The dwindling “off” season makes Cape May a (nearly) year-round destination.
As recently as a couple of decades ago, Cape May was seen primarily as a summer destination. Like many New Jersey seashore communities, the proverbial sidewalks would roll up after the summer or maybe early fall and stay that way until the following spring.
What was once completely a shoulder season—the entire fall and winter—has dwindled to about six weeks tops, from early January to just before Valentine’s Day. With entrepreneurs investing in the area, business owners staying open year-round, and more events, historical places, and tours offering activities for everyone—it’s led to the perfect combination that keeps people coming back.
You might even call it the perfect storm. And that’s exactly where our story begins.
A Devastating Nor’easter
According to Diane Wieland, Director of Tourism for Cape May County, the evolution of Cape May becoming a year-round destination began back in 1962, when The Storm of the Century, also known as the Great Atlantic Storm of 1962, nearly destroyed everything.
On March 5 that year, forecasts simply called for rain. But what came seemingly out of nowhere was a nor-easter lasting three days with a few storms creating a more powerful single one that destroyed nearly all of Beach Avenue, the boardwalk, and more than 1,200 dwellings in Cape May alone. Three days of 25- to 35-foot waves bashing onto the land cost $3 million of damage back then (the equivalent of more than $26 million today).
A lot of Victorian homes were either completely destroyed or damaged, and the residents and business owners had a decision to make, says Diane. Do they renovate and fix the town back up, or do they tear it down completely?
Early Rebuilding, Revamping, and Recovering
Diane says that much of what led to Cape May today comes from the actions of resident Tom Carroll. Tom had worked in the Coast Guard, and after he was transferred back to the area, he and his wife Sue bought the Mainstay Inn. “When he came back, all this was happening [deciding to rebuild or not], and he really was one of the ones who started this whole restoration process with the Mainstay Inn,” says Diane. “He was working on that, which piqued the interest of other people, and they began making investments into the town to restore it.”
Tom and Sue turned the Mainstay Inn, then at 24 Jackson Street, into the first bed and breakfast in Cape May in 1971.
Just a couple of years before Cape May got its first B&B, community members joined together to form what is now known as Cape May MAC. The Emlen Physick Estate, which had become abandoned, graffitied, and known as the haunted house of Cape May, was set for demolition. The group fought to have the mansion preserved as a historic landmark. They restored it and have used it for historic tours, events, and more ever since.
In addition to the evolution of the Mainstay Inn and Cape May MAC encouraging rebuilding, Diane says that community members wanted to build up the town because “This was their home. There was interest in history. Tom Carroll was just the guy who had that vision to say, ‘These are important buildings,’” she says. “There are now over 600 restored Victorian structures in Cape May.”
Come for the Weekend, Stay for Life
When Bob and Linda Mullock came to Cape May, they were only planning to have a weekend getaway. While there, Bob recalls Linda saying, “I always wanted to have a bed and breakfast inn.”
They found one for sale, and after Bob contacted the owner, they had a look. Bob says, “It was kind of spontaneous and a little bit crazy.” They ended up buying the Victorian Rose and spending weekends in Cape May to renovate it.
“The next thing you know, we were spending a lot of time in Cape May,” Bob recalls. “There were really nice people all around. That was the very beginning of the renaissance that Tom and Sue Carroll started with the bed and breakfast inns. All these people were really active with Cape May MAC, and everyone was a volunteer in those days, doing walking tours.”
That was in the 1980s. Bob and Linda moved to Cape May and raised their family here. But no matter what other ventures he pursued, Bob says he had to enjoy it and he had to preserve it.
While he wanted to build a golf course, partially because he had always loved the golf business, having worked as a caddie and in a golf pro shop when he was a kid, Bob also saw an opportunity to preserve land about to be developed.
A developer owned the property and was going to build 150 houses. But Bob had other plans; he realized that “the bottom line was we could do a project of building a golf course and preserve 250 acres” or let the houses be built.
In 1991, he opened the Cape May National Golf Club. The Cape May club is nicknamed “The Natural,” because it surrounds a 50-acre private bird sanctuary and has preserved much of the surrounding environment.
“I think if you can combine doing business with the feeling that you have for those types of things like preserving old buildings or land or nature, then I think for me, that’s a combination that gives me a lot of satisfaction. That’s why I like to take those risks,” says Bob.
In 2008, he took another one.
When The Chalfonte Hotel was for sale, and the owner told Bob a prospective buyer wanted to make it into condominiums. “[The owner] couldn’t stomach that, and I didn’t like it myself.” She basically asked Bob if he would buy the hotel and preserve it.
“If I’m going to do a project, I’m going to do something that I’ll feel satisfaction and fun about by the time it’s done. I don’t want to do something just to make a buck or two,” says Bob. He and Linda bought The Chalfonte Hotel—where they had been married many years ago—in 2008. “It’s the oldest hotel. This one survived the Great Fire of 1878, and a lot of other hotels did not and had to be rebuilt. This is the oldest operating hotel, the oldest original hotel in Cape May.”
Cape May has no shortage of history that keeps people coming back, Diane says. From the Emlen Physick Estate and The Southern Mansion to the Victorian homes and B&Bs, there’s history everywhere you look. “It all ties together.”
The latest is the Harriet Tubman Museum. Bob recalls there was a redevelopment in the works that would really have hurt Cape May. It involved the house next door to the Macedonia Baptist Church, which for years was the parsonage, and would turn it into a parking lot.
“There were a lot of people in town who were upset about this, and they began to come together,” says Bob. “They packed a meeting in City Hall and demanded that this [development] be voted down.”
As Bob had given Civil War tours for Cape May MAC, he knew that the area was crucial to Black history. Harriet Tubman’s obituary stated that Cape May served as the headquarters for the underground railroad during the years she spent here. When he brought this up at the meeting as an alternative to the proposed demolition of the house, Bob says the Macedonia Baptist Church, a former mayor of Cape May, and lots of residents and business owners supported the idea of creating a Harriet Tubman Museum.
“At that point, the parsonage was a dilapidated building,” says Bob. “However, you could see something special could come out of it.”
To get ideas for the museum, Bob, Linda, and a bus of folks from the Macedonia Baptist Church traveled to the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge, Maryland. “We came upon one exhibit that talked about slaves escaping through Cape May,” says Bob.
When they returned, volunteers assembled. Bob’s son [and present mayor of Cape May], Zack Mullock, headed the renovation. “A lot of really good tradesmen—carpenters, plumbers, air conditioning guys, and others—came out of the woodwork and offered their services,” says Bob. “Many times, they would charge us just for the material and donate their labor. Sometimes, they would donate both.”
So much Black history was present in Cape May, and most people just didn’t know it. Bob explains that there was a huge abolitionist movement in Cape May a decade before Tubman arrived there. “Stephen Smith, then the richest Black man in America, had a house right across that street from the Harriet Tubman Museum, and it still exists. William Still, known as the father of the underground railroad, was a good friend of Tubman’s, and she stayed at his home and his boarding house while in Cape May,” Bob explains.
The Harriet Tubman Museum, which had a soft opening in June 2020, opened officially on Juneteenth of 2021. “And it’s been packed,” says Bob.
While preserving history is something Bob loves, he says that it also helps make the town a year-round destination and a place where more entrepreneurs will want to invest. “Cape May stresses quality and it preserves its history,” Bob says. “We’re a community.”
Gained a Town
Like Bob and Linda, when Cindy Huf came to Cape May, she thought it would be just for a short time—one summer.
She, too, stayed.
“I ended up dating a local guy,” recalls Cindy. “He was gone by January, but I got a really nice town out of it!”
In addition to gaining a good town, Cindy established her business, Good Scents, which she’s owned for more than 36 years. And it’s been a year-round business since she started it. Early on, she says that all the weeks around Christmas were dead, and the weekends were “mostly dead.” Afterwards, Cape May was desolate until April or May. “We survived on the little bit we could get from the locals,” she recalls.
But as more events were added in the fall and especially around the Christmas season, that brought more people who visited. Her dedicated customers have helped her stay in business during the year. “I absolutely love my customers. We’ve had customers that have been coming in since the very beginning,” she says. She operates The Marble Club, where kids come in for a free marble, and “we measure their height on the wall. When they come back, we measure them again to see how much they’ve grown between visits. We have people who were in the Marble Club who are coming back now and bringing their own kids in.”
As a business owner, Cindy thinks people are investing in Cape May because “It’s a desirable location as far as tourism goes, and that, alone, will attract entrepreneurs. Cape May still has beautiful architecture, beaches that are lovely to walk on, house tours, wonderful restaurants that are open year-round,” she says. “You want to open a business; you have a vision. What better place is there other than Cape May? It’s just beautiful.”
Mother Nature’s Influence—in a Good Way
Another reason, Diane says, that visitors have begun to flock (pardon the pun) to Cape May all year is because of the Cape May Bird Observatory. Although the New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding takes place in May, it attracts people from all over the world. Once they visit Cape May for birding, they often come back during other seasons, like in the fall for the banding of hawks.
These events are important because over the years, Diane says that large companies like Swarovski, Nikon, and Leica have sponsored them.
But wait…there’s more.
“Mother nature has helped us because we have the bird migrations, the whale and dolphin migrations, and the Monarch butterfly migration,” says Diane.
Through September and October, Cape May is a stopping point for the Monarch butterflies as they return to Mexico for the winter. Visitors can attend events centered around this migration, including tagging butterflies.
“The butterflies roost in the area for a couple of days, rest, nourish, and move on,” says Diane. “To see a bush full of black and orange just pulsating with vibration—it brings people here, keeps their interest, and results in return visitors.”
The First Hotel in 50 Years
Eustace Mita is a man on a mission. The Chairman and CEO of Icona Resorts Worldwide already owns hotels in towns along the Jersey shore, including the Icona in Cape May. Now he hopes to make one of his dreams come true by building a $100 million hotel at the site of the former Beach Theatre.
Eustace spent seven years trying to acquire the property, which currently houses 12 stores. “I love Cape May County. But the reason we picked Cape May [for this project] is because it has the longest season,” he says. “The Icona Cape May will be the first new hotel in over half a century [built here].”
The hotel will offer amenities to tourists that most older ones simply can’t: an on-site spa, hot tubs, up to 14-foot ceilings, and more. “What drives the shoulder season in Cape May is tourism,” says Eustace. “The reason that we’re willing to make an investment like that is because we see the shoulder season growing, and we’re going to help it grow.”
Cape May is a bounty of gifts for visitors, says Eustace. He says the Cape May Zoo is as wonderful as any other zoo he’s ever seen, and tourists can do everything from deep-sea fishing to visiting breweries or wineries. “We’ve had people from all over the world stay at our hotel,” says Eustace. “Cape May is just a great attraction.”
Investing in the Future
After husband-and-wife team Andrew Bares and Kelly Lavorgna sold their IT and finance businesses in New York City, they were looking for their next adventure.
“I’m a Jersey girl, so I said to Andrew that I really wanted to get back to the beach and spend some time at the shore,” says Kelly. “We thought it would be nice to have a place where we could relax.”
Can you guess what happened?
At that time, Andrew says they couldn’t find a house that they liked. But they did find a B&B. Kelly recalls asking Andrew, “What are we going to do with a B&B?” He responded, “It’d be lovely. We’ll come down on weekends, and people will make us breakfast. It’ll be really nice.”
That’s not quite what happened.
They bought Summer Cottage—now The Harrison—and began rehabbing it themselves. One day, their neighbor, who owned the Pharos next door, came out and asked if Kelly wanted to buy their garage. She and Andrew were interested because they could use the extra storage space. So, Ski and Pat Kowalski, Pharos’ owners, took them out to dinner at the Lobster House.
Kelly recalls that Ski asked, “Are you guys still interested in the garage?” When they said that they were, he quipped, “Great, because I’m throwing in the house.”
“It’s the most expensive garage we ever bought,” says Andrew. It’s revamped and called Pharos at The Harrison.
“Then we got the bug,” admits Andrew. Their friend and Realtor Tom Shagren told them about The Cliveden, another B&B for sale. They weren’t interested.
But they agreed to look at it. “That tends to be a bit of a theme with us. Whenever we walk into a place, if we know it’s the place for us, we do two things: we fall in love with it, and we buy it in one swoop,” says Andrew. They did, and they did. The Cliveden is now the Casablanca.
Next, the Ashley Rose came up for sale. “It was fortunately or unfortunately right next to the Casablanca, so we had to have it,” says Kelly. Because the set-up of the place was a bit different from the classic B&B, it allowed them to offer another product to visitors—it serves as a whole-house rental place, with the main house and cottages. This allows families with children under 16—who usually aren’t allowed in a B&B—to experience Cape May in a Victorian atmosphere. They can even bring their dogs.
Finally—for now at least—Tom showed Kelly and Andrew the Doctor’s Inn, in Cape May Court House, which they drove by daily on their way from their home there. “We made the appointment to go, walked in the door, and made the offer that day because we loved it,” says Kelly.
Again, this place was different—it had a commercial kitchen, unlike most B&Bs. They created a restaurant serving French cuisine. Called Provence, it features the creations of executive chef Adam Bowen. And The Doctor’s Inn has been renamed the Peninsula.
Kelly and Andrew also purchased the place next door. With the acreage, they plan to establish an event center and provide housing for the international students who come for peak season, as well as other staff. “We’re just completing the grounds now. We’ve put in a swimming pool,” explains Andrew. “Our intention is to be able to host all kinds of events, including weddings, as well as run it as an inn.”
If you’ve lost count, that’s boutique B&B number five. Andrew and Kelly run them as traditional B&B experiences with modern amenities.
Why did they choose to invest so much into Cape May? Kelly says, “We loved the town. It’s beautiful—the quaintness of it.” Andrew adds, “It’s got a beach lifestyle and a country lifestyle, and it has close proximity to a large city like Philly. So, one of the big attractions is we get all these lifestyles rolled into one. It’s just beautiful down here—all the things there are to do, all the diverse businesses attracted us. It’s a great place to live.”
Where the Magic Comes From
It’s true that people come to Cape May because of the history, special events, B&Bs and hotels, the beach, and more. But they also come because of the community and its small-town feel.
Doreen Talley, Executive Director of the Cape May Chamber of Commerce, thinks many traditional activities in Cape May that have been held for decades are another reason why the shoulder season has expanded to all year.
Whether it’s Octoberfest, which attracts up to 10,000 people, or the West Cape May Christmas parade, which has been held since the 1970s and now brings thousands of people who aren’t local residents—Cape May is constantly offering more.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Sand is our brand,’” says Doreen, referring to how seashore communities are usually only open during late spring and all summer. “Not so much in Cape May. We market ourselves as a year-round destination.”
Part of the reason it’s year-round, Doreen says is “The sense of community here is small-town America. You come here and feel like time is slowing down a bit. There’s no need to rush. You can relax.”
Diane has one word to describe it—magic. “It’s a friendly community, and people get involved. Cape May is a good place to invest because it’s year-round, and you have the option to stay open,” she says. “It’s magic. It’s the magic of Cape May. People come to be a part of it.”
Be sure to see our upcoming Winter issue for a followup to this story!