brewing Company (CMBC) has been drawing visitors to their airport complex location to try new beers or enjoy old favorites. But they’ve also attracted people with their events and tastings.
“One of the things that distinguish our Tasting Room is that it is open daily and year-round, which allows us to welcome all of the new shore visitors every season” says Marketing Director Alicia Grasso. “It gives visitors during the [shoulder] seasons an opportunity to explore our ample, engaging space, which includes varied indoor and outdoor seating options. We’re constantly finding new ways to support and entertain our visitors.”
All year, they have new and returning beer releases every week. Whether it’s in their full main bar, beer garden patio, or multi-room shop, the Brewtique, there are many places for guests to enjoy a cold one. Alicia says that in recent years, they moved their production to a separate facility across the street and created a Brewtanical Garden in the field area between the two buildings.
“We love to plan special draft and can releases for folks to try during these times, and make things fun by decorating, getting in the spirit, and bringing in live music and other surprises,” says Alicia. The outdoor Brewtanical Garden space is a pet- and family-friendly area with picnic tables, cornhole, as well as table games. It even has its own 12 draft taps of CMBC’s most popular options.
“We have so much to offer people for every season they visit,” says Alicia.
If wine is more to your taste, Willow Creek Winery owner Barbara Wilde has just what you need. She says that in addition to their Fire Pit Fridays and the private events they host, the winery is busy every weekend from January through December.
“The winery will knock your socks off,” says Barbara. “It’s 50 acres of beauty. People just go crazy.”
In addition to offering food, wine, and sangrias, it also holds events like its annual Sip and Shop in December. Hundreds of vendors sell their wares, the winery is decorated for Christmas, and several thousand people each day come to shop and enjoy wine, says Barbara.
In 2021, they’re also adding a Winter Solstice Burning, which Barbara says will be kind of like Burning Man in Phoenix, but they’re going to burn a giant wooden rooster in honor of their secondary brand, Wilde Cock.
She says that people visit the winery in February and March because they can go to the vineyard, eat, and even stay in one of the 12 completely preserved historical cottages on the grounds.
Barbara likes to do events because she enjoys giving back to the community, and she does that by helping attract more people to the area who will stay in Cape May hotels or B&Bs, eat at restaurants, and shop local merchants. “We want to give people opportunity,” she says.
Nauti Spirits Distillery (NSD) provides all the spirits you could imagine. And one of the things that attract customers and visitors is that it is a farm-to-bottle distillery, their spirits handcrafted on site.
Events are held in their Tasting Room, which sports vintage nautical lighting and a bar created from reclaimed hand-hewn ship timbers can hold 99 guests. It also features a high-end sound system for either live music or a guest’s playlist.
Outside, they have a dog-friendly patio and courtyard with views of NSD’s working copper stills. Visitors can spend time relaxing at the fire pits or with friends and family.
Special Events Manager MJ Cook says that their most popular event is the Behind the Stills Tour, held Monday through Friday at 2:30pm. Folks get to see the workings of the distillery and then enjoy a tasting of a spirit as well as a complimentary shot glass.
“Our patrons travel from near and far to enjoy our farm-fresh cocktails, live music, and our overall family- and pet-friendly vibe,” says MJ.
NSD also holds Live Music Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, Trivia Night on Mondays, and Game Night on Thursdays. In the fall, they also have a popular Corn Maze.
“We continually evolve with new spirit releases, new craft cocktails, and fresh ideas,” says MJ. “We are a unique venue, and we love what we do. That’s why people keep coming back.”
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
“Christmas is one of the most important and busiest times of the year for tourism in Cape May,” says Susan Krysiak, Director of Media Relations at Cape May MAC. “We know from history and statistics, many of them come here to do the events that we offer.”
Again, the pandemic has changed a number of activities. But the Christmas Candlelight House Tours, which have been held for about 50 years and have in the past drawn between 1,200 and 1,800 people to Cape May will continue this year on Saturdays during September. Since the pandemic people can also experience these tours virtually. Check their website for more details: www.capemaymac.org.
“Many people do this every year as one of their own traditions and come back from year to year, while others have just discovered it,” says Susan.
Cape May MAC also hosts the Annual Christmas Tree Lighting on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The event takes place on the grounds of the Emlen Physick Estate, which is decorated for the Christmas season. When Santa arrives, he flips a switch, lighting up the tree to the delight of everyone there.
“It gives such a sense of joy and celebration,” says Susan.
For folks who can’t get enough of Christmas, West Cape May holds its annual Christmas Parade. 2021 will be the 55th year it’s taken place; last year’s parade was cancelled due to COVID-19. According to Lauren Vitelli, the parade’s organizer for the last decade, it was originally founded by local woman Charlotte Daily, who became known as “the parade lady.” For that first parade, she knocked on doors, asking people to donate, and participants used floats that were made by everyone from children to parishioners of local churches. Over the years, it continued to grow.
“Now we have one of the largest parades in New Jersey,” says Lauren. A few years ago, the group had a study done by the state, and it determined that about 10,000 people come to the Cape May area for that weekend.
Always held on the first Saturday in December, the parade starts on Broadway in West Cape May in front of the firehouse. It travels from Broadway to Perry then goes behind Carpenters Lane, then down Ocean to Beach. Featuring anywhere from 15 to 20 bands and 100 entries from businesses, churches, schools, and dance groups, participants come from throughout the state.
“What’s most important about our parade is that it is a community Christmas parade, fully funded by donations,” explains Lauren. “We use the money to pay the bands for providing entertainment. We buy the trophies to give out, and we feed the Coast Guard for attending as well as our judges.”
She says that they start getting calls about the parade from tourists in June. “Now we have grandparents bringing their grandchildren, and they [previously] brought their kids. It’s a nice tradition to be a part of. We kind of start the season off,” says Lauren. “We’ve tried, throughout the years, to embody what Charlotte had always wanted the parade to be—a place for people to come and enjoy Christmas. We try to keep her in mind while we do it, so everyone can just have a good time. There’s so much going on in the world today that if we can just make everybody smile for one day, we’ve done our job.”