Cape May: An Autumn Retreat by Linda Oatman

The oldest seaside town in the U.S., nestled between three bodies of water on the most southern tip of New Jersey, Cape May is a picture-perfect location for an autumn or Halloween retreat. With more than 600 Victorian or Gothic homes, the area is rich with history, beauty, spooky charm, and mysterious stories of hauntings, ghosts, spirits, and specters.

Fall in Cape May is much less hectic than in the bustling summertime. The parking is easy to find, the beach is open, and the streets are peaceful and seasonally decorated with pumpkins, mums, hay stacks, and scarecrows.

I visited in October, and the scene was like one from a Victorian Autumn painting by Thomas Kinkade. Evoking the enchantment of days long gone, Cape May in autumn is a respite from the stress of the daily world news.  People relax here.  They stroll.  They ride bicycles, and browse slowly through the many small and unique shops.  Nighttime is magical, with lights sparkling on the buildings and carriage horses clip-clopping.

The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities offers plenty of Halloween Happenings. There are trolley tours – Ghosts of Cape May and Ghosts of the Lighthouses and Tales of Terror – along with the Historic Haunts tour, which visits the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate and explores the Victorians’ fascination with spiritualism and ghosts.

I took a tour of the Physic Estate, and it was a fascinating one. Emlen Physick, originally from Philadelphia, was the grandson of a man known as the father of American surgery, who invented surgical procedures still in use today.  Emlen graduated from medical school, but never practiced medicine. Instead, he lived the life of a gentleman farmer on his Cape May Estate.

The Physic Estate made 1800s’ news in Cape May due to its avant garde architecture, known as “Stick Style,” which featured oversized upside-down chimneys.

Modern visitors to the Estate in autumn can enjoy Scarecrow Alley, an eclectic collection of straw-stuffed characters ranging from the ghoulishly gruesome to the foolishly funny. My favorite was the “Diamonds Are a Ghoul’s Best Friend” creation.

I stayed in Congress Hall, one of Cape May’s most famous landmark hotels.

Rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1878, Congress Hall is a stately example of Federal-style architecture with a sprawling lawn and an ocean view.

Tales of ghosts abound in Congress Hall, especially one about a little Victorian brother and sister who are said to haunt the halls.

Congress Hall hosts a “Phantom’s Ball Getaway” event each autumn, with tickets including lodging, trolley tours, and 2 tickets to the infamous Creepy Carnival Phantom’s Ball on Halloween Eve.

For those not interested in ghouls and ghosts, Cape May is a town jam-packed with ample offerings in autumn relaxation. History abounds, and there’s plenty to see and do, including climbing (or just seeing!)

The Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859 and still guiding mariners. There’s also the World War II lookout tower, built in 1942 to guard the shore, along with the strange sight of the sunken “Concrete Ship.”  The ship, named the SS Atlantus, was a product of World War I.  After making two trips to France, the ship eventually broke free of her moorings during a storm in 1926, sank, and the wreckage remains – not far off the shore of Cape May – today.

Bird-watchers flock to the area, and the dune forests of Higbee Beach are resplendent with fall foliage. The color pallet of the seashore is just as lovely, and even more dramatic, than it is in the summer.

Cape May Diamonds shine in the autumn sunlight, and beachcombers search the beaches of Higbee and Sunset for the clear or white quartz pebbles. Whale-watching and a visit to the 62-acre Beach Plum Farm are also perfect autumn activities.  Nighttime is show time at Cape May Stage, and there’s a constant schedule of ever-changing events throughout the town.

A stop at Frahlinger’s Salt Water Taffy is always a good idea, and the family-owned business is a good old-fashioned shop for visitors of all seasons.

“I always say autumn in Cape May is the best,” said the woman working the fudge counter. “Beautiful weather, peace and quiet, lots to do. Plus the ghosts.  We have lots of ghosts, you know.  Oh, and don’t forget the seafood!”

Great meals are to be found at the town’s many fine restaurants, including Aleathea’s at the Inn of Cape May (best bread and garlic oil ever!), 410 Bank Street, the Blue Pig Tavern, and the Lobster House. Several restaurants and hotels are offering Thanksgiving packages, including The Ebbitt Room/The Virginia and Blue Pig Tavern/Congress Hall.  Affordable family lodging may be found at the newly-renovated beachfront hotel La Mer, so there’s a room – and a meal – for every taste.

And then there’s Christmas in Cape May: a winter wonderland of old-fashioned magic and charm.   But that’s another story.