Road Trip

A Ferry Tale of Two Beach Towns

Sunday, June 22, 2008

WHERE: Lewes, Del., to Cape May, N.J.

WHY: Beaches on two shores, Victorian flourishes and ferrying around.

HOW FAR: About 24 miles from start to finish, including ferry ride, and about 120 miles from Washington.

Here is a tale of two cities, divided by Delaware Bay but united by the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. On the Delaware side is Lewes, the state's first European settlement, which transformed into a subdued seaside getaway. On the New Jersey side is Cape May, a thriving beach resort area dripping in Victorian architecture.

Though only 17 miles apart (80 minutes by ferry), the towns have distinct histories, characters and charms. Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the service of the Dutch, first spotted the sandy southern cape of Lewes (pronounced "LOO-iss") in 1609 and pegged it for a great whaling campsite. In 1631, the settlement (originally named Zwaanendael, or "Swan Valley") became the first town in America's future first state. The small town still displays its Old World roots with such historic buildings as the Dutch-inspired Zwaanendael Museum, a trove of maritime, military and social lore. Otherwise, the sleepy destination mostly consists of well-kept storefronts along tidy streets and a smattering of vacation homes surrounded by dunes and water.

By contrast, Cape May, also a Hudson discovery, has been a major Jersey Shore resort since the 18th century, when the area began hosting well-to-do guests from Northeast cities and overseas. In the 1800s, stately Victorian vacation homes started popping up from downtown to the Atlantic shore. Although an 1878 fire destroyed many of these bespangled residences, Cape May still has the second-largest collection of Victorian structures in the country (after San Francisco) and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. During high season, the streets swarm with sunburned visitors, but a few miles from Cape May central, the bustle gives way to wild dunes, waves and a more relaxed summertime scene.

-- Ben Chapman

© 2008 The Washington Post Company