Somehow, spring is here which means summer is right around the corner. The Hoboken Girl loves few things more than enjoying all that New Jersey has to offer. With summer plans on our minds, we’re revisiting a classic Jersey summer weekend spot: Cape May’s Congress Hall. Congress Hall happens to be the oldest Victorian beach resort still in operation in the United States. In 2016 Congress Hall celebrated its Bicentennial, “marking two hundred years as America’s first seaside resort.” Today, it is part of the broader Cape Resorts group which includes spaces like the Virginia Hotel and the Beach Shack, located in the historic district of Cape May. Its yellow exterior with tall white columns are as welcoming today as they were to the hotel’s first guests over 200 years ago. Here’s how to spend a weekend at Congress Hall in Cape May, where history buffs and beach bums feel equally at home.
Local businessman Thomas H. Hughes first constructed the hotel in 1816 as a boarding house which he dubbed “the Big House.” Other locals of the whaling community could not clearly see his vision for Cape May as a vacation destination and jokingly called the project “Tommy’s Folly.” Hughes was ultimately successful: the hotel became a popular attraction, and in 1828, “Tommy’s Folly” was given another moniker. Hughes’s election to Congress saw that his property was called “Congress Hall” from then on. While the hotel has undergone many changes in ownership and some renovations since its earliest years, significant care has been taken to preserve its past.
Perhaps the most concrete example of history in the hotel is right on the main floor. When guests first enter the lobby, a long hallway to the side serves as a physical timeline. There, various versions of the American flag are flown alongside plaques speaking to the history of the hotel and the nation at the time.
Hughes was not the only prominent politician to have a soft spot for Congress Hall. Four U.S. Presidents — Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant, and Benjamin Harrison — summered there. There’s evidence to suggest that Chester Arthur also stopped by the hotel’s pier at one point. Thanks to President Harrison (1889-1893), Congress Hall earned yet another illustrious nickname. As he conducted business from an office within the hotel in the summer of 1891, Congress Hall became his “Summer Whitehouse.” President Arthur in particular loved Cape May’s abundant seafood. His wife, First Lady Caroline Harrison, said that if President Harrison had his way, he would eat oysters three times a day.
Today, the L-shaped yellow building still sits on a plot overlooking the sea. Only a thin road and a well-placed pancake house separate the property from the vast white sand beach where summer guests tend to gather all day. But Cape May’s charm is not exclusive to the summer. Lovely in any season, the town welcomes celebrations yearlong. In the spring, Congress Hall hosts brunches for Easter Sunday and Mother’s Day. In the fall, a masquerade ball is commonplace around Halloween. The hotel expertly decks its halls at Christmastime and hosts a vibrant party to ring in the New Year. Whatever time you visit, you’ll be caught up in the elegance of the Victorian building and its colorful decor.
Read More: The Long Legacy of Oysters in North Jersey
Planning Your Stay
It’s best to book far in advance of the summer months, and to note that even in the off-season, the hotel requires a two-night minimum stay. Congress Hall lists guestrooms and suites among the accommodations, noting that thanks to the design of the building, sea views are often included when it comes to the guestrooms. Sister hotels in the Cape Resorts Group also offer an array of options, from family-sized cottages to individual bunkrooms fit for a bachelorette. The website professes a “vibrant, uplifting atmosphere,” filled with calming colors and a “tasteful, seashore-inspired atmosphere.”
Once your hotel reservation is confirmed, you’ll want to focus on restaurant plans as well. Congress Hall has a few dining options right onsite. For elevated drinks in an upscale setting, the Brown Room cannot be topped. If you’re looking for the most authentic Cape May feel, the Blue Pig Tavern represents the early taverns of the community, and the Blue Pig depicted on the china has since become the cute mascot of Congress Hall. On the lower level of the hotel, the Boiler Room bar and lounge serves up amazing pizza, drinks, and live music in a fun atmosphere. For a quick bite to eat or your morning cup of coffee, Tommy’s Folly Coffee Shop is the way to go. The updated paint job at the coffee shop adds to the whimsical attractiveness all around. For special events, Congress Hall’s iconic turquoise ballroom is also open dining.
Just a short walk away, the Virginia Hotel is home to the Ebbitt Room, another popular spot for upscale dining. Like Congress Hall, this sister property is Victorian in style and high on charm. Be sure to get reservations in advance for spaces like the Brown Room and the Ebbitt Room. And note that these locales do require a certain standard of dress. For a more casual outdoor option, look no further than down the street. The Beach Shack, another sister hotel, takes the form of more modern motel lodging. Its adjacent bar and restaurant, the Rusty Nail, is novel in that it allows diners to enjoy a drink and live music seemingly right on the beach with its sandpit patio.
Things to Do
Upon arrival, you’ll find that there’s plenty to do in Cape May. The historic district features a collection of stores where shoppers can try everything from souvenir sweats to ice cream flavors. A special collection of stores associated with Congress Hall consists of a general store, gift shop, and boutique that all fall under the name “Tommy’s Folly.” Like the coffee shop, the general store and gift shop live right off the main lobby. The boutique is a quick walk across the street from the main hotel after a recent renovation.
If shopping isn’t your speed, you can speed along the bike paths in Cape May. Congress Hall provides bike rentals so guests don’t have to pack their own pedals. Nature lovers will get a kick out of the surroundings — Cape May offers whale watching expeditions, an outdoor dinner series at a working farm, and a local zoo for families to explore. No trip to Exit Zero would be complete without a trip to the arcade or a few rounds of mini-golf at one of the spots sprinkled around town. To keep relaxation levels high, guests can book appointments for massages, facials, and more at the hotel’s own SeaSpa. Funnily enough, this tranquil, low-stress environment was previously the location of President Harrison’s offices.
Of course, when the sun is out, guests can relax on the beach or on the lawn beside Congress Hall’s picturesque pool… where the outdoor bar is simply a few steps away. At the periphery of the lawn, a set of rocking chairs under the hotel’s large porch is an excellent place to watch the world go by the old-fashioned way. Sitting in this space is a nod to Congress Hall’s Victorian history while maintaining views of all that’s going on in the present.