Cape May holds mysterious allure

  • Article by: DONNA TABBERT LONG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2014 - 1:05 PM

New Jersey’s charming seaside resort is famous for its “diamond”-studded beaches, its Victorian mansion B&Bs and its ghostly guests.

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It was dark with a storm brewing. Across the street, the trolley was waiting with only three people aboard. “Do I still have time to get on the ghost tour?” I asked the person in the tourism kiosk. She nodded her head toward the trolley. “You’re just in time; they’re getting ready to leave,” she said.

I had debated doing this nighttime ghost tour of Cape May, N.J. — having been on some fairly hokey ghost tours in other cities.

But this one embraced the renowned spirit world of Cape May’s many old Victorian mansions, relating the stories of medium and author Craig McManus without the gimmicks or bad jokes. It commenced with an explanation of why Cape May is supposedly loaded with paranormal activity: It’s something in the water.

It seems Cape May’s proximity to the mineral content of seawater (it’s surrounded on two sides by the Atlantic Ocean and a third side by the Delaware Bay) is something ghosts find advantageous for their energy.

To compound this energy, on Cape May Point the beaches are strewn with bits of weathered quartzite called “Cape May diamonds” and often sold as souvenirs. It’s well known that those in the energy field often use quartz crystals to focus energy.

Be this fact, fiction or something in the twilight zone, Cape May’s idyllic seaside location is much more about the living, of course.

Considered “the nation’s oldest seashore resort,” the town has a population of 3,800 that swells to 48,000 come summer time. With its beach and cooling sea breezes, it has been attracting presidents and painters, composers and city folks (some, according to my ghost tour guide, who apparently stay forever) since before 1832, when it was known as Cape Island.

I was visiting early in the summer season, but you’d never have guessed it from the crowd in the clubby Brown Room lounge at Congress Hall hotel, sipping on cocktails or bottles of Blue Pig Tavern ale, the beer brewed especially for the hotel’s adjacent restaurant by the same name.

The multi-columned Congress Hall occupies a city block across from the seashore and is Cape May’s most iconic hotel. A National Historic Landmark, the hotel seems to epitomize Cape May’s Americana image. Four American flags blow in the breeze at the entrance, and guests have included four US presidents. In fact, President Benjamin Harrison made the place his summer White House in 1891. Another frequent visitor and fan was John Philip Sousa, who not only honeymooned there, but wrote the “Congress Hall March” in the hotel’s honor.

Cape May seems to inspire this kind of national spirit. American flags fly everywhere, flowers spill out of window boxes and leafy trees form a canopy over streets lined with mansions wrapped with old-fashioned porches. It made me feel as if I had stepped into a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.

So much so that on a morning stroll, when I walked by a gate with a “Rockwell Cottage” sign on it, I couldn’t help asking the man outside on the porch if Norman Rockwell had lived there. No, said homeowner John Mistretta, but according to house history, Norman Rockwell’s brother had — and Norman had spent some time in his brother’s home here during summers.

Rockwell Cottage is on Hughes Street in the town’s oldest residential neighborhood, and my walk took me by all sorts of other Victorian valentines of houses. Thanks to preservationists in the l970s, many of Cape May’s beautiful 19th-century buildings were saved. With plenty of decorative woodwork in the too-much-is-not-enough style, most have also been restored in the colorful “painted ladies” fashion. At least 30 are bed and breakfasts.

But the town’s eccentric and imposing 1879 Emlen Physick Estate is the only Victorian house museum. The 18-room dwelling gives a glimpse into life when the only AC was the ocean breeze and life revolved around dinner parties.

It’s also the only place to offer a traditional Victorian seance in the parlor followed by a midnight ghost hunt.

Yes, like many other homes in Cape May, the estate is spiritually enhanced. On tours, museum staffers share firsthand ghostly accounts; from feeling taps on their arms or shoulders, to one young guide who not only felt her pony tail being lifted up but caught a glimpse of it in the mirror.

Wine, shops and sunshine

Another evening I drove out to Sunset Beach, on Cape May Point. The southernmost tip of the Jersey Shore, the point is famous for its sunsets, and the aforementioned Cape May diamonds. You can comb the beach for these treasures or buy them at the nearby souvenir shop.

On the way to Cape May Point is one of several wineries that have sprung up in the area in the past few years, the Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May. There I learned that paranormal activity is apparently not limited to Cape May’s Victorian estates. Ghostly figures who suddenly disappear in the vineyards have been reported on occasion, too.

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  • Historic Victorian-era houses, inns and B&Bs look out over the Atlantic Ocean from what is considered “the nation’s oldest seashore resort.”

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