My assignment? What to do on a cloudy/rainy day in Cape May? Why the answer to that is as easy as pie. Take a tour.
But how many tours can tourist tour if a tourist could tour Cape May? I set my problem before Jean Barraclough, who handles public relations for the citadel of tours – the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC).
She very kindly set before me a touring itinerary which would put the blush to any self respecting tourist’s cheek. I begin at 10 a.m. with a tour of the lighthouse, located at Cape May Point State Park. At 11 a..m. a guided-walking tour of the historic district is in the offing. A combo trolley tour of the Physick Estate begins at 12:30. The Tour and Tea Sampler begins at 2:30, ending with tea at the Twinings Tearoom, located at the Physick Estate. Lastly, is the very popular Ghost Tour which begins at 7:30 p.m.
Oh I hear you skeptics out there. You think I’ll never be able to carry it of. Ah ye of little faith. Just watch me.
Now, I realize I’m a little pressed for time. I have exactly one hour to climb199 steps – take a look about – climb back down and head on back to Cape May proper where I will meet up with the tour group in front of MAC’s information and ticket booth at the end of the Washington Street Mall and Ocean Street. Jean has thoughtfully provided me with my itinerary and tickets which I have tucked safely away in my camera bag.
I must say, one of the nice things about being at the Lighthouse so early is that there aren’t a whole lot of people out. It is Saturday – THE most popular day for touring but it is cloudy and predictions of heavy rains have been in forecast all week so I suspect the turnout will be a little lighter today than normal.
The gentleman who takes my ticket is very nice and wants to show me his picture of the WWII bunker, located on the beach in front of the Cape May Point State Park. His picture is of the bunker before the Army Corps of Engineers’ began their beach replenishment project a year or so ago. In the picture, the bunker is barely visible amidst the sand and water. Make sure you take a look at it while you’re up top, he says, you’ll be amazed at the difference. So up I go.
Truth be told, I’m in a hurry. I start sprinting up those long, winding stairs like an adolescent. Here’s the thing. I’m not an adolescent. I’m…..well never mind that. Let’s just say after the second landing, I was huffin’ and a puffin’ and had to take a break. The amazing thing about taking a break is I discovered something I’d forgotten about. Each landing has a little round lookout window. This particular landing has pictures of the town of South Cape May. Never heard of it? That’s because it disappeared. South Cape May ran from First Avenue, down by the Sunset Pavilion on the western side of town, to 26th Avenue, where the park and the bird sanctuary of South Cape Meadows is now.
It’s very cool to be reminded of how Cape Island used to look, but I’m in a hurry and must charge forward. I have about 140 more steps to go.
Ok. I’m not in a hurry any more because if I keep this up, the trip down will be with assistance.
When I get to the top of the lighthouse, a very nice lady tells me about the beacon and points out the pictures and objects on display. I take a few pictures and then step out onto the walkway which surrounds the tippy top of the lighthouse. There is a family already out there looking about. The clouds are really rolling in now and the wind is, shall we say, formidable. And the view? Spectacular. I’m so amazed at how cute the Borough of Cape May Point looks – just like an English hamlet. I decide that if I turn just a certain way, I can poke the lens of my camera through the guardrails to get a better picture. Just as I snap the shot, I see a bunch of papers floating through the air. Wow, I say to myself, I feel sorry that person. Then I realize that family I told you about are all staring at me.
No. No. Surely not. Surely those papers are not my touring tickets. Gripped with panic, the only thing I want to do now is to look through my camera bag but it’s too windy to take it off my back and what if something else falls out? I make my way to the door as soon as I can. Now if you think going up 199 steps is tough, try going back down in a hurry just at the time when lots of tourists are coming up the stairs. I’ll make my way to the first landing and check, I say to myself, but there are people there. Down I go. Finally, I find an empty spot. There it is – I have neglected to zip my camera bag. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a problem but gale-force winds do exaggerate any mistake. My itinerary is still there. The tickets are gone. I spend a few minutes driving around Cape May Point looking for the illusive tickets but I’m starting to look like a stalker and I abandon all hope.
By the time I arrive back in Cape May and make my way to the MAC booth it is 11:05. It’s ok, says the man at the booth, the sky is so black, no one really showed for the walking tour but I can take my own walking tour, he says. I can even go back to the Physick Estate (MAC headquarters) and pick up and audio version of the tour to help guide me.
Off I go to the Physick Estate on Washington Street to see about the audio tapes and to explain my plight to Dawn who is working the desk that day. Once she stops laughing, she is extremely nice and helpful and gets me new tickets. By now, however, it has started raining and I decide that a walking tour, no matter how it is guided, is not in the stars. However, the Tea and Tour Sampler, is right up my alley and perfect for the kind of day it is turning out to be. I climb aboard the Sampler trolley and take a closer look at the tour details. I will be visiting four Victorian B&Bs. Two are across the street from each other. Good. Because it’s raining even harder. The Henry Sawyer Inn and Dormer House are both on Columbia Avenue. The other two B&Bs on the list are the Mason Cottage, also on Columbia Avenue, and Beauclaire’s on Ocean Street.
I can’t say our trolley was full but it was respectable considering the weather. Off we go. One nice thing about this tour is you under no time schedule except your own. Had the weather been nice, I could have just walked to all four B&Bs. The only time factor is to be sure and catch the Sampler trolley at 4 p.m. when it leaves from its Ocean and Washington Street stop (across from the info. booth). Some of us went into the Henry Sawyer Inn, circa 1877, and the other half went across the street to Dormer House, circa 1899.
Getting a glimpse inside these old houses is the best thing about touring Cape May. Not only are you walking into another era, you are also walking into, for the most part, someone’s home. Most of the innkeepers live in their inns and it’s quite nice when they personally show you around as did Barbara and Mary Morris of the Henry Sawyer Inn, and Dennis Doherty of Dormer House. I won’t give you too many details so I don’t spoil the surprises which await you when you take the tour yourself but the Henry Sawyer Inn has a cradle built by Abraham Lincoln’s father. And when you visit Dormer House, built in the winter of 1899-1900, ask Dennis what’s behind that very large armoire? You’ll never guess. And I’m not telling.
There was no need for a trolley just to walk a few feet up the street to the Mason Cottage, circa 1871. I’d been in the Mason before and am always bowled over by its charm. By now I’d separated from the group who were on the bus but we kept passing each other as we went in and out the B&Bs. My last stop was Beauclaire’s. Andrew was my host. This circa 1879, Queen Anne-style house was built the year after the Great Fire of 1878 and it is incredible. The workmanship of the chestnut staircase, the black walnut fireplace, the oil painting, (original to the house), all make you just want to curl up in the parlor and read one of Andrew’s books which he has carefully chosen for his guests’ reading pleasure.
Well I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for tea. The rain hasn’t stopped and a nice hot cup of tea is just what the Dr. Physick ordered. Our original group assembled and our Sampler Trolley meandered its way down Washington Street to the Physick Estate. Now, had I taken the Combo Trolley Tour, I would have toured the historic district from the confines of the trolley and then been taken to the Physick Estate for a tour inside the home of Dr. Emlen Physick, his mother Mrs. Frances Ralston. I opted instead for the Cape May Sampler Tour & Tea and, as I had just recently toured the Physick Estate, I picked the right tour for me. Both tours ended in the Twinings Tea Room and can I just say….what fun!
Everyone in the Tea Room was in a great mood – and hark ye lads – it wasn’t all women. There were several couples scattered about. Our waitress Sharon and the Tea Room manager Christine were such good sports about taking pictures, singing Happy Birthday, and generally making sure everyone had a good time, that I’ve made it a personal point to go back sans tour just tea. And by the way, the tea cakes were to die for. A precisely 5 p.m. we boarded the Sampler Trolley and were dropped off at the Ocean Street trolley stop.
Time enough for a little nap, until 7:30 when the VERY popular and almost sold-out Ghosts of Cape May trolley tour was scheduled to begin. Audrey is our tour guide and Hector our trolley driver. Some of the same folks who were on the Sampler tour were also on this one and why not? Everyone loves a good ghost story and Audrey had tons of them. We rode around for about 45-minutes to an hour, rubbing our steam covered windows to get a glimpse of the window, the turret or the hotel room in which ghosts have from time to time lurked. As ghost author Craig McManus maintains in his book The Ghosts of Cape May, our island has more ghosts than almost any other city along the eastern seaboard because they like it here and are not inclined to leave. Craig’s well documented ghost stories are the basis for this tour. So, if you can’t take the tour buy the book.
And that’s it. Had I not lost my tickets, I might have been able to squeeze in one walking tour either with or without guide, but I think I took about as many tours as a tourist can tour in one day and mighty glad I did. Any of the tours is fabulous in and of itself (although I am partial to the ones with food) so even if it is a nice sunny day, please think about taking one. The friendly folks at MAC are always available.