Cradle Of The Bed-and-breakfast

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“It’s supposed to rain,” I mentioned to my editor on the eve of my departure for Cape May, New Jersey, I thinking he might suggest I postpone the trip. Commanding the very southern tip of the state and celebrated for its beaches, its Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, and its hospitality to flocks of migrating birds, Cape May would be paradise in fine weather. But in the rain in the coldest April in living memory?

“Cape May looks good in the rain,” Richard answered.

“It’s going to rain for three days,” I said grimly to the bird watcher on staff, still hoping for a reprieve.

“When the rain lets up, the birds sing their loudest,” Fred replied, “and that’s the best way to spot them.”

So that bright spring morning we headed south to the last exit on the Garden State Parkway. “See that dark ridge of clouds over there?” my husband asked our two boys. “That’s a sure sign of a storm front moving in.” As Route 109 turned into Lafayette Street, modest weathered-shingle bungalows gave way to three- and four-story houses trimmed with bargeboards, balustrades, and cupolas, each freshly painted in cheerful palettes. (I briefly imagined the early eager trips to the paint store, the descent into bickering and reproach, the vast stretches of basement storing rejected quarts of turquoise and lavender.) More than 600 authentically restored Victorian structures survive in Cape May, one of the largest concentrations in the nation.

The downpour began around noon, just as we stopped to pick up a map at Cape May’s Welcome Center, housed in an old church. ( KEEP DOOR SHUT , pleaded a sign posted at the entrance. HEAT IS ON .) Inside, a VCR showed scenes of sunburned vacationers in horse-drawn carriages. The film gave a good introduction to Cape May’s history: its early days as the hunting and fishing grounds of a tribe of Lenni Lenape Indians, its rise as a resort in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its struggles in the twentieth century as Atlantic City and Wildwood built casinos and roller coasters, luring away all the tourists.

After we checked into the hotel I’d chosen for the sake of the children—it had a rooftop restaurant (closed) and a heated pool (empty)—we set off for the nature preserve a few miles down the road. When the rain let up, we took a white pebble path that began at the parking lot, walking on tiptoe, instinctively whispering. Within seconds a flock of exotic-looking birds with curved bills banked and wheeled just above our heads. We attached ourselves to a man with long gray hair who had thought to bring a field guide and binoculars. “Glossy ibis,” he murmured. He also identified the kill-deer drinking out of a puddle and then moved off in the direction of the ocean. The path continues half a mile or so to the beach, where signs remind visitors to be considerate of nesting plovers.

Cape May is named for a Dutch explorer, Captain Mey, who sailed up the bay in 1621. The first settlement was situated here on the southernmost part of the peninsula. Lost to erosion, what was once the town of South Cape May is now a brackish wetlands and marsh attractive to many species of birds. In spring and fall, thousands of migrating songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl stop here on their route along the Atlantic flyway.

Bird watchers have been coming to Cape May since the days when they studied rare species by shooting them and mounting their skins. Alexander Wilson, a Scotsman who was an early rival of John James Audubon, visited in 1810. At nearby Egg Harbor (named for its abundance of swan, goose, and duck eggs), Audubon painted the snowy owl and bald eagle.

Nonbirders came to escape the heat in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. According to tradition at least, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, Ulysses S. Grant, and Harriet Tubman all visited. President Benjamin Harrison vacationed here in 1890 and 1891, introducing Americans to the concept of a summer White House. The four-story colonnaded Congress Hall where he conducted business still stands. Later in the century, hotel owners piled on additional floors to squeeze in more guests.

PRESIDENT BENJAMIN HARRISON VACATIONED HERE IN 1890 AND 1891, INTRODUCING AMERICANS TO THE CONCEPT OF A SUMMER WHITE HOUSE.

On our second day in town, the boys bicycled off to play miniature golf while I visited the Emlen Physick Estate, an imposing gabled residence open for tours several times a day. I joined a group led by Mary Ann Schrobsdorff of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. Emlen Physick, she told us, was the grandson of Philip Syng Physick, the father of American surgery. Perhaps prompted by family pressures or his unusual name, Emlen Physick trained as a physician, but he retired from his practice at 22 to devote himself to buying and selling real estate. The house he built in Cape May in 1879, attributed to the architect Frank Furness, has 18 rooms lit by gasoliers. Each fixture looks jury-rigged out of a random collection of hardware catalogues; when styles or technology changed, Dr. Physick just added another arm. Each gas jet, our guide explained, provided the equivalent of a seven-and-a-half-watt bulb; to read or see your companion, you had to pull your chair right up under the fixture.