Picture this: An iconic beachfront hotel flanked with lounge chairs, pink starred umbrellas marking family groups like flags, white uniformed attendants bringing stacks of white towels to outfit the chairs in bedlike comfort. Later, beach waiters drop off menus and then take orders for sandwiches made with fresh vegetables from the hotel’s own farm accompanied by fresh lemonade and cookies. Toddlers play in the sand, kids dash into the waves, and the only decision being made by adults is whether to stay in the soft sand or venture up to the pool for the tropical concoctions on offer at the outdoor bar.
Where is this posh beach resort? Bermuda, Bahamas, St Barth?
Nope. No. Not a chance.
Jersey Shore you say? You betcha!
After a lifetime of dragging chairs, coolers, towels, and umbrellas from cars to beach, motels to the sand, rented beach houses to a patch of shore – the discovery of Congress Hall Hotel, a stylish, full-service resort in charming Victorian Cape May, was a serendipitous vacation moment. Finding out it was sweet on families was the icing on the Victorian sponge cake.
Built in 1816, and transformed into its present resort in 1995, Congress Hall, by all accounts, has only improved with age. Modern highlights include turning the former speakeasy “Boiler Room” in the basement into a modern lounge with family karaoke; creating the Blue Pig restaurant which serves farm-to-table (from its own Beach Plum Farm), kid-friendly dining from breakfast straight through to dinner; and adding a sophisticated spa, among other upgrades.
Which is not to say the property has lost its Victorian charms. From the rocking chairs that line the back lawn to the original wood floors and period décor, you’ll get a true sense of place with your stay.
If you haven’t been to Congress Hall or Cape May, here’s a primer to a great beach vacation that’s anything but your usual Jersey Shore stay:
*Pleasant Dreams: We’ve stayed in the classic old building, with views of the beach and Atlantic Ocean, and in the newer “Annex,” where views are of the heart of Cape May. We found rooms are more modern and the floors a bit less sloped in the newer annex; original building rooms have nicer views, a bit of extra elbow room, and more historic details. If price, versus charm, is more important, choose the annex.
*Carnival Time! Congress Hall offers a calendar of family entertainment throughout the week, the highlight of which is Monday when a weekly carnival transforms the great lawn into a classic kidapalooza with indulgent favorites such as candy apples and cotton candy, plus hot dogs and hamburgers (all for an additional fee). For small children, the looping train is a sure-fire pleaser; older kids will enjoy the games of skill. Other days bring crafts and family talent nights.
*Victorian Charm: There are several ways to soak in the background of Cape May without boring your kids with a historical lecture (learn from my mistakes). My family enjoyed the family trolley tour that points out architectural details such as gingerbread trim and the hitching posts for former resident’s horses (both make great “I Spy” options.) We’ve also done the The Family Treasure Hunt, an architecture scavenger hunt and self-guided walking tour ($5), available from a booth at the beginning of the Washington Street pedestrian mall. It’s a great orientation and a good way to kill time between beach and dinner.
Beware: We also once tried a ghost trolley tour that was uncomfortably focused on dead children – ask the guide A LOT of questions before signing up for this one.
*Dazzling Diamonds: Digging in the sand usually results in discoveries of shells, rocks, and hermit crabs, but in Cape May you can uncover diamonds. Well, not really diamonds, but quartz that travel from the upper reaches of the Delaware River until they land on the southern shores New Jersey, where they’ve earned the moniker “Cape May Diamonds”. They make great (free!) souvenirs.
*Beach Party! Congress Hall is part of the Cape Hotels Group, which owns several properties in Cape May, including the spacious family apartments at Sandpiper Beach Club, and the kitschy, motel-like Beach Shack and its rockin’ surfer-style restaurant, the Rusty Nail. “The Nail” is where you want to go when you’re in the mood for a beach party: with outdoor dining, live music, a bonfire, kids meals served in Frisbees, and even a “doggie menu” (yup, a whole menu for fido!)– there’s no friendlier, or more happening, spot in Cape May.
Insider’s Secret: Even though The Nail has a “no reservations” policy, guests of Congress Hall don’t have to endure the endless summer wait for a table. Simply visit the concierge, who will call The Nail and have your name put on the waitlist for the time you want to eat. Just another reason to love this civilized Cape May getaway.