CAPE MAY, NJ- Fine wines, outstanding restaurants, classic jazz festivals and special events year 'round. Some things just get better with age, and charming Cape May, New Jersey is no exception. This historic Victorian seaside gem is the oldest resort and one of the most beautiful spots in the country. The entire city is a National Historic District, with nearly 600 preserved Victorian buildings.
Cape May was a mere 20 minute drive from where we were based in Wildwood. In order to really experience this area the right away we spent some time at the fabulous Cape Resorts.
In terms of places to stay, the Cape Resorts offer everything you can ask for and more. Each of this group’s hotels has its own deeply individual personality. That means beautiful settings, approachable design, an array of wonderful dining options, plus fun activities from sunrise till evening. There is Congress Hall, The Virginia, The Virginia Cottages, the Beach Shack, the Sandpiper Beach Club, The Star and Barons Cove Sag Harbor All of the hotels and restaurants are serviced by Cape Resorts’ very own 62-acre Beach Plum Farm, located about one mile away from the properties. The farm provides the restaurants and hotels with fresh eggs, produce, flowers, pork, herbs, and more.
Congress Hall and the beach experience
We chose Congress Hall to experience Cape May. This is both Cape May and America’s oldest seaside resort. The hotel is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. We booked a fabulous beach tent for three. After purchasing our beach pass, we were escorted to our tent. Staff helped us set up in this utopian location on the gorgeous beach, just steps from the water. For the ultimate experience in relaxation, rent one beach tent and learn firsthand just how good a perfect day at the beach can feel. When you get thirsty, someone will bring you a bottle of ice-cold water. Order a tall iced lemonade or a refreshing fruit smoothie for the perfect summertime treat. Building sandcastles can always work up an appetite, so you can order from their delicious lunch menu, made fresh and delivered right to your beach chair. Since these beach tents have a reputation in relaxation, they are very popular and are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis for either a full or half day. These rentals include: two lounge chairs (we requested three), plush beach towels, a cooler filled with water, soda, and iced tea (Congress Hall and Virginia Beach Tents only) and table and food service. In addition, we got three chairs and two umbrellas and a few more towels placed just in front of our tent. This was the perfect place for us to sit first when we came back from our numerous trips to the ocean. The water was quite warm in July, a real bonus compared to the temperatures we experienced in the past in places like Cape Cod and Maine.
The three lounge chairs sat atop a wooden deck. There was a menu on a clipboard. All we needed to do was place a flag in front of our tent and one of the staff members took our order and delivered the food right to our seats. It does not get much better than that. We thoroughly enjoyed our choices of a beach burger, a black mako (shark) sandwich and a Congressional Caesar salad, with grilled chicken. In addition, we ordered a couple of smoothies – mango and strawberry.
Later in the day we spent some time poolside at Congress Hall. There is one small pool – beautifully heated- for adults and a larger one for kids and families.
Providing hospitality since 1816 and celebrating its bicentennial this year with newly renovated rooms, Congress Hall is a haven of relaxed elegance, fun, historic charm and luxury at the New Jersey shore. Set amid landscaped grounds overlooking Cape May's broad sandy beaches, the iconic Congress Hall is just a few steps from the ocean in the heart of Cape May's famed historic district.
Guests can dine at The Blue Pig Tavern, the hotel’s signature restaurant that features farm-to-table menu items from Cape Resorts’ very own 62-acre Beach Plum Farm located one mile from the hotel. Additionally, Congress Hall guests, Cape May visitors and residents can experience the luxurious, accessible and relaxing Sea Spa. Acknowledged by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the top 75 hotel spas in the United States, the Sea Spa interior is designed to look like the inside of a beach tent to further enhance the feeling of a seaside getaway. During the summer season, guests can also enjoy beachside spa services. Congress Hall was additionally honored by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the top US hotels in the Northeast, made their list of the Top 10 Hotels in the Mid-Atlantic, and was most recently awarded the number two spot on Condé Nast Traveler's 2015 Reader’s Choice Awards Top 20 Hotels in the Mid-Atlantic and New York. The property offers a wide variety of entertainment, including the Boiler Room, a live entertainment lounge offering wood fire pizza, a fun atmosphere with a New York downtown nightclub vibe, and the Brown Room, a sophisticated lounge where hotel guests and locals mix and mingle while enjoying cocktails and delicious appetizers which also highlight ingredients from Beach Plum Farm. Congress Hall is located at 200 Congress Place.
A Historical Location
Summer vacations in Cape May are a time-honored tradition passed down from generation to generation. Congress Hall, America’s original shore getaway, embodies the best of that tradition in America and one that all started with this iconic hotel. Three major celebratory events were scheduled during the year on Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day, paying homage to the past, present, and future with live entertainment and various classic American festivities. Throughout the year meaningful items were collected at the hotel and through social media from past and present guests to be buried in a time capsule.
Owner Curtis Bashaw, and his sister Colleen Bashaw, who designed all the interiors, are proud of their property’s milestone anniversary. They have had an almost 50 year involvement with the property, starting when their grandfather, the Reverend Carl McIntire, purchased it and they spent their summers there as children. “Having grown up in Congress Hall with my family during the summers, I appreciate how important traditions are and how special places impact those traditions” explained Curtis Bashaw. “When Congress Hall opened in the summer of 1816, the United States flag had only 15 stars and the county was only 40 years old. For Congress Hall - which has endured fires, storms, economic disasters, wars, massive changes to building and fire codes and evolving consumer preferences - to have survived 200 years and be a thriving resort today is a truly remarkable accomplishment. We are proud and excited to celebrate this milestone with concerts, dinners and festivities all summer long.”
While staying at Congress Hall, guests can enjoy newly renovated rooms thanks to an extensive, multimillion-dollar renovation of all 110 guestrooms and the creation of four new suites named after the presidents who have stayed there. Congress Hall was once known as the official “Summer White House” of President Benjamin Harrison, who conducted state business there in the summer of 1891. The American Institution has also hosted Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur and James Buchanan, all while in office. While the room design may be new, interior designer Colleen Bashaw, describes her design inspiration as follows: “The architecture of Congress Hall is grand in scale yet simple in ornament. My goal with the interior design is to maintain that perfect balance spoken through the architecture of the building; luxurious while accessible with a dash of whimsy. A driving force for me is the thought that generations of families call this their summer home. I want my work to be part of the reason they return.”
Dining Out: The Rusty Nail and Blue Pig Tavern
We had the opportunity to enjoy two nice meals at the Cape Resorts. Following our day at the beach, we took a five minute walk to the Rusty Nail Bar and Grill, located at the Beach Shack, for a really fun dinner. It represented a fabulously relaxing backdrop to dine at during a warm summer evening. We were seated at table near the bar.
A revived beachfront motel, the Beach Shack features 65 spacious efficiency style rooms, including dog-friendly accommodations, all of which offer an ocean view, and a clean, sophisticated beach resort vibe, providing the perfect place to relax for man and man’s best friend. Decorated in a casual, mellow, beach-style, guestrooms are all about comfort and are located steps away from the beautiful beaches of Cape May and the hotel’s beach tents and service which offers menu items from The Rusty Nail, or "The Nail," as it's known by locals -- The Beach Shack’s famed iconic surfer bar that made a name for itself in the 70s. Named by Travel + Leisure as one of the Top Beach Bars, the Rusty Nail attracts everyone from lifeguards and surfers to beautiful beach bunnies, who gather around the wood bar that is rumored to be the longest in Cape May. With live music, a fire pit, weekly pig roasts, shuffleboard and sand bar, The Rusty Nail is an authentic and cool beachside hangout. The restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is located at 205 Beach Avenue.
The Beach Shack and the Rusty Nail are dog friendly. The restaurant even holds an annual dog pageant each September and offers a dog menu. This is a laid-back beach restaurant, so do not worry about attire. We started off with some drinks, thirst quenching pina coladas and a Rusty Rum Runner, a tropical blend of pineapple, orange and mango juice, banana liqueur and Bermuda rum.
As an appetizer, we shared the Nail sampler. This included some shrimp, oysters and crab meat, served with dijon mayo, cocktail sauce, and lemon. The menu has a wide array of choices. We settled on the fish and chips, an order of roasted scallops and two jumbo lump roasted crab cakes. Along with each main course you can pick two from buttermilk mashed potatoes, baked potato, French fries, baked yam or side of pasta and a seasonal vegetable selection.
The following evening we returned to Congress Hall for dinner at the Blue Pig Tavern. Its name derives from a gambling parlor sited in Congress Hall in the mid-1800s. Earlier still, in the 1700s, Elias Hughes operated a tavern for whalers on this site. It was the first tavern in Cape May. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, we were told that there is no better place to enjoy classic American comfort food. In the warmer months, you can dine on their wonderful, secluded patio. In the cooler months, cozy up to the magnificent dining room fireplace. Executive Chef Jeremy Einhorn has implemented a delicious farm-to-table menu featuring fresh produce, herbs and eggs from the Beach Plum Farm. Jeremy, a member of the Jewish community, has been in his position since 2010. He paid a friendly visit to our table, located outdoors in a courtyard beneath some umbrellas on a warm summer evening.
After some drinks, we shared the Raw Bar Sampler. It consisted of six oysters and six clam claws, with a few dipping sauce choices. We next ordered some salads- a red and yellow endive and another called Beach plum farm greens. The former consisted of farm lettuce, crisp endive, walnuts, apples and roasted shallot vinaigrette. As for the latter it contained tender beach plum farm lettuce, also tossed with the same vinaigrette.
For the main course we settled on the steak and crab cake entrée and the half roasted chicken. They came with sides of beach plum farm seasonable vegetables and roasted potatoes, Yukon gold mashed potatoes, creamed Jersey corn, green beans and herb jus. For dessert we shared a piece of apple pie with ice cream.