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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 Comments (1)

Victorian Cape May, Part 2: A Tale of Two Doilies

On Sunday we decided to try a tiny taco joint we'd spotted while biking around West Cape May the previous day, Key West Tacos. In ten trips to Key West I've never actually eaten a taco there, but if you think I'm turning down a plate full of corn chips on some technicality, you're crazy.

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Though not much bigger than a walk-in closet, the decor is unique and funky, much like Key West itself.

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You'd think Stoner Beverage would sell something a little stronger than 7-Up, no?

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The ten different type of tacos here are overstuffed with the filling of your choice, plus cheese, lettuce, island slaw, and pico de gallo, making a delightfully cheesy, slawy mess all over your plate -- and your lap, should you be daring enough to pick one up.

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They're served with the aforementioned corn chips and a tasty Mexican version of dirty rice.

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Everything was fresh and delicious, so Angel and I made like a couple of contestants at a hot-dog eating contest and devoured every bit, in about 10 minutes flat.

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Also, for those of you still concerned about the Great Napkin Shortage of 2011, I am happy to report that Cape May has thankfully been spared.

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Afterwards we biked around for a bit in a doomed effort to be able to button our pants, taking in a number of interesting sights.

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Mark my words: This homeowner's wife is either dead, or wearing the Hope Diamond on her finger right now.

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If you are parked at a 10-hour meter and still find yourself in need of a five-minute grace period, perhaps what you really need is a new watch.

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You know how I occasionally wonder aloud on this web site about why on earth I ever got married? Well, here's one reason: Angel's willingness to pose with a random clump of freakishly large mushrooms . . . without even asking why.

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I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.

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Of course, you can't bike around Cape May without taking in its many "painted ladies," which can put a smile on anyone's face . . . particularly if they're named Benjamin Moore or Sherwin Williams.

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Among all the Victorians, somehow this gorgeous Mexican-style house just, er . . . snuck in. I know, I know. But my last name's Gonzalez, so it's okay.

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Anyone who matches their porch chairs and their golf cart to their house is A-OK in my book.

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Later that afternoon we decided to check out Reggae Sunday at the Rusty Nail, located at the new Beach Shack hotel. The folks behind the Beach Shack took what was an outdated, slated-for-demolition motel called the Coachman and brilliantly capitalized on the current craze for all things retro by renovating absolutely . . . nothing.

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Wood paneling? Check. Old-school newell-post bar stools? Check. Attached-bench picnic tables? Yep, they have those too.

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The Shack draws a well-groomed crowd.

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We'd no sooner kicked off our shoes, buried our toes in the sand, and ordered a round of drinks, when these two tiny humans plopped themselves down not two feet away from us.

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After some looking around, I finally spotted mom and dad, seated on the opposite side of the restaurant out of both sight and earshot, enjoying their drinks in relative peace. At first I was surprised that Mom would leave her kids alone with two strangers, but after an hour of listening to these two making truck noises, it finally hit me: She was hoping we'd kidnap them. Nice try, lady.

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After that trauma, Angel and I immediately retreated back into our coccoon of safety.

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That evening we had reservations at Louisa's, a postage-stamp sized place that's known for its ever-changing chalkboard menu and made-from-scratch desserts.

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Jersey tomatoes were in season, so I had mine with feta, while Angel went with the fresh mozzarella.

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Louisa's specializes in fresh fish, so Angel and I ordered roughly the same thing for our entrees, too: The mahi-mahi, his blackened with lime Srichacha sauce, and mine simply grilled with basil mayonnaise.

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It is probably wonderful for your husband to gaze lovingly at you like this after many years of marriage, but I wouldn't know . . . since he's actually staring at my dessert.

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I went with the Jersey peach crisp with toasted almonds, while Angel tried the blackbottom pie. Both were served with a generous dollop of real whipped cream, which was delicious, but not as much fun as squirting the stuff from a can directly into your mouth.

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On our last morning we decided to take a walk along the Promenade down to Cove Beach, where you can also find the aptly named Cove restaurant, a tiny spot that's in perpetual danger of being buried by the dune.

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We decided to stay awhile and take in the view.

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Later we rode down to the opposite end of Cape May for lunch at the Pier House. The new houses at this end of town are designed in the same style as town's original Victorians, presumably with the added benefit of being able to plug in a hair dryer without blowing a fuse.

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It is a sad state of affairs when someone's garage is way nicer than your actual house.

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At first glance, the Pier House wouldn't seem to have much going for it: an out-of-the-way location on Beach & Pittsburgh, an outdated web site, and an exterior that looks like a Swiss chalet. But to miss this place would be to miss one of the best meals you're likely to have in Cape May.

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Angel started with the Pyrat Punch, and the only thing you need to know about how potent it was is that he was afraid to finish it. You know how strict the cops are about drinking and bicycling.

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For our lunch entrees, I had the Mad Greek salad, which was similar to a Greek country salad -- no lettuce, and bursting with red and yellow tomatoes, fresh cucumbers, sharp feta, and a hint of mint, and finished with a simple dressing of pungent Greek olive oil, lemon juice, and oregano.

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This salad made up for every single tomato I didn't get to eat at the Tomato Festival.

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Angel went with the Mediterranean chicken sandwich. Imagine juicy chicken marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and oregano; creamy melted feta; red onions and bitter arugula; and the ripest tomatoes you've ever tasted, all squished together on buttery, grilled Texas toast.

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We're already planning our next visit, and next time we'll order two of those sandwiches, to avoid ending up in divorce court.

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Sure, the patterned upholstery here might give you a seizure . . . but, really, where in Cape May is that not the case?

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Next up, we're headed to Charleston, SC , so hit the "Subcribe" button in the upper right corner and you'll be the first to know whether it's possible to devour Chucktown's famous 12-layer coconut cake in one bite!

Posted by TraceyG 05:25 Archived in USA Tagged new_jersey cape_may jersey_shore key_west_tacos rusty_nail beach_shack pier_house Comments (3)

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