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Viewing the Shore and War Birds of 
Cape May, New Jersey
by:
Christine Roberts

There are always interesting events taking place in Cape May County, New Jersey, the oldest seashore resort in the US. Highlights include seeing the tulips in bloom, the amazing shorebird migrations in May and September, the gingerbread architecture, gas-lit streets at Christmas-time and the antique "war birds" in the aviation museum at Cape May Airport's Hangar #1.

Cape May has been justifiably designated a National Landmark for its 600, and more, late Victorian buildings. Countless charming inns - filled with sparkling chandeliers, oak-wood work and brocade wall coverings - and discerning guesthouses are found in the city's quaint historic district. 

You can get a taste of them when you join the daily INNterior Tour which ends off with a scrumptious tea at the Carriage House on the Emlen Physick Estate.

Most of the inns were built around 1872 and have been exquisitely restored and maintained. In terms of their quantity and quality, Cape May is likened to Philadelphia's Society Hill; Williamsburg, Virginia; and Beacon Hill, Boston.

Some reminders of the War years are recaptured in the few remaining coastal artillery bunkers, submarine lookout towers and the concrete ship, "Atlantis" - one of 12 concrete ships in service during World War 1 which broke loose in a storm in 1926.

An interesting development is taking place at the US Navy World War 11 Aircraft Hangar #1 at Cape May County Airport. Through the formation of a non-profit foundation, an ongoing restoration and rehabilitation project is underway, dedicated to the men who lost their lives training at this facility during World War 11. 

The Naval Air Station Wildwood (now Cape May Airport), during the War years, served as a dive-bomber squadron training center. Approximately 17 000 takeoff's and landings 
occurred between 1943-45 and 39 airmen perished while training at the site.

Aviation Musuem 

Inside Hangar #1 is the NASW Aviation Museum which had just over 10 000 visitors in the year 2000 alone. As the museum is located at the airport, many of the visitors are pilots, but just as many are simply aviation enthusiasts. Also, the museum has become a popular school field trip destination.

In addition to increasing their collection of aircraft this year, the museum intends to focus on renovation of the hangar's exterior, utilizing a US$535,246 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust. Events scheduled in 2001 include the 5th Annual AirFest on August 11 and the 2nd Annual USO Swing Dance on September 8. 

Among the successful past events staged here have been a regular series of fascinating lectures. Most recent guest speakers included one of the famous WASP "Fly-Girls", Kittie King, who ferried aircraft as part of her war duties. She appeared in the PBS documentary, "FlyGirls" and is still living in Cape May.

Other residents who took part in lectures were Bill Band, a former "Flying Tiger", who flew 102 combat missions and was shot down four times, and Imogene Gluck (nee Williams) who joined the women's branch of the Navy in 1943. As a WAVE, she became a gunnery instructor and subsequently met her future husband, Alexander while stationed at NAS Wildwood. The website www.usnasw.org is an interesting resource for viewing back issues of NASW newsletters and their significant activities.

Joseph Salvatore MD, a retired orthopedic surgeon, is supervising this exciting project including fund-raising events for #1 Hangar. He took me on a tour of the premises, outlining the extraordinary progress that has been made.

The aviation museum includes an antique aircraft display area, a museum library and an Exhibit Room, among others. Currently on display are two Lockheed T-33s and a MIG-15, donated by James Beasley, Esq: an A-4 Skyhawk on permanent loan from the Navy; a P-51 Mustang, which does not belong to the museum; and various private aircraft including a helicopter and Ultralights in addition to "traditional" planes.

The museum was recently approved by the Army to receive surplus aircraft and artifacts and is finalizing plans to receive three helicopters; a Huey, a Cobra and an HH-52A. 

It was especially enjoyable to listen to old-time music of the War era being played as we toured the premises,. the original name of which was "Naval Air Station Rio Grande, New Jersey". However, in 1943, to avoid any confusion with Rio Grande, Texas, the airport was renamed NAS Wildwood, although its post office address has remained Rio Grande. 

In 1973, Dr Salvatore and his wife, Patricia Ann acquired and initiated the Historic Cold Spring Village, assembling a collection of 18th and 19th century buildings on 22 acres of wooded land. This project enabled visitors to experience the 1800's South Jersey rural community. Today, following the donation of the Village to a private non-profit corporation, Patricia continues to be involved in its promotion Website: www.hcsv.org

It is an immaculate open-air living history museum with an interpretive center, where horse drawn carriages operate on clam-shell roads. There are a variety of arts and crafts shops from the past, where artisans demonstrate their skills. I found historic book-binding to be most intriguing. 

Visitors to the region soon get to hear about the Cape May Diamonds, translucent stones found in limited areas along Delaware Bay - particularly prevalent on Sunset Beach. They are pure quartz crystals of various sizes, which have been swirled down the rivers for thousands of years, ending up among the pebbles on the beaches.

Originating from the upper reaches of the Delaware River, once they are polished, cut and faceted they look very similar to a real diamond.

The first discoverers of these "gems" were the Kechemeche Indians who believed the former possessed mystical powers and brought good luck. But, the peninsula's first permanent settlers were Whalers who arrived from New England and Long Island in the mid 1600's.

Abundant birdlife!

Cape May is renowned for its birding experiences. In May, each year - especially towards the end of that month - the amazing horseshoe crabs, looking like prehistoric mini army tanks! lay their eggs on the New Jersey shores. Thousands of hungry, migratory shore birds stop here to rest and replenish en route to their Arctic tundra feeding and breeding grounds - from Labrador to Alaska.

Most birds have flown non-stop for several days from the southern tip of South America, over two to three thousand miles. They arrive exhausted, starved and in dire need of a rich energy source, such as the horseshoe crab eggs to equip them for their arduous journey some ten days later.

Sanderlings, semi-palmated sandpipers, red knots and ruddy turnstones are among the migrants to be spotted along Delaware Bay. More than 80 per cent of the entire red knot population in the western hemisphere timorously arrives here before May month end.

The fact that such a large migratory bird population is reliant on this food source could spell disaster to these bird numbers in the event of an oil spill, floods or an outbreak of disease. Even humans, attracted to the shores, sometimes disturb the crabs laying their eggs which has necessitated the city's wildlife experts to take extra precautions against such an event happening.

However, viewing 400 species of birds is only one of Cape May's draw cards. There is also its tranquility, 120 miles of beaches and friendly residents.

At the Wetlands Institute of Stone Harbor, you can learn all about the diamond-backed terrapin, the wide varieties of local crabs and the secrets of the coastal salt marshes. Unique boat tours take you to view a nesting Osprey to observe its spectacular feeding rituals. Website: www.skimmer.com. 

The State Park and Cape May Point are about two miles from Cape May and offer nature trails and an Audobon Society center that arranges regular birding weekends in Spring and Autumn. See websites: www.njaudubon.org and www.capemaymac.org.

One of the finest lighthouses to view that is still working is the historic Cape May lighthouse, which between 1941-45 had to be darkened due to the presence of enemy submarines. In 1992, the Coast Guard transferred ownership of it to the State off New Jersey and they continue to operate the light as an active aid to navigation. 

Every lighthouse has its own light "characteristic" namely, lighthouse flash pattern, as well as an exterior paint scheme so that ships' captains' can tell each one apart.

The Inns of Cape May

Among the lovely inns and guest houses that I visited was the Victorian Lace Inn, a Colonial Revival home built over a 100 years ago as a summer retreat. It has 4 bedrooms, private bathrooms - two with ocean-view decks leading off the bedroom and a fireplace. 

My room included a separate self-catering kitchenette cum lounge and TV area, bathroom and bedroom. In summer, breakfast and sundowners are served on the impressive wrap-around porch-terraces. 

www.victorianlaceinn.com   

I stayed a further two nights at the elegant Victorian Alexander's Inn and Restaurant. It was tastefully decorated and authentically furnished recreating the style of its past era. The owners are renowned for their Sunday brunches and marvelous dinners served by waiters in tuxedoes and white gloves. Your hosts (since 1978) are Diane (executive chef, graduate from the Restaurant School of Philadelphia and husband, Larry, managing director (ex corporate world). 

See website: www.alexandersinn.com.

Places to dine:

For a casual lunch: Henry's on the Beach and Althea's Restaurant at the Inn of Cape May. Both are a short walk from the shops, or The Washington Inn.

Dinners at the popular Pelican Club and Peter Shields Inn offered extensive menu choices, a great setting and good service.

Getting there:

The best way to reach Cape May from New York, Philadelphia, Virginia or other parts of New Jersey is by car. Another suggestion is to organize transport with the Rapid Rover Metro Cab, Inc in Cape May. 

An excellent car ferry operates between Cape May and Lewes. From the latter you can drive along the Virginian Eastern Shore, with its scenic islands and long peninsula separating the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. 

Website: www.esva.net/~esvatourism or email: esvatourism@esva.net.

A few tips

For information on Cape May:- Phone: ++ (1) 609-884-5508 Fax: 609-884-2054 website www.capemaychamber.com , Cape May/Lewes Ferries www.capemay-lewesferry.com.

Visit Sunset Beach in the early evening - quaint shell shops and a snack bar - and search for the prized Cape May Diamonds. The S.S. Atlantis, a decommissioned concrete naval ship, ran aground just off this beach. 

Take a trolley tour or self-guided walk to view the manicured gardens and beautifully restored clapperboard homes, or take a romantic horse and carriage ride. The number and size of the chimneys on a house used to provide a clue to the owner's wealth!

Rent a bicycle - or four-seater "pedal-cycle vehicle".

In the evening, jazz, blues, a quiet piano bar or contemporary music venues abound, or join a ghost tour of the town. 

Enjoy browsing in the cute boutiques. A good meeting point is the Washington Street Mall Information booth. 

# # #

Email:  Christine Roberts

 

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