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Last-Minute Vacations: Cape May, N.J.

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009; 10:58 AM

The musings started on a Monday, dreamy thoughts about escaping to Cape May, N.J., to spend the weekend in a beach house spritzed by ocean spray. By Wednesday, the idle fantasy had morphed into a fast-action plan. By Friday night, I was settled into a Victorian cottage, my sandy flip-flops parked out front.

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The lesson of the week: If you feel a crazy urge to flee your home and set down shallow roots in an alternative destination, don't let the ticking clock deter you. These days, you can saunter into a vacation rental as if it were your second home.

"All of those folks who would have called months in advance, especially for summer, are waiting much later than before," said William May, president of the Vacation Rental Industry Association, a Seattle-based trade group of property managers, owners and vendors. "They're calling now for July and August."

May blamed the failing economy for the compressed booking calendar, as many consumers limited discretionary spending and delayed holiday plans. Yet once the temperatures started to heat up, the phones began to jingle. "As the weather turns great, they are saying, 'Dammit, I am going on vacation,' " he said, adding that call volume was down 30 to 70 percent in winter but started rebounding in mid-May.

To plug gaps in the schedule, homeowners and rental managers are devising new strategies, offering last-minute discounts and more-flexible rental periods, for instance. "The vacation rental world is moving away from legacy practices, such as Saturday-to-Saturday rentals," said Douglas Quinby, senior director of research at PhoCusWright, a travel industry research firm. "They are becoming competitive with how people are shopping and booking."

I approached my hunt with the desperation of an apartment dweller about to be evicted. I needed shelter, and fast. I searched the Internet for "Cape May vacation rentals," made some calls, sent some e-mails and asked questions primarily involving proximity to the beach. An agent from Coastline Realty suggested a two-bedroom in a condo across the street from the strand. No ocean view, but for $125 a night, I didn't mind walking around the building for my fix. Yet I preferred more privacy than a multi-unit property could give, so I continued my quest.

On the Cape May Times Web site, I pulled up pages of listings and landed on the Carriage House. Owner Bonnie Pontin told me that the property was booked, though she offered a glimmer of future hope: "If someone didn't rent a week, I might break it down."

I ended my search at the Wild Rose Cottage Suite, a two-room bungalow tucked behind the Ashley Rose Victorian Inn, a pastel house a few blocks from the beach and the town center. Owner Sally Hulbert zipped over a contract, which, due to the short notice, I had to return via overnight mail with a check covering $300 for two nights, a $100 refundable deposit and a $20 cleaning charge (reduced to offset the postal fee). "For a different configuration of days, [an advance booking of] four weeks is too far out," said Hulbert, explaining how she waits it out to see whether she can secure a weekly rental before agreeing to fewer days. "But two weeks, I'd do." And two days, she did.

Because of the spontaneity of the trip, I hadn't planned much beyond a continuous loop of beach, cottage, beach, cottage. To expand my repertoire, I grabbed the latest issue of Exit Zero, a free newsweekly, and consulted the paper's 59 Things to Do This Week. I jumped straight to No. 14, a "designer yard sale" for Soroptimist, a nonprofit organization dedicated to women's issues. (By the time I read No. 1 -- rise at 5:30 and watch the sun come up -- it was too late.) With prices stuck in the Eisenhower era -- $15 for a television set, 50 cents for a small glass vase, $10 for a wedding dress, purchased by an underage romantic -- I figured that to really make some cash, the organizers would have to put the family car and the pet dog on sale.

The Victorian festival at the Emlen Physick Estate was a much bigger and taller affair: A man elegant in a top hat and graceful on stilts stood at the entryway, welcoming all to the 19th-century mansion. Around the grounds, vendors were selling handmade jewelry, flavored oils, plants and other craft-fair standards. A band was unloading its instruments, a seemingly elaborate production. "There's always something to do in Cape May," said Janice Coyle, director of visitor services and special events at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, who was helping out at the festival. The center oversees many of the town's attractions and tours. "I don't think there's a weekend with nothing going on."

In a way, I wanted Cape May to stop being such an adept events planner. Then I would not feel guilty about lazing on the beach or heading back to my rental to lounge in the yard, waving at the camera-snappers in the trolleys that idle outside the Ashley Rose. (For those who caught me in my pajamas taking out the recycling, apologies for not doing my hair first.)

When my trip reached the halfway point, I became more judicious with my time. Fifty-nine activities in 48 hours was humanly impossible, so I picked two more and called it a vacation.

The World War II Lookout Tower, the state's only example still in one piece, recently reopened after a $1.3 million restoration. For some, it was a coveted object of desire. "I've been coming down here every summer, and I would look at it and wish that I could get inside," said Stephen Lindeman, a 16-year-old lifeguard hopeful. "It's so cool to finally be able to get in there."

The teen didn't have the six bucks to enter the structure, so I briefed him on what he'd see when he could cough up the cash: a spiral staircase, a lot of thick concrete, a pair of local World War II vets answering questions, a Wall of Honor with photos and, through narrow slits, the lighthouse, Sunset Beach and the big blue. I did not espy any threatening vessels, nor did I see the more-peaceful creatures of the sea, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales. For those, a boat and captain were required.

My first attempt to sail off on the Cape May Whale Watcher was thwarted by dense fog; my second, the next morning, by a lack of customers. The third, though, was guaranteed, thanks to clearing skies and a large group that had reserved in advance. "I just want to see one whale, even if it's Fudgie the Carvel whale," said a Jersey day-tripper who takes this cruise every summer with his wife and son but has yet to spot a behemoth.

No whale sightings this time, either, but the dolphins appeared as if on cue. As soon as we left the safe harbor, the playful sprites materialized alongside the ship, surfing and leaping in the waves. "You find a nice place to summer and you come back year after year," said Whale Watcher captain Jeff Stewart Sr., explaining how 3,000 of the mammals inhabit these waters, only 570 of them permanent residents. "Dolphins do the same."

Unlike the dolphins, I was not "summering" in Cape May. My time in the rental was soon expiring. I called Hulbert to let her know that I would be vacating shortly. But then, on a whim, I asked whether she had any availability for that night. Three hours wasn't too last-minute, was it?


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