Cape May Bed and Breakfast: Victorian Inns Are the Thing

Source: The New York Times
Written By: Donald Janson

LONG a visual feast for admirers of period houses, this southernmost New Jersey city has taken the lead nationally in the conversion of Victorian homes to bed and breakfast inns.

The conversions are continuing, both for new inns and for second buildings as expansions for established inns.

Pat Hardy, editor of the Professional Association of Innkeepers’ monthly newsletter, said by telephone from Santa Barbara, Calif., that Cape May was now the national leader in numbers of Victorian bed and breakfast inns. Her assessment was seconded by Sarah W. Sonke, director of the American Bed and Breakfast Association, based in Crofton, Md.

Cape May, in large part a confection of lacy gingerbread, has some 600 Victorian buildings, most of them houses. For the last 17 years, particularly in the early 1980’s, would-be innkeepers have been selecting from this inventory, buying and then restoring in authentic Victorian style.

There are now about 40 restored Victorian bed and breakfast inns, some spectacularly furnished throughout with Victorian antiques. The Chamber of Commerce puts the number at 65, but includes surrounding areas.

The total swells to well beyond 65 when restored Victorian guesthouses that do not serve breakfast are included. Large houses restored as hotels with public dining rooms add further to this small city’s concentration of Victorian hostelries built in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Much of the Victorian stock came about as a result of an 1878 fire that destroyed everything within a 30-acre area in the center of town. Cape May rebuilt with the ornate frame houses that have become prize plums for refurbishing as inns.

Private homeowners, many inspired by the example of the inns, have joined in a citywide sprucing up that has left Cape May with a rainbow of Victorian colors and a checkerboard of flower gardens, many of them Victorian in style.

Adding to the aura, the city authorized gas lamps on the streets where many of the small inns are concentrated, and the Department of the Interior placed the entire city of 4,800 residents, the country’s oldest seashore resort, on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tom and Sue Carroll began Cape May’s bed and breakfast movement, converting an elegant former private gambling house to the Mainstay Inn in 1972. They have since doubled their capacity to 12 guest rooms by converting an adjoining house to its former Victorian splendor.

With the addition of such events as Victorian Week in October and Christmas feasting and decorating in December, the season for bed and breakfast inns has expanded from two months to nine or 10. Some are now open the year round. Many inns are so popular that they can require a minimum stay, at least in summer, of three or four nights.

Mr. Carroll said numbers of new openings had slowed because the city was now enforcing a regulation that required off-street parking for guests of new inns. But he said growth in the city’s bed and breakfast business was continuing at a rate of 5 to 10 percent annually.

”People take 16,000 brochures a year from our front-door basket,” he said. ”Cape May has become a yuppie resort, with lots of quality places to stay, excellent restaurants, appealing history and frequent tours of the best Victorian public buildings, private houses and bed and breakfast inns.”

Ms. Sonke said, ”Interest in staying at Victorian bed and breakfast inns is a real trend with the upscale market.”

The best of the nonbreakfast guesthouses here offer the same Victorian furnishings and decor, but bed and breakfast innkeepers report that the feature of their operations that many vacationers prize most is the communal breakfast. This is sometimes a feast of major proportions, and it affords an opportunity to get acquainted with fellow guests and the inn’s owners.

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