Cape May: A Glorious Fall Destination on the Jersey Shore

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Cape May's Montreal Resort Hotel has a beachfront view to the Atlantic in New Jersey. Christopher Ludgate photos.

Cape May’s Montreal Resort Hotel has a beachfront view to the Atlantic in New Jersey. Christopher Ludgate photos.

It’s Wine O’Clock in Cape May, New Jersey

The winemaker at Hawk Haven Winery near Cape May NJ shows off the year's grapes.

The winemaker, Lou, at Hawk Haven Winery near Cape May NJ shows off the year’s grapes.

By Christopher Ludgate

With harvest fast approaching and the breezes of late summer promising a sigh of relief, my sister, Kat, and I decided on an end of season getaway.  It was still beautiful out along the Atlantic coast, and it was the perfect time for an easy does it on the budget road trip — maybe with some adventure on the side.

Down at the tip of the New Jersey peninsula, just a straight route on the Garden State Parkway, sits America’s first seaside resort town. Long before the beachfront area gradually stretched northward and became “the Jersey Shore”, this small town place where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean became Cape May.

I passed through it when returning on an exciting ferry ride from Rehoboth Beach a couple years ago as the sun set just as peak season was wrapping up. It looked like a wonderful place for family fun, but I also thought it could be a great destination to decompress at some point – minus kids and crowds.

Technically an island that has seen the ebb and flow of many incarnations, its small town appeal is steeped in history from colonial relics to Victorian homes to WWII Lookouts. Another growing appeal of Cape May is from the seeds that flourish from early spring through fall in the cascading Vineyards that have earned the destination major bragging rights.

The Willow Creek winery has a vendor market to sell local crafts and foods.

The Willow Creek winery has a vendor market to sell local crafts and foods.

Cape May Getting Better with Age

The pretty Victorian houses all well kempt and fresh looking revealed themselves between the landscaping as we entered Cape May proper.

The salty air mellowed my mood as we pulled closer to shore. The neighborhood looked perfect for strolling, and it looked to be bike friendly, too.

The cobblestoned Washington Street Mall area is comprised of many unique shops, diverse eateries, sweet smelling ice cream parlors, and vintage nostalgia. It is the heart of town for tourists and business. The radius of the mall expands to an eclectic collection of diverse restaurants that would please any foodie and accommodate moderate budgets. 

A variety of B&Bs ranging from the old-fashioned to the more private fancy types are part of the town’s make-up along with a gorgeous array of hotels extending to the promenade along the beach and stretching from its southern peak up to the marina that borders Cape May.         

You can't beat the view at the Montreal Resort in Cape May, NJ.

You can’t beat the view at the Montreal Resort in Cape May, NJ.

Classic Cape May and a Grand Dame

Among its charms, Cape May is also rumored to maybe be a bit haunted.  With its extensive history, this definitively quaint town can have an occasional spooky feel.  The B&B like Chalfont Hotel, aka ‘The Grand Dame’, celebrates its 140th year in 2016. Just blocks from the beach, the old Chalfont takes pride in its “north meets south” ambience and is also known for its oversized rockers on the wraparound porch.

The intimate King Edward Bar is a cool place to unwind at an early happy hour. Afterward, while exploring the long hallways it went very quiet. Just some faint footsteps and chatter from the fourth floor which I attributed to the maids until I realized looking up at the Grand Dame outside, there was no fourth floor.

Ghost tours driven by trolleys down old lamppost lit roads are available into fall through capemaymac.org, as are tours of historic, architectural, and seasonal natures.

At the Chalfont B&B style hotel, live music brings the big front porch to life in the evenings in Cape May, NJ.

At the Chalfont B&B style hotel, live music brings the big front porch to life in the evenings.

Feeling famished, Kat and I were in the mood for some classic seafood. We were directed by Cape May native, Debbie Bass, to check out E.M. Hemingway’s, a contemporary eatery with a bar and elegant dining area. We were seated up front late into the sunset after arriving. The classic menu focuses on ‘JerseyFresh’ locally sourced fare. While Kat melted over her lobster mac & cheese, I devoured my Caprese made with fresh mozzarella and juicy tomatoes from a nearby farm.

An Ocean at My Fingertips

We checked into The Montreal Beach Resort which is perched along the promenade delivering oceanic panorama views to its guest’s doorstep. This beachfront hotel boasts a newly renovated full service restaurant, Harry’s with indoor outdoor seating. It’s the type of place you don’t really need to leave.  However, the hotel provides all you need for a day at the beach including cute cabana’s, and yes, beach service from the restaurant. There is even an on-site liquor store.

From the balcony of our primped contemporary room with kitchenette and lounge area, Kat and I looked over the heated outdoor pool and Jacuzzi and soon discovered we had front balcony seats for the lively music happy hour at the tiki bar terrace area below which can also be seen from Montreal Beach Resort’s roof deck.

Barrels of wine aging at the Hawk Haven Winery in New Jersey.

Barrels of wine aging at the Hawk Haven Winery in New Jersey.

Built by Polish immigrants seeking a better life for themselves after WWI, this 4th generation run piece of heaven celebrates its 50th in 2016. The tumbling of the tides through the night and the ultimate comfort at Montreal Resort Hotel is peaceful off-season joy.

It’s Wine O’Clock

After a bite at the rightly named Oceanview Restaurant our vineyard tour began the next day after an easy drive to Willow Creek Winery & Farm which welcomed us into its rolling 50 acre landscape of varietals. Our guide swept us up for a hands-on 45 minute carted tour through the ripe aisles where we could actually pluck from the clusters of partially harvested plants, some of which were in the extraction process on site with experienced vintner, Kevin Celli.

Chickens and turkeys mingle at the Willow Creek winery.

Chickens and turkeys mingle at the Willow Creek winery.

A friendly and passionate guy, Celli, is an experienced component in the area that’s become the fastest growing sector over the past 25 years. He is also a proponent of the community sticking together in its sustainable philosophies and friendly local-business philosophy explaining,

“…We all benefit from each other’s success.”  With wine comes wisdom, they say. Willow Creek also offers a unique adopt a vine program.

The largest winery in Cape May with a large rustic hall and tasting bar, Willow Creek, hosts events including tastings with tapas by the fire pit, live music, Paint Night with Piano, and Yoga in the Vineyards.

With its old-world romantic ambience, intimate dinners and parties feature some of award-winning favorites like the Wildcock Red. The Pumpkin Port is in high demand this season.

Hawk Haven Winery on the other side of the island began its quest into wine when the great grandson of a German immigrant planted a seed of Cabernet Sauvignon grape and discovered the soil and climate were optimal grape growing terroir. The vineyard now yields 20,000 bottles a year. The enlightening walking tour details its history as well as how the differing conditions of each season effects its crops. “Every season brings a different highlight,” winemaker Lou Harvey revealed.

Venturing to the crushpad before the 14 acre field revealed the recently crushed harvest on its way to its fruition where flavors are “teased out with oak barrels.”  Our delightful tasting beneath the canopy included local cheese plates with the Talon and award winning Flying Press Red. Sangria Sundays and Saturdays at the Crushpad draw locals, tourists, and buyers to imbibe with live entertainment.

The local 26 acres of Cape May Winery’s total 70 acres of vineyards is comprised of 16 varieties of vinos. A popular spot among locals and Cape May tourists, the elegant winery on Townbank Road offers its visitors to tour or find a spot in the popular open deck where they can bring food and delight in the winery’s bar. Another firm believer in community working together and as members of Farmland Preservation of NJ, Cape May Winery’s Betsy Sole and her team believe in their purpose as winemakers “to be baby-sitters for good fruit.”

BYOB

With local vineyards at our fingertips BYOB seemed the natural thing to do, and Island Grill was the ideal place to enhance the local flavor of Cape May. Bathed in candlelight inside a colorful Victorian house on Mansion Street, restaurateur Carol Herforth welcomed and indulged us with the details of the menu that she and Chef Joshua Day created. Featuring diversity and seasonal ingredients, the menu often reads like a fresh page from local sources.

Starting with a Bloody Butcher Cornbread with thyme and honey butter and moving into a perfectly grilled Bronzino with a  Concord grape reduction, candied olives, and a fennel confit, it was a flawless combo that got even better when Carol’s daughter, Alexandra, delivered a velvety chocolate confection helping us polish off our Willow Creek Prestige Red – and our Cape May getaway – on a high note.

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Christopher Ludgate
Christopher Ludgate is a freelance travel and culture journalist and photographer, as well as an award winning producer, director, and writer living in New York City. Click on his name above to visit his website.