Nostalgia abounds the moment you drive up to the historic Chalfonte Hotel—a sprawling Victorian-era wedding cake of a building—complete with a cupola at the top (said to be haunted) and wrapped around with a front porch that brings to mind lazy long ago memories of summers past. Not surprising, considering the Chalfonte, established in 1836, is recognized as the oldest continuously operating hotel in the nation’s first seaside resort town of Cape May, NJ.
That said, there’s certainly a vintage eccentricity at the Chalfonte. And depending on your definition of vintage, you’ll either embrace the place as a guest with its old-fashioned quirks (and occasional hot water issues), or high tail it out to the nearest luxury resort with plasma t.v.s, temperature controlled everything, and 24-hour room service. In other words, this place may not be for everyone.
But if you equate vintage with a coolly decorated old lobby where you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time (real keys to your room too), and you love the look of uncluttered marble-topped dressers and commodes, fern stands, and polished wood floors, then this place is for you.
And if you guessed that I’m among those who find this sort of spotlessly clean and retro style appealing, you’d be right too (except maybe for the slow hot water problem in my shower). It’s a great historic building to prowl around as well—the lobby connects to another room with antique wooden desks, walls contain framed hotel history (old menus, cakewalk tickets), and in yet another room, there are board games and puzzles. Near the dining room there’s a small sun-room—and you can even go up to the cupola with its windowseat and birdseye view of the town.
Spread out over three floors, 70 rooms range from oceanside two-bedroom suites, to landside “traditional” rooms with shared baths down the hall. Prices vary accordingly—anywhere from $120 to $499.
My room on the second floor, #40, was considered “oceanside” (meaning it faces the ocean which is a couple blocks away and catches the beauty of the sea breeze easier; it does not mean that it is overlooking the ocean). Speaking of, I loved that all the rooms still had the outer original louvered doors to rooms which allow the natural sea breezes to blow through the building like years ago (there is now central AC in many of the rooms to compensate as needed too).
My room was also one of few with a porch. The room’s floorplan was spacious enough for a queen bed and a single bed, plus antique furniture that included a gorgeous dresser and another marble-topped stand. Its European style bathroom meant the shower and stool were in a separate tiny room, but my vanity sink was in the bedroom. There are no t.v.s in the rooms, but wi-fi works and is free. There is also no elevator, but friendly check-in help whisked luggage upstairs for me without being asked. (There are also rooms on the main floor.)
In 2009, new owners of the Chalfonte put in some 30 new bathrooms and many of those rooms were down the hall from mine on the second floor. When I peeked into a few of them, I discovered that even though they were smaller in size than mine (and no porch), the separate and spacious full bathroom with beautiful shower (no issues with hot water) made me think that I would probably select one of those rooms the next time I visit.
But I did enjoy my room and that lovely porch, with its slope-y floor and comfy furniture. It felt good sitting out there in the evening with a glass of wine, savoring the seaside air. Across the street I had a Norman Rockwell-like view—of a beautifully restored Victorian home, on a sleepy tree-lined street which was romantically lamplit at night. (I also learned later that apparently Norman Rockwell actually summered in Cape May at one time.)
During the day, it was not uncommon to hear the clip-clop of horse carriages going by the hotel either; horse-drawn rides being part of Cape May’s Victorian charm too—befitting this place where the past seems so present.
The hotel’s cozy King Edward Bar was open in the evening (it’s popular with locals as well as tourists), but because I was there a bit before the summer season commenced, the Chalfonte’s dining room, the “Magnolia Room” was not yet serving. That was okay with me, Cape May has all sorts of great dining options; I ate at and would highly recommend the family-owned, Island Grill.
In the morning at the hotel, a continental breakfast (Danish rolls, bagels for toasting, and coffee) was served outside the Magnolia Room in a bright sun-room with summer-y wicker furniture. I had to track down someone to put the coffee on though—but again that may have been due to the fact I was there a little pre-season.
Still, the Chalfonte is only a couple beautiful blocks from the beach –and then only a couple more to Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. My advice: have your morning coffee in the little sunroom at the hotel, then head to Uncle Bill’s. Located right across the street from the ocean, this local breakfast institution serves up fantastic (what else?) pancakes, and makes a delicious start to a day in “The Nation’s Oldest Seashore Resort” city.
For more information and rates, check out the website.
Review by Donna Tabbert Long who was hosted by the hotel. Photos courtesy of Michael Ventura.