My wife couldn't make this trip to New Jersey with me, and I had solemnly promised her I'd keep my distance from the infamous Painted Ladies of Cape May. I didn't think it would be a problem, seeing as there's still no known cure for that mysterious allergy that certain people, not all of them men, often develop to Victoriana.

But . . . I was weak. I succumbed--and discovered, in the process, that not only is there more to Cape May than Victoriana, but there's more to Victoriana than fussy-frilly-doily details.

God help me, but when it happened I'd already spent the night in a hotel room full of white wicker dressers and lowboys--even a white wicker secretary missing its glass top, which makes it an excellent place to catch up with all one's Sanskrit pen pals. (And here I thought I'd be safe staying in a Cape May hotel rather than at one of the scores of world-famous B&Bs and guesthouses that crowd the seashore resort's gas-lit historic district. Most of these inns are carved from vast century-old Victorian summer homes whose exteriors--complementary, iris-popping, gingerbread-intensive confections of oil-based semi-gloss and master's-degree scrollwork--are what long ago earned them the "painted ladies" slur.)

The last time I was here, however, I did not own--nor was I in the middle of endlessly painting and renovating--a home of my own. And I arrived last week in the middle of a little-known season--Halloween to Christmas, more or less--peculiar to wood- and weather-intensive little towns like Cape May.

Painting season!

Everywhere I went--I actually took several self-guided driving/walking tours--I got to talk to guys in red sweat shirts and white caps up two or three stories, laying eggshell accents inside of mustard trim on fields of Williamsburg blue. "Yeah, there are definitely a lot of painters in town," mused Erik Newpher, one painter it was especially inspiring to watch, speaking from about 40 feet up. He was trimming, gracefully and with neither safety net nor masking tape, a third-story dormer in rusted burgundy for the fetching, ultra-Gothic Abbey, a popular B&B a few blocks from the beach. He admitted having painted the Abbey in its entirety--plus the place next door. "I paint about a side of this a year," he said, pointing a dripless brush southward. "Today when I finish this other window, then I go inside."

Inside? Whoa. Appreciating the work that goes into keeping Cape May's exterior looking fresh, if a little over the top for your own neighborhood, naturally leads one indoors--which, at this time of year, is a cheerful, relatively uncrowded, fireplace- and ornament-prone destination.

For the Beyond-Victoria Big Picture, you can pick up free maps and walking-tour brochures (or a nifty, random-access audio tour device, for a small fee) at the Welcome Center on Lafayette Street. To bolster your map with a mental snapshot, you can trek, as I did, up the 200-plus steps of the recently renovated Cape May Lighthouse. From here the entire town appears, on a crisp and sunny fall day, as a model train layout that famed 19th-century architect Frank Furness might have built had he married--well, Cher.

And at mealtime, Cape May is decidedly of the present (even the next) century. Some of the resort's best restaurants close by Thanksgiving, their proprietors not prepared to leave Florida again until March or April. But many worth a visit are open year round (some just Friday to Sunday; calling ahead is smart), including Water's Edge, Peaches at Sunset, Freda's Cafe, Mad Batter and the more formal Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel (for creative American fare), the no-reservations Lobster House (for all the old seafood standbys served fresh and in great quantity to anyone who doesn't mind waiting up to an hour on busy weekend nights), Van Scoy Restaurant (for light/offbeat/vegetarian lunch and dinner, espresso drinks and desserts) and Rick's Cafe and Bakery (for coffee and confections on the open-air Washington Street Mall, the car-free, dog-free, bicycle-free and kinda soul-free shopping stretch otherwise prone to microbrew/meat-and-potato meals, fudge kitchens and tote-bag emporiums).

In a failed attempt to eschew Victoria, I stayed at the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel, just across the (often noisy) road from the beach. If you can get past its French-Provincial '50s look--kind of what might've happened if Louis XIV had developed Wildwood--the Marquis is a friendly, well-run and (in the offseason, especially) inexpensive choice. A Thursday night single was $69, including a games-and-movie Lodgenet set, an in-room coffeemaker and a full breakfast buffet in the top-floor restaurant overlooking the . . . Atlantic Ocean.

Which, of course, is the reason Cape May became "America's first seashore resort" way back in 1761, and why so many of Victoria's 19th-century subjects and stateside admirers found it a great place to own a cupola or veranda or throw a coming-out party or two. And why those of us looking to escape the ergonomically correct, Tyvek-insulated turn of the following century, if only for a weekend, might find in Cape May some solace, if not instruction, in the art of All Those Little Details.


GETTING THERE: Cape May, N.J., is four to five hours (depends on the ferry) from the Beltway. Take U.S. 50 east past the Bay Bridge to Route 404 east to Route 18 east to U.S. 1/9 south into Lewes, Del., following the signs to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry (1-800-643-3779).

BEING THERE: In this National Historic Landmark town, those who adore all things Victorian share the road--and often the same car--with those who'd just as soon hop the next horseless carriage to Philadelphia. It all works out somehow. While Cape May does have more than 600 charmingly reborn late-Victorian homes, it also offers much for the avowedly non-nostalgic. Besides the beaches, it has an abundance of relatively unspoiled year-round natural areas, eclectic and excellent restaurants and historic sites--and it's close to the 20th-century amusements of the Wildwoods and Atlantic City. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (800-275-4278) keeps Victoria's torch burning with daily trolley and walking tours and year-round musical and cultural festivals. This month is filled with Christmas tours and events--including evening wassail and trolley tours, and self-guided candlelight tours (the last, this Saturday from 5 to 8:30 p.m., includes looks inside 17 restored and decorated inns and houses). MAC's centerpiece is the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate (open weekends only through winter), whose restoration in the late 1970s helped get the town back on its economic feet. Designed in the bare-bones Stick style by architect Frank Furness, the building now houses a collection of Victorian furniture, clothing, toys and artifacts.

Birders flock year-round to the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory (609-884-2736, closed Tuesday-Wednesday in January and February). Cape May Point State Park (609-884-8656), better known as the site of the 1859 Cape May Lighthouse (closed January through mid-February), also offers a popular hawk-watching platform. Two miles west of the park, the locals favor Sunset Beach for sunsets over the sunken concrete would-be ferry ship Atlantis, an immovable fixture in the shallows since a 1926 storm loosed it from its moorings.

WHERE TO STAY: There are more than 80 B&Bs in Cape May proper, most genuinely Victorian, with in-season rates from $80 to more than $300, double; winter rates, especially Sunday-Thursday rates, are significantly less. Cape May Reservation Service (1-800-729-7778) and Historic Accommodations of Cape May (609-884-0080), staffed by a rotating roster of innkeepers themselves, are particularly helpful and informative. On my personal wish list for future visits of a non-solo nature: the peerless Angel of the Sea (1-800-848-3369), probably the highest priced (but still busiest) B&B in town, with 27 rooms with private baths a block from the ocean in the quieter, noncommercial part of town, and the Inn on Ocean (1-800-304-4477), where the up-to-date amenities (king-size beds, cable TV) provide appealing girth to the notoriously narrow Victorian sensibility.

DETAILS: Contact the Greater Cape May Chamber of Commerce at 609-884-5508 or WAYS & MEANS

ISO: Your Routes

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