Friday, August 13, 2010

Cape May: The Victorian vacation destination

Whether it be romance, summer fun, or a lover of anything Victorian, Cape May has something for everyone, and what was once a sleepy Victorian summer retreat has now become a meca for good food and wine in south Jersey.

It was about ten years ago that I was taken to Cape May for the first time. What truly made the biggest impression on me during that trip was the corkage policy at the majority of restaurants. Or should I say the lack of, or need for, corkage. You see, the majority of restaurants in Cape May allow you to bring your own wine, free of charge. This guarantees a large amount of value for anyone who’s serious about the wine they love. Why buy a $150 bottle off of a wine list when you could simply bring the same bottle having only paid $60 at retail? However, don’t let this deter you from checking out some of the wine lists around Cape May, as I found out on this trip, where one establishment especially had a list that made me smile ear to ear.

Cape May simply has everything that I want from a vacation. Imagine if you will, you start your morning by waking up at your bed & breakfast or hotel. The breakfast is warming, prepared by your innkeeper. If you choose to make conversation with the other guests, it’s completely acceptable; however, if you’d like to keep to yourself, no one would mind. You have a cup of coffee on the front veranda as you make plans for your day.

Throughout the early morning into the afternoon, you could find yourself on a jet ski, a whale watch, or just lying out on the beach soaking up the sun. The evening finds you at one of many fine restaurants or on a sunset cruise followed by a carriage ride through the historic streets. The night ends sitting on the veranda with a glass of wine in hand, the sounds of the surf and a gentle sea air.

Words can’t describe the level of utter satisfaction I felt at the end of each day. I hope that my recommendations below will help you find Cape May as enjoyable as I did.

Mainstay Inn

What was once a gambling hall and bordello is now one of the premier bed & breakfasts in Cape May. The story goes that the rail-less veranda and high windows were designed to allow patrons to escape easily in case of a police raid. Well, this may have once been a bordello, but today it is the epitome of Victorian style.

Entering through the front door, you are whisked away to another world where period-styled furniture, lighting and art adorn the massive hall and public rooms surrounding you. William Morris printed wallpaper, Victorian oddities and period instruments can be found throughout the house.

The spacious guest rooms are just as ornate and extremely private. You become lost in this staged Victorian world, and you could almost convince yourself that the house and staff are yours to command. Being only one street away from the beach, you can hear the waves on a quiet night and indulge in the sea air wafting through the lace curtains. From the second floor landing, you can climb a ladder to a private perch at the top of the house, where you can watch the surf, curl up with a novel or observe the entire town.

The surrounding gardens are perfectly manicured with a large assortment of flora. Benches, statues and winding paths lead you around this secret garden as you sip a cup of fresh morning coffee or enjoy an afternoon cup of tea. Breakfast is taken on their large veranda while you immerses in nature. Seriously, you could become lost enjoying the all the Mainstay has to offer.

Website: The Mainstay Inn

Dining Out:

Lucky Bones

If it’s a relaxed atmosphere, good food and cold beer that you crave, then Lucky Bones is the place for you. Lucky Bones can be seen just as you cross the bridge into Cape May. It’s a locals’ destination with a down-to-earth feel, extensive menu and extremely friendly staff. If I was a local, I could easily see myself making my stop at Lucky Bones a weekly ritual after a hard day of work.

Website: Lucky Bones

The Carriage house

What would a Victorian seaside town be without a Victorian tea party? Sound a little corny? I beg to differ. An afternoon sipping tea (iced tea is available) while enjoying course after course of bite-size delicacies can be the perfect remedy to distress from the day-to-day grind.

Also worth mentioning, is the tour of the Emlem Physick Estate, on the same property as the Carriage House. The Physick Estate is basically a house tour of a true Victorian mansion. This tour takes you through the daily life of a well-to-do Victorian family as well as their servants, all while touring a gorgeous Victorian home.

Website: Mid-Atlantic Center for the arts & humanities

The Ebbitt Room

The Ebbitt Room was the unfortunate experience of the trip. The food was good but not great, and the menu was confusing, as was the staff. This was a rare occasion where I regretted opting for the tasting menu with paired wines. The wines by the glass left much to be desired and the timing of the courses was horrible. It’s sad that this was one of my favorites from the previous year’s trip. I may give them another chance in the future, but for the first time visitor to Cape May, there are so many great restaurants to explore, and so I'd stay away from the Ebbitt Room for a while.

Website: The Ebbitt Room

Washington Inn

This is one place where I didn’t want to bring my own bottle. Word on the street was that Washington Inn had a great wine list, but what they didn’t explain is that they also had a cellar full of gems that were moderately priced. This night, I bought a bottle off the list, a 2000 Monsanto Chianti Classico, Il Poggio. A bottle that that was marked up to only $20 above street value.

As for the food, well, I didn’t go in expecting the best since it seemed like an after thought behind the wine list, but the food was incredible. Or maybe that’s not even saying enough. Basically, I went to the Washington Inn expecting a good meal, but what I left with was the best meal I’d had while in Cape May.

Anyone who follows my work knows that I find crab cakes to be one of the best representations of a restaurant’s quality. I find it to be a standard to which I can judge the commitment to quality, freshness and imagination. The Washington Inn succeeded on every level with a perfectly fresh, crisp and seasoned example. Add to that the absolutely amazing red pepper cream sauce that adorned the plate and you have a dish that screamed indulgence.

The pork chop, which was cooked in a wood-burning stove, was perfectly seasoned with a crispy slice of bacon, polenta, sauté spinach and a rich, smoky sauce beneath. I don’t ever remember having pork from a wood stove done this well. It was all at once succulent, smoky, salty and sweet, and with a sprig of rosemary that truly drove my senses to the brink of satisfaction.

The grilled fillet with sweet onions, asparagus, and blue cheese was outstanding. This dish was such a delight with its smoky sweet aromas that were brought home with a whiff of fresh sage. It was silky smooth on the palate with that melt-in-your-mouth character that a perfectly medium rare can provide you with. The blue cheese gave a total woodsy funk and a bit of sour bite to the smoky sweetness. This plate made it to my top five of steaks I’ve ever eaten.

2000 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio - This showed cherry, saw dust and animal musk with potpourri and cinnamon, crushed fall leaves and a hint of olive on the nose. The palate was just as interesting as the nose, as flavors of strawberry, dried cherry, clove and wood pencil washed across it. All of this was kept lively and fresh by a vibrant acidity, which led to a long red fruit finish with silky tannin. This wine is drinking beautifully now and, although I don’t see this as being an Il poggio for the ages, I’d say it has an easy decade ahead of fine drinking and possibly more.

Website: Washington Inn

Looking to do some wine tasting?

Turdo Vineyards & Winery

Turdo Vineyards & Winery is a husband-and-wife team run from vineyards and a tasting room built around their home. The vines are still relatively young and space restrictive; however, the passion is there and the potential for making good wine is absolute. I was so pleasantly surprised to find some of my favorite Italian varietals being grown so close to home. Turdo is absolutely worth a visit and the tasting is quite enjoyable.

Following are some wines that this establishment offers, along with my notes:

2008 Turdo Vineyards Pinot Noir Turis – The nose showed chalk, green stems and red fruit with a bit of a medicinal aroma. On the palate, I found sour raspberry, young strawberries and a clean, fresh finish.

2008 Turdo Persara (blend of cabernet, merlot, syrah and sangiovese)– The nose showed dark fruits, some blackberry and undergrowth. On the palate, this showed blackberries with citrus rind and cinnamon with a full, yet fresh performance. The finish continued with blackberry and citrus.

2009 Turdo Vineyards Barbera Turis – This showed a vibrant red color in the glass with aromas of cherry and underbrush. On the palate, I found big red fruits and fresh acidity. However, the finish was marked by a metallic aftertaste. It's easy going, unpretentious and would have rated higher if not for the finish.

2008 Turdo Vineyards Sangiovese Turis – An interesting nose of strawberry, cedar and underbrush. The palate showed a soft full body with cherry fruit and new leather, but the finish is quite dry and revealed this wine’s tannic structure. I'm interested to see what a year in my cellar might do to it.

2008 Turdo Vineyards Nebbiolo Turis - This showed red fruit and spice on the nose. On the palate, I found strawberry, blueberry and some cedar on a full-bodied frame, yet the wine managed to stay lively due to a well-balanced dose of acidity. The finish was of medium length with blackberry showing.

Website: Turdo Vineyards & Winery

Also be sure to visit: Cape May Whale Watch for an amazing cruise into the Atlantic in search of whales and dolphins... but bring your sea legs.

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