Tasting Cape May & Discovering its Diverse Histories
By Christopher Ludgate
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
In the dozen or so times I’ve passed through or even stayed briefly in Cape May, it was never hard to glean the idea of why the seaside destination was a perennial favorite for so many.
It is quintessentially quaint with its well-maintained Victorian charm. The walkable, beachy but remote family-friendly element is an obvious draw.
And its relaxed foodie atmosphere and its wineries have an impressive amount to offer on the surface.
It is one of those places that certainly likes to celebrate itself, and rightfully so.
I gradually became more and more aware of Cape May‘s history and grew to be unexpectedly enamored by it for its seemingly haunted vibe and historical interests, too.
Not to mention for some unexpected diversity. So I thought it deserved a closer look.
It was just past the full moon one morning while wandering along the southern shore.
Among historians, the famous seaside resort town is synonymous with intriguing buried history.
Learning about the ghost tracks that are known to appear on the shifting, weather-eroded coast in recent years during a low tide lured me and Steve to go on the hunt.
Further up from Sunset Beach where the stranded relics of the rare concrete ship, SS Atlantus, jut eerily out of the water, the elusive tracks are known to play a coy game of peek-a-boo in the ebb and flow.
Records date the buried treasure back to a 1906 system built by Atlantic City Railroad Company, according to local historians.
Abandoned after being used to transport artillery in World War I, their mysterious reappearances have had only unpredictable reveals after major regional storms in recent years, and so far the remains continue to rest in peace untouched.
We combed the beach envisioning what the locomotive might have looked like speeding in the mist along the shore, but alas, as the tides began to rise again we went without so much as a glimpse of the apparition that day.
Later on, we stomped through the hot sand to get a closer look at another odd old relic.
A huge bunker from WWII sits there on the shore looking all out of place over to the side of the peaceful Bird Observatory.
Described as startling by some, it indeed sparks the imagination in an interesting, if not jarring way. Further into the receding tide, gun mounts built in 1941, a year prior to the bunker, remain.
A Deeper Look Underground
During a tour later that day, Steve and I learned that the role of Cape May in the Underground Railroad during the 1850s has been researched and established with Harriet Tubman as the engineer.
In the near future, a museum honoring Tubman and the history is slated to open in Cape May, which “at one time was 30 percent African-American records show,” developer Bob Mullock said.
Joining a newly-vamped trolley tour as part of the National Park Services “Network to Freedom’ is co-sponsor, Mid-Atlantic Center for Arts and Humanities with Cape May resident, Kathleen. We received a fascinating glimpse into this history.
Standing by the coast near the lighthouse at Delaware Bay, Kathleen explained more about “The railroad that led up through Maryland and into Delaware presented the dangerous route of crossing the bay – exposed – to make it to safety.
Not everybody made it. But Tubman who worked as a cook to help fund the railroad at what is today’s oldest existing B&B in the county, The Chalfont, had a system of ‘conductors’ to meet freedom runners on this side.”
On Lafayette Street, we got a glimpse of the summer-house of Stephen Smith, one of the richest African-American men in the United States at the time and a leader of the Underground Railroad who worked closely with Tubman. The town has plans to restore the 170-year-old house for historical purposes to mark Smith’s achievements.
Entering the Time Capsule
We entered the time-capsule on Batts Lane in Lower Township, Cape May, a tiny antebellum house that what was likely once a whaler’s cottage circa 1846, according to Kathleen. I couldn’t help but imagine the Owen Coachman family in their daily lives; braving the winters, pioneering new territory in history.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this landmark is the restored Post-medieval English style home of the first free slave homeowner in the area. The pristinely preserved dwelling is impeccably detailed.
It was a real peek into a highly significant and revered piece of history. And the emotional tale Kathleen related to us about the further history of Coachman on the tour is captivating.
Chilling-out at Cape May Brew Co.
We found a great way to spend an afternoon while touring and tasting at Cape May Brewing Company with resident ‘Mott Man’, Bob Krill, founder of the eight-year-old brewery along with his sons.
Unlike most other brew-tours, the one here offered a multi-part tour with a hands-on museum section where we compared brewing ingredients like barleys and select hops imported from Yakima, Washington.
Continuing on into the chilled brewery with conical tanks and bubbling vats of fresh yeast tickled our taste buds.
The dedication of the brewers mingled with an apparent pleasure in the craft. We were able to climb some of the tanks to peek in the windows at the latest anticipated seasonal brews which, like all of CMBC beers, “remain chilled always throughout the whole finishing process up until sold so they are the freshest product that taste just like we intended,” proud Krill said as we hopped past the foam-spitting hoses below.
The tour topped-off with tastings inside the cool, colorful tasting-room, adjacent to the festive outdoor beer garden area where pitchers commenced.
The atmosphere was lively inside where a large chalkboard detailed the creatively-named taps on hand, below which flights and pints flowed.
What’s beer without some munchies though?
Well, patrons are welcome to bring food from outside. The brewery even makes its own sodas, so the kids won’t feel left out.
“We’ve always got something going on here at the brewery or co-sponsored with other venues and pop-ups in the community.
We kick off some of the most popular seasonal brews with a bash here. We make a special ‘King Porter Stout’ just for Jazz Fest. People really look forward to coming for the fresh stuff,” Krill informed enthusiastically.
We sat in groups of four at the long wooden table beneath the filament glow of a chandelier. Rows of barrels were stacked on either side of us.
Before us were three carafes of wines made from the 162 acres of Cape May Winery & Vineyard.
A sheet of paper describing a bit of wine vocabulary along with a pencil lay at our place settings.
The new kitchen at Cape May Winery has opened up a brand new opportunity for visitors to learn and experiment hands-on with the art of wine blending and pairing.
Johnny, who is an admitted jack-of-all-trades at the winery since 1971, began to guide us through the event as Steve, Carol, Diane, and I put on our virtual lab coats and went to work.
30% Merlot, 10% Cab Franc, 60% Cab Sauv was our ‘Reverse Carol’ blend; “sweet and tart notes with a little depth and haze,” we logged on our sheets, also rating our blends.
The entire table had fun with the varietal blends, but there was also an air of earnestness with the levity as we analyzed, sipped and paired our creations with a variety of light plates from Chef Mike who creatively accommodated the group’s vegetarians as well. It was an unexpectedly lovely new activity that was a big hit with all.
Strolling Through Town
The soothing live blues from the electric guitar from Harry’s rooftop deck at Montreal Beach Resort was a great blend for me and an afternoon siesta after a cold Cape May IPA while Steve went for a run along the promenade.
One of the few more traditional resort hotels in the area, MBR is perfect for those who are not big fans of a B&B. The resort hotel offers full views of the ocean from each room, and its multi-tiered decks include a pool level as well.
Having recently gone through another phase of renovations, the rooms almost make it too easy to never have to leave the premises. But the ideal location is almost like an amenity in itself. We hardly ever had to use the car during our stay.
Late nights we wandered the streets leisurely, admiring the Victorian architecture, looking into porches hosting lively parties, and catching some of that haunted vibe of some places.
The human-scale of this area of town offers easy access to galleries like SOMA on Perry Street and the East Lynn Playhouse inside of First Presbyterian on Hughes Street where we enjoyed a production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky one evening.
Another afternoon, we attended the decadent ‘Chocolate Lovers Feast’ hosted in part by Mid-Atlantic Center after meandering to the historic Blue Rose Inn.
One course after another of Angela and Michael Keating’s cocoa inspired creations, constructions, and concoctions made for an indulgent sugar-high fix for any hard-core sweet tooth.
One night, we followed the pumping music after poking around in the historic corridors of Congress Hall down to The Boiler Room, an atmospheric energetic late-night grotto club with a brick oven pizza restaurant that satisfied our off-the-beaten-path appetite.