A wedding was being set up on the grounds of the Southern Mansion when I checked in recently. That’s an easy way to quickly describe how pretty and photogenic the setting is at this Victorian boutique B & B in Cape May, New Jersey. Considered one of the country’s oldest seaside resort destinations, Cape May is famous for its beaches, sea breezes, and dozens of Victorian guesthouses.
An AAA four-star diamond property, the Southern Mansion is one of the best of those guesthouses. But according to its history, it wasn’t always that way. Built in 1863-64, the three –story house has a rich history. Back in the day, it was the summer seaside residence of a prosperous Philadelphian, George Allen—and known as the Allen House for years. An Italianate mansion designed by noted architect Samuel Sloan, it was the only mansion to survive the devastating fire that swept Cape May in 1879. In 1946 it was sold, becoming a boarding house, and eventually falling into such disrepair it looked more like a haunted house in an overgrown lot. All that changed when the Bray/Wildes—also of Philadelphia–bought the place in l994 and meticulously restored the house and gardens to their former glory. Opened in 1996 as a bed and breakfast with 14 rooms, the next year an annex was built in the same style as the original building with 10 more rooms. Just like in bygone days, guests need to enter from the front porch at the front door—pushing a bell to notify staff –who open the locked door with friendly southern hospitality and “receive” them in the front entry hall before checking them in.
My room (#5) was on the second floor of the original mansion. It was spacious with high ceilings, uncluttered (and unfussy) with solid beautiful antique furnishings –in fact, much of the furniture is original to the mansion. I loved the polished wood floor, along with the Victorian settee, and a tall, king-size poster bed, with a mattress raised so high off the floor, I had a little step-stool to climb into bed. I felt sort of like the princess and the pea (but I slept much better than that princess). The bed was super comfy with high quality linens and plenty of pillows. For closets, an antique armoire had been divided in two on one of the walls—with a sink installed between the halves. A toilet and large tiled new shower were in a separate little room. Unlike many b & b’s, this one has a t.v., phone, free wi-fi (listed as only available in the public spaces, I was actually able to use it in my room). Other extra touches I appreciated, a magnifying lighted mirror, soft luxurious robe, plush towels. There is no elevator but staff delivers luggage to your room.
This is the kind of mansion that begs exploring. Non-guests have to pay $10 for a tour but guests can wander on their own. On the walls artwork along with old photographs and memorabilia of original owner Allen are displayed (much was discovered in the renovation—including the parlor’s piano).
From the third floor, you can take the steep steps up to the cupola and see a birds-eye view of the town—and in the distance (about a 5-minute walk) the seaside. A front porch has rocking chairs for reading, relaxing or writing out a real old-fashioned postcard (free postcards of the Southern Mansion at check-in desk).
Breakfast is in the solarium and includes a fantastic buffet spread of fresh fruits, pastries, yogurts, fresh juices and more. But once you are situated at your table—another perk–a server arrives with a menu to take your hot breakfast order. I couldn’t resist the Brioche French toast with pineapple/brown sugar topping; but made to order omelettes, eggs and sausage were also available. This is no communal dining table where you have to arrive at a specific time and/or make early morning small talk with people you don’t know; instead small tables provide privacy, pure enjoyment and lovely views of the blooming flowers and gardens outside. It makes a great start to a day in Cape May.
For more information or to make reservations, check the website. Room rates range from $130 to $395, depending on the season—and includes a full gourmet breakfast. Children 10 and older are welcome. You can also compare rates on Priceline.
Review by Donna Tabbert Long and photos courtesy of Michael Ventura.