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Victorian Cape May, Part 1: A Tale of Two Doilies

At first blush, the Victorian-era town of Cape May, New Jersey might not seem like the kind of place that Angel and I would normally enjoy. First off, it's "family friendly," which is travel industry-speak for a town full of little people whose faces are perpetually covered in a mixture of ice cream and dried tears.

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Second, although it's not technically a dry town, you still might find yourself debating which is more difficult, finding a decent martini or remaining sober through yet another haunted mansion tour.

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Finally, Cape May is located in a state that is home to both Snooki and to more toxic waste dumps than any other state in the union, which can't possibly be a coincidence. (I'm kidding, New Jerseyans. Please don't arrange a mob hit on me.)

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And did I mention the doilies? Good god, the doilies.

Yet despite these obvious drawbacks, Angel and I have been returning to this beautiful seaside resort town for over ten years now. With its Norman Rockwell charm, wide sandy beaches, and pointy Victorian architecture, Cape May provides the perfect place for us to slow down, take it easy, and eat our faces off.

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One of the best places to do that is at Freda's, an unassuming storefront that gives no indication of the 18 patterns of floral wallpaper hidden inside . . .

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. . . or of the outstanding cooking by chef Steve Howard, whose wife is the namesake Freda.

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We've enjoyed many delicious meals at Freda's, and this night was no exception. I decided to try one of the night's many specials, the beef Wellington with mushrooms and crabmeat. Much like nobody actually orders a pot pie for the chicken, I ordered the Wellington just for the buttery, flaky, mushroomy pastry puff. That thing could have been stuffed with lint and I'd still have eaten every bite.

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Yes, every bite.

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Angel went with the snapper with Jersey tomato creole sauce, which was tangy with tomatoes and red peppers, and just spicy enough to complement but not overwhelm the fish.

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The ambiance was warm and comfortable, the caring service could not have been better, and we love trying the chef's fresh, inventive take on familiar dishes.

Also, Freda's serves the most decadent, dessert-y version of mashed sweet potatoes I've ever tasted, and if I have to stuff down a beef Wellington just to get to those potatoes, so be it.

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Earlier that day, we'd stopped by the Lobster House for a quick lunch before checking in at our hotel.

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The decor here runs toward wooden ship's wheels and brass lanterns.

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In keeping with the decor's nautical theme, all of the female wait staff are forced to dress like patriotic versions of Shirley Temple on the Good Ship Lollipop. Faces have been obscured to protect the innocent.

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Entrees at the Lobster House come with a small salad and the usual assortment of dressings, plus a sundried tomato vinaigrette with oregano, which sounded more interesting than the others. When I asked our waitress what she thought of it, she replied cheerily, "Well, I've never actually tried it, but I don't think anyone's ever, like, complained about it!" And with that ringing endorsement, I went ahead and ordered my salad with the sundried tomato vinaigrette.

As our waitress astutely predicted, I did not complain.

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It's just a shame they're so stingy with the bread.

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Angel ordered the fish special, almond-encrusted flounder with curry cream sauce. Although the sauce lacked curry's usual heat, it was creamy and tasty, and the fish was flaky and moist with a pleasant crunch from the almonds. I was feeling generous, so I even let Angel have a few bites.

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I went with the baked shrimp stuffed with crabmeat. At first I thought they brought me an appetizer portion by mistake, but then I realized, not everyone out there is lucky enough to be a human trash compactor like myself.

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Anchored alongside the Lobster House is the schooner American, which also serves as an outdoor cocktail lounge. This place could provide hours of entertainment if you're the designated driver: Nope, I didn't feel anything. Wait, you think the bar is actually bobbing? Geez, you must be really . . . tipsy.

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In addition, there's a takeout window, which I do not recommend since, without a sailor-suit-clad waitress, you'll never know it if they get together for a rousing rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" at break time.

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I like lobster as much as the next guy, but seeing one the size of a small child is quite disconcerting.

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After lunch we checked in at our hotel, the Star Inn. Located directly across the street from its sister property, Congress Hall, guests of the Star enjoy all the amenities of Congress Hall at a fraction of the price, plus an adorable coffee shop, vouchers for coffee and pastries, and a charming front porch on which to enjoy it.

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Unfortunately, that bargain came at a price, namely, our room's location directly across from Congress Hall's nightclub, the Boiler Room, which made it impossible to sleep once the club got going at night. I know you're thinking, if you can't beat 'em, why not join 'em? And we would have, if I only I hadn't left my leopard print micro-dress, platform stilettos, and 38 double-Ds at home.

Although all of the Congress Hall properties were fully booked this Labor Day weekend, they miraculously had one early check-out, which just happened to be the one room at Congress Hall that was the absolute furthest from the nightclub. Thank you, early-checker-outer!

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First opened in 1816 as a simple boarding house for summer visitors, Congress Hall was originally called "The Big House" by its owner, Thomas H. Hughes. Convinced the building was far too large to ever be a success, however, Cape May locals nicknamed it "Tommy's Folly." Those Victorians sure knew how to hurl an insult.

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Did I also mention that the room they gave us was an oceanfront penthouse suite, and that they knocked $400 off the rate? At the hotels we usually stay at, knocking that much off the room rate would mean they'd owe us money.

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One of the things we loved about the room were the old-school tiles and fixtures.

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Even the room keys were designed to look like the old paper tickets the hotel's early guests would use to travel to Cape May by train. You might think those large brass rectangles would make the keys harder to lose, but you would be wrong.

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As much as we liked our room, we could have lived without the Overlook Hotel-style hallways. REDRUM!

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However, all was forgiven as soon as I saw this. Sure, there might be murderous twins roaming the halls, but at least they're quiet twins.

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Right around the corner from Congress Hall is the heart of Cape May, a quaint outdoor shopping district called the Washington Mall. The Washington Mall is chock-full of shops and restaurants like a regular mall, minus the big hair and people who don't know how to park.

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One of our favorite shops is Love the Cook. No, we don't cook; their wares are what we like to call aspirational.

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But we do take showers, and you can find every possible scent and form of shower gel, bath gel, shower cream, bubble bath, and plain old soap at Bath Time.

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While I spent an hour or so in Bath Time sampling every product in the store, Angel spent an hour at Jackson Mountain sampling a draft beer and a Yankees game.

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A little off the beaten path is another great shop, Wanderlust, where you can find everything from fish rugs to pineapple tables to seahorse bags. Couldn't everyone use a flip-flop chip-and-dip set?

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Cape May is also home to one of the largest collections of Victorian homes in the country, second only to San Francisco. Which is of course the first place that comes to mind when you think about Victorian prudes.

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On Saturday we decided to ride our bikes over to the West Cape May Tomato Festival.

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Naturally, I came prepared.

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I was not, however, prepared for tomato hats, tomato earrings, and such saucy t-shirts.

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Or so many adorably apple-cheeked kids.

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The festival was, unfortunately, a bit short on its namesake tomatoes. I'd been expecting plates of tomatoes, bowls of tomatoes, tomato soup, tomato tarts, tomato everything. But there weren't too many choices, unless you count this yummy tomato bread . . .

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Or the "tomato chocolate cake," which I will try right after the garlic brownie and the pork chop a la mode.

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Luckily there were a few other choices to be had, like the incredibly meaty crab cakes from the Cape May Crab Cake Factory, and the fantastic raspberry and strawberry lemonades from Sweet Roses Twisted Lemonade.

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Having stuffed ourselves full of tomato bread, crab cakes, and lemonade, we decided to go with a light lunch of salads at Aleathea's restaurant, located at the Inn of Cape May.

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Of course, the real reason I wanted a salad was so I could drown it in Aleathea's homemade Champagne-basil vinaigrette, which is scandalously thick and rich and tastes like freshly-picked basil.

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A chef's salad sounded perfect . . . and . . . you already know where this is going, don't you? A quick scan of the menu revealed that they had taken the chef's salad off the menu! Either chef's salads are now passe, relegated to the Great Culinary Trashheap along with aspic and steak Diane or, more likely, there really is a worldwide shortage of ham and turkey. Forget grain futures, people: The smart money's on cold cuts.

And so I did what anyone whose plans for a light lunch were foiled would do: I ordered a double-wide cheesesteak.

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Before dinner that evening we decided to have drinks at Congress Hall's elegant Brown Room bar.

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The Brown Room draws the fashionable crowd in Cape May, like this guy, who seems to have been going for Prep School Headmaster, but took a wrong turn at Secret Service Agent.

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My drink was made with vodka, fresh strawberries, lemon, club soda, and muddled fresh basil from nearby Beach Plum Farm. For those with any qualms or misgivings about drinking a cocktail with so much basil in it, rest assured: that's what the vodka is for.

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Dinner that night was at the Black Duck on Sunset, located in an old clapboard house that still retains its choppy layout. This makes the Black Duck a great place to eat if you enjoy being seated in the foyer on top of your hostess. That, of course, depends on what she looks like, and how many vodka-and-basil drinks you had beforehand.

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I started with the lobster bisque, while Angel had the lobster dumplings.

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For entrees we both had the Szechwan spiced beef and peanut stir fry, which was delicious.

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This gorgeous building is the Peter Shields Inn.

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The Peter Shields is one of the classiest places in all of Cape May, mostly by virtue of the fact that they managed to stick to just one floral pattern for the wallpaper.

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Also, this is one swanky bar, particularly for a place that doesn't have a liquor license.

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The menu at PSI looked fantastic, with summery dishes like lobster and corn chowder and garden risotto. This place is definitely on the list for our next trip, partly because the food sounds amazing, and partly because eating dinner in a room that doesn't clash with my dress will be a first for me in Cape May.

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CLICK HERE to read Part 2!

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Posted by TraceyG 05:28 Archived in USA Tagged new_jersey cape_may jersey_shore freda's lobster_house congress_hall star_inn

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Comments

Another lovely installment, Tracey! And I like the way you're wearing your hair now in these photos--tres chic.

I don't think that Cape May is my personal cup of tea but I so enjoyed seeing it through your eyes. Looking forward to your next trip!

by Emily C.

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