- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

She has hosted five presidents, all of whom came to Cape May, New Jersey, to escape the internecine screaming of Washington — and all in the days before Twitter or even television could intrude upon a politician’s seaside respite. Now celebrating its bicentennial, Congress Hall, on the absolute southernmost part of the Garden State, allows guests to “vacation like a president” in the year of the 45th chief executive’s inauguration.

And long before Mar-a-Lago, America’s oldest beachside resort was christened by Benjamin Harrison as the “Summer White House” during his time conducting the business of state some 200 miles north of the District.

In the wake of a recent multimillion-dollar renovation, including new suites named for former chief executive guests Harrison, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant and Chester Arthur, The Washington Times spent some time at Congress Hall to peer backwards into the history of this enclave of Victorian luxuriousness positioned where America’s fascination with beach vacationing was born.

***

The King Ocean View room is gorgeous, offering a view of the shore just across Beach Ave. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, and the sun streams into our lovely accommodations this morning. It’s also the height of summer, and the room’s AC does not disappoint, chilling our room from the apex of seasonal heat down to a manageable temperature where even frost may be possible.

Time to head downstairs. Congress Hall’s twin elevators are a throwback to earlier days, with old-school dials atop the lift cabins pointing out which floor they are currently at, and you can actually watch the needles move as the cabins do. (If you’re in a hurry, you can also take the stairs down to ground level.)

Victoria and I head into the hotel’s Blue Pig Tavern. The dining establishment boasts both an indoor and outdoor setup, with umbrellas duly placed on the patio to keep the South Jersey sun at bay. The patio is lovely, offering “vintage” music from back in the day, and the clientele is a mixture of families and various other solo travelers. It’s an ideal breakfasting spot for those with kids too.

Victoria enjoys the poached eggs, and I have no complaints about the Cape May Omelette, whose innards entail local seafood. We also share the old-fashioned waffles and fresh fruit to round out our lovely breakfast. Fresh coffee and iced tea make the whole affair even lovelier.

After breakfast, we are met by property owner Curtis Bashaw near the check-in desk. Curtis ushers Victoria and myself through the main foyer and hallway, where American flags are interspersed with vintage photos of the property’s storied visitors, as are newspaper clippings telling of its rather fascinating history.

Curtis informs us that although the property was built in 1816, it didn’t take on its current moniker until original proprietor Thomas H. Hughes was elected to Congress in 1828. (Prior to his historic win to the House, the hotel was jestingly called “Tommy’s Folly” by the locals.) Upon ascending to his House of Representatives seat in Washington, Hughes changed the name to Congress Hall. The original structure, we learn, burnt down in the Cape May Great Fire of 1878, but it was rebuilt within a year’s time — this time out of brick.

Curtis takes us offsite to the nearby Beach Plum Farm (140 Stevens St, Cape May, New Jersey, 08204, (609/602-0128), whose products are sourced locally, organically and, it must be said, find their way into the cuisine served up at Congress Hall and other nearby hotel restaurants — including the Blue Pig, where we had breakfast a short time ago.

Inside the farm’s store, you can peruse local varieties of produce as well as herbs and flowers and other local foods made from sourced ingredients by Cape May artisans. Sandwiches and fresh iced tea and lemonade are also on offer.

And, if it’s getting close to that special time in your life, you can also rent out the property for weddings. (Not just yet, Victoria!)

While out this way, it makes sense to pop by the historic lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park (215 Lighthouse Ave., Cape May Point, New Jersey, 08212, 609/884-5404). At this storied point — the southernmost in all of the Garden State, and where the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean link inextricably — you can learn about the history of the three edifices that have stood watch here to guide oceangoing vessels through various weather, as well as the beachfront fort constructed during World War II to keep a watchful eye out for Nazi U-boats.

For a small fee you can even hike to the top of the 157-feet edifice, but mind you, there is no elevator, so be aware that you’ll be huffing and puffing by the time you reach the apex — but I promise the view is worth it!

Back at Congress Hall, Victoria goes off to explore the, well, Victorian streets of Cape May while I walk into the property’s highly rated Sea Spa for some relaxation. My therapist is a local and has been at this property for some time, far enough back to tell me tales of strange and wonderful guests who have come and gone through the years.

As this is a custom massage, she asks me what I’d like to have worked on and where are my problem areas. I’ve dealt with chronic lower-back pain for years and also have ongoing issues with my neck and upper back, so these are the spots I ask her to please focus on — and as aggressively as possible.

Switching on some comforting music, she goes to work on my trouble spots, and within moments I’m in complete beachside bliss. (Remember to tip your masseuse.)

After my treatment I walk over to meet Victoria at the Rusty Nail (205 Beach Ave., Cape May, New Jersey, 08204, 609/884-0017) for some lunch. This surfer joint offers a casual, chill vibe and a covered outdoor patio from which you can gaze at passersby along the beach or simply relax with a cold drink and inhale the clouds of passing suntan lotion. With a nice tall glass of water (very important post-massage) and an iced tea for hydration, I enjoy peel-and-eat shrimp served with Old Bay and cocktail sauce. Victoria’s lobster roll and fries entree is heavenly, as are my fish tacos. It’s a wondrous beachside lunch.

After a quick dip in the Atlantic — frankly, it’s still a little cold, and I almost never go swimming on Jersey’s shores until the warm tide of August, though I did when I was a kid because, well, I was a kid — Victoria and I enjoy sunning ourselves at Congress Hall’s outdoor pool area, which features lounge chairs, towels for guests as well as a larger pool for families and a smaller one for adults only. It’s clean, well kept and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s only one place to have a meal to cap this fine day, and that’s The Ebbitt Room at The Virginia Hotel & Cottages (25 Jackson St., Cape May, New Jersey, 08204, 609/884-5700). This establishment has an old-world feel, featuring a lovely, welcoming lobby before we are ushered into the wooden-paneled dining area, where oil portraits of persons long since departed adorn the wall space. It’s a little dark in here — considering it’s still very much light outside — but it does indeed offer a cozy vibe.

The Ebbitt boasts a fabulous cocktail menu, and we waste no time with the bread with chive butter offering that arrives first at the table and only serves to whet the appetite further. As I’m typically a mind to try the local brew, I select the Blue Pig Tavern Ale, made by South Jersey’s own Flying Fish Brewing Company, and of course named after where we had breakfast this morning.

It’s Cape May Restaurant Week, and so the three-course tasting menu is definitely the way to go. After some outstanding Cape May oysters, Victoria and I share the yellowtail crudo, which is beyond delectable.

For main course I opt for the halibut entree, which I pair with a California chardonnay for maximal deliciousness. Victoria sips on an Argentine Malbec, which boasts earthy tones to go along well with her chop.

Dessert entails a Mexican chocolate and vanilla ice cream concoction that leaves no corner of my soul untouched. A chocolate martini from The Ebbitt’s rather healthy cocktail menu caps this fine meal.

And it also caps our fine time here in Cape May. For tomorrow we must reverse course back south to D.C., but given the presidentially significant reason of our trip north, perhaps it’s only fitting that we return — as did so many of Congress Hall’s most famous guests — back to the heart of democracy.

For more information about Congress Hall, visit CapeResorts.com.

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