Cape Mayís renowned Victorian architecture is why this small city on the Atlantic coast of New Jersey has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Many towns have pretty restored buildings, but Cape May is more than just a quaint Victorian town or a cookie cutter beach resort. An abundance of tours and events promote the cityís heritage, and regular music, food, and wine festivals keep the place hopping year-round. Add to this a stay at one of many vintage bed-and-breakfast inns, and visitors have a seaside destination that appeals to all ages. By the way, it's an easy two-hour drive or bus-ride from Philadelphia.
As a freelance writer who has always lived part-time in Cape May, I usually explore the town alone, and I can tell you that solo travelers could easily fill a week or more here any time.
Victoriana may be the emphasis in Cape May, but I love a beach. Cape May beaches are solo friendly, attracting a mix of families and singles – the atmosphere is nothing like that depicted on the television show with a Jersey-shore-theme. Give me a sand chair, a towel, and a book, and I can happily while away the hours. Iíll take the occasional break to cool off in the surf or watch the dolphins splashing around. Some days I might stroll the boardwalk to window-shop and grab a chocolate ice cream cone. And in early August Iíll walk over to the Cove beach to check out the annual sand castle competition.
Besides hanging out on the beaches, I have been known to partake of social as well as solitary pursuits. I might take a trolley tour of landmark architecture and gardens. I might visit the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate and meet one of its resident ghosts. Ghost tours have become popular in recent years, some of them hosted by Cape Mayís own ghost expert. Cape May's past also features in events such as Victorian Week, Sherlock Holmes Weekend, and the big Dickens holiday festival. I relish learning bits of history this way. Get this: in the 1890s men and women were required by law to swim at different times of the day. Ladies were trucked into the water on a bathing wagon, and they had to hold on to lifelines – maybe not a bad idea considering those heavy woollen swimsuits that were "fashionable" back then.
A nice solo excursion from the center of town is to rent a bike and ride to Sunset Beach, a straight three-mile run down Sunset Boulevard. This is the best place to go for views and photographs of the sun setting over Delaware Bay.
The iconic Cape May Point Lighthouse is also approximately three miles from the center of town, down Sunset Boulevard with a left turn on Lighthouse Avenue. The lighthouse sits in Cape May Point State Park and is open for climbing. Atop its 199 steps await some marvelous views of the cape and its beaches. The park is noted for world-class birding, and guided walking tours are offered through the Nature Center of Cape May. One lucky summer day at Cape May Point, with the help of another solo birder, I spotted a white egret, a blue heron, and a glossy ibis. Birders set up their spotting scopes year-round on the wooden hawk-watch platform, and most enjoy sharing what they have seen.
Cape May boasts two whale watch companies. I especially enjoy the naturalist-narrated tours where you learn how important whales were to the Victorian economy. Their oil was used for lamps, and their baleen – the fingernail-like substance some whales have instead of teeth – was used to shape ladiesí corsets. Besides the history of whales and dolphins in the region, whale watchers are likely to see and learn about shorebirds such as osprey, gulls, and egrets. For a more intense and strictly avian experience, the Skimmer Salt Marsh Safari boat tour takes visitors into the salt marshes to see shorebirds up close.
In the evenings I have two professional theater companies to choose from and restaurants to rival any in the big cities. Attending a festival or special event is another fun way to pass the time in Cape May. My favorites are the two Sherlock Holmes Weekends, held in March and November, featuring an original Sherlock-inspired play performed in segments by professional actors and interspersed with opportunities for participants to search for clues in a select bunch of Cape May inns. Victorian costumes are optional, and I enjoy putting together authentic-looking ensembles. I donít wear all of the layers of fabric (and whalebone) a lady of the period would have worn, but my modified costumes are difficult enough to maneuver in. For those who like dressing in costume, the Vintage Dance weekends (April and October) offer another chance to flaunt antique finery, which, incidentally, can be purchased online at Recollections.biz.
While many solo travelers want the hustle and bustle of non-stop activities, some are in search of solitude, Either way, they will find it here in Cape May. A friend recently told me that his first of many trips to Cape May was as a solo traveler after a difficult breakup. He remembered that friends recommended the clean, safe beaches and thought he'd enjoy the quaint ambience.
"Did you go on any tours? Architecture? Nature?" No, he said, he wasnít interested in those.
"I bet you were impressed by some of the restaurants!" No, he said, he was too shy to try one of those alone. Instead he ate a big brunch each day at one of the casual beach-view restaurants and that was just about it.
"So what did you do?" It turns out that afternoons at the beach and walks around town with his camera fit his frame of mind at the time. His room at the bed and breakfast was cozy and comforting, and sometimes, serene solitude is what we need most.