Cape May-Lewes: Genteel Beach Getaways

The Physick House in Cape May, courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts

From the ship’s deck, passengers watch as cackling gulls swoop and soar over whitecaps in the Delaware Bay.

They point at the twin lighthouses — the Harbor of Refuge and the East End Lighthouse — which punctuate breakwaters in the Lewes Harbor.

Beachcombers on the khaki-colored sands became dots in the distance.

It’s just a typical ride aboard the Twin Capes, one of four vessels that comprise the Cape May-Lewes Ferry service, which connects Cape May, N.J., and Lewes, Del.

The 17-mile passage takes about 80 minutes, but whether you are going to Cape May or Lewes, the journey itself is quite the trip: Many times, dolphins and whales accompany the boat, and birders often find new additions for their lists.

Both sides of the bay hold their appeal for visitors. The vibe in Cape May’s carefully preserved historic district is all Victorian, all the time. The Emlen Physick Estate, built in 1879, is a Victorian house museum that offers changing exhibits commemorating late 19th century life and serves afternoon tea. A walk through town provides views of any number of  “painted ladies,” elegant homes with colorful woodwork, sculpted turrets and wrap-around porches.

There’s more than bric-a-brac to appreciate here. Birders think highly of the area for its sightings at the  Nature Center of Cape May, the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor and the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary. Whale watch excursions, sponsored by the Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center, also are popular.

At night, dining options abound, from the traditional Victorian ambiance of the Ebbitt Room, located in The Virginia Hotel, to the more casual The Blue Pig Tavern, located in the grande dame Congress Hall. The Washington Inn, built in 1840 as a plantation home, boasts an impressive wine list and a wine school.

Work off the calories shopping on the Washington Street Mall, where antiques and gifts shops line a pedestrian-only street.

Hotel Rodney in Lewes, courtesy of the hotel

Across the bay  is Lewes, a walkable community that calls itself the “first town in the first state” (Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution.) Founded in 1631, Lewes has more than its share of handsome period buildings, many of which have found second lives as inns, restaurants and shops. In-town inns include Hotel Blue, a chic urban-style spot along a canal, and Hotel Rodney, a boutique-style property located in a circa 1926 building.

You can’t miss the history here, in large part thanks to the presence of the Lewes Historical Society. The latter owns a bevy of restored buildings, and offers a map for self-guided walking tours featuring 10 maritime sites. The Cannonball House, which was struck when the British bombarded Lewes in 1813, is the society’s maritime museum.

Within walking distance is the Zwaanendael Museum, dedicated to all things Lewes. Since the Dutch first settled Lewes, the museum was built to resemble the town hall in Hoorn, the Netherlands.

When you’ve had your fill of history, while away some time browsing the boutiques along 2nd Street, before considering your dining options. The possibilities include Half Full, which is known for its gourmet pizza; the seafood-centric bistro Striper Bites; and Gilligan’s, where the crab cake is king.

Spend the next day swimming, hiking or sunning along the pristine shores of Cape Henlopen State Park or shopping the Tanger Outlets on Route 1.

If you’re able to make a long weekend visiting Lewes and Cape May, you’ll return home invigorated, enlightened and totally charmed.

A good read by this writer: Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure