At the southern-most tip of New Jersey sits Cape May, the Nation’s Oldest Seashore Resort, which bears the distinction of being a National Historic Landmark. Shaded streets lined with Victorian homes and functioning gaslights are the hallmark of this seaside retreat.
Thirty years ago, Cape May was a sleepy little town, especially when compared to the neighboring Wildwoods. But in the past three or more decades, Cape May was discovered, or perhaps rediscovered.
Its rebirth not only brought the tourists from New York, Philadelphia, and around the country but also drove prices to a premium. But there are still ways to enjoy this oceanside retreat, even during the summer months without breaking the bank.
Before I go on, let me make a couple of things clear. I am not going to expose the secret to getting the $400 room for $100 or a $250 meal for $50. But I am going to tell you to leave your Bougie expectations home and enjoy a trip back in time.
I will share with you one of the best values in town for accommodations and how to get decent meals at fair prices even at one of Cape May’s most popular restaurants. I will let you in on the secret to avoiding the usual 2 to 3-hours wait for a table at this Cape May favorite.
Stay at a Victorian Inn for less
Cape May has a number of Victorian hotels that have undergone remodeling. They retain their charm from the outside, in part because zoning laws require it, but inside they are 21st century all the way. They have opted for modern-day comforts; lounges with overstuffed chairs and décor more along the art-deco lines than 19th-century styling. With those modern comforts come rates that skyrocket towards $400 per night.
But there is one place that retains its period authenticity despite updates over the years; The Chalfonte Hotel at 301 Howard Street. This 143-year-old inn is not for everyone. It is a throwback to another time. If you want all the finest amenities, you will want to stay elsewhere. But if you are after an inexpensive stay in a Victorian inn, the Chalfonte is the place.
The lobby is fitted with period furniture and the guest rooms do not have a television or phone. Some do not even have private baths. You may find a loose floorboard or some chipped paint. Windows might stick or perhaps they will not stay open at all. The place is old. Expect some of the blemishes that go with a mostly original building of its age.
There is good reason The Chalfonte has become a favorite of artists and creative types. If you look, you will find many things that are beautiful in their imperfections. Guests that return to The Chalfonte repeatedly do so to ride the rockers that grace the wrap around porch or to hide in the Secret Garden with a book. Some sneak up to the cupola and imagine being the wife of a 19thcentury sailor awaiting the return of her beloved.
By “sacrificing” some of the modern conveniences, you can still rent a room at The Chalfonte Hotel starting at around $100 a night. This would be a room with a full-size bed and a shared bath on the main hallway. Request a room on the ocean-side if one is available. You will enjoy some of the best ocean breezes here.
Of course for a bit more you can stay in a room with a European or premium bath. Suites are available as well, including the Honeymoon and the Presidential Suites. If you are looking for a family getaway, you can rent the four-bedroom Franklin Street Cottage by the week.
Top Restaurants at an affordable price
The Chalfonte offers an optional breakfast buffet in the Magnolia Room for $12 per person. This is an ample hot and cold breakfast buffet. They also serve a 3-course Prix fixe dinner for $39. Looking for even further savings on your evening meal, try the Sunday Supper Buffet for just $29.95. Tax and gratuity are not included in these prices and no shorts are allowed in the dining room for dinner.
The Lobster House
If you do not want to dress up for your evening meal and want to go off property, drive out to the Lobster House, situated on the harbor as you leave town. No matter when you visit, you will find a line for the main dining room. It has become a Cape May favorite.
If you are willing to wait, I suggest you find a table on the dock or better yet the schooner. Enjoy a cool drink and order a plate of raw oysters from the raw bar. Then sit back and watch the boats coming and going in the harbor.
But, if you are not up to the long wait, I recommend you eat at the Coffee Shop. Yup, if you are imagining a long diner-style counter with a couple of waitresses scribbling orders on a notepad, you’ve pictured it perfectly.
Here is the secret. You can get many of the same items that you would find on the full dining room menu but you won’t wait hours for a table.
On a recent visit, I had an ample bowl of lobster bisque and asked the server if she could get me a loaf of the warm crusty bread they serve in the dining room. She indulged my request. Additionally, I ordered the spinach salad and a beverage. With the tip, my meal came to around $20.
I was alone on this trip and the Coffee Shop is the kind of place you do not mind dining solo. On this occasion, I had a lovely conversation and shared my bread with a mother and daughter who were dining next to me. Once they had gone, a couple sat down beside me. They too struck up a conversation. And I learned from them that the best deal on the menu is the “side order” of pasta — $4 for what most would consider a full-size serving.
Don’t be fooled by this pizza shop turned Greek restaurant. George’s offers one of the best casual meals in town. But despite still retaining much of the pizza-hop appearance, it’s not all that unusual to wait for a table. They do not accept reservations. To avoid the line, show up about 15-minutes before opening for dinner or try them for breakfast or lunch.
My favorite menu items are the Saganaki and the Greek Salad.
Saganaki is a skittle of melted cheese with pita bread. The cheese is doused with Oozo and set ablaze. Your server will deliver your order to the table flaming. Opa!!
The Greek Salad only appears on the menu as a side salad but if you ask, they will prepare you a massive salad including stuffed grape leaves. Top it with your choice of protein and you will not leave hungry.
If you are willing to leave your big city expectations at home and dismiss your inner snob, you may find the simplicity of an affordable Cape May escape a refreshing change. And you won’t even need to wait until the off-season to do it.