Pulse: Chatter: Out With the Inns?

Even the name Cape May connotes another time — as though it’s some quaint, fictional vacation destination for the Cleavers and their happily-ever-after-minded ilk. And for more than two centuries, America’s “oldest seaside resort” — a mecca for birders, beach-goers, and lovers of everything Victorian — has prospered, immune to the charm-killing sprawl that’s plagued its seaside neighbors. But now a new kind of shingle is popping up on inns all over town: FOR SALE.

“This business has been our lives,” says Diane Muentz, who with her husband has owned Alexander’s Inn on Washington Street for almost 30 years. Now she’s selling — if she can. The place has been on the market three years. “We were hoping it would provide our retirement money,” she says. “It’s very scary now.”

Such is the trouble when the Land That Time Forgot clashes head-on with the 21st century. A soft real estate market, increasing competition for travelers’ precious dollars, and the constraints that come with running a resort in an entire town that’s designated a historic landmark have cut the number of bed-and-breakfasts in Cape May by as many as a dozen in the past decade. Observers say it’s simply reflective of a national trend, as picky vacationers spoiled by big shiny hotels shun the quirky charm of ye olde inns. “It’s no longer acceptable to hear the toilet flushing in the room next door,” says Patrick Logue, the director of operations for Cape May Resorts.
In other words, you can’t simply offer creaky Queen Anne furniture, lace ­curtains and blueberry pancakes and expect to make it. So remaining innkeepers are responding to the call. Mission Inn owners Susan Babineau-Roberts and her husband, Raymond Roberts, now offer Jacuzzis, flat-screen TVs, wi-fi, and Ghirardelli-covered strawberries as a welcome snack, and attempt to draw visitors in off-season months like February with romance-themed promotions. Linda Steenrod, who operates Billmae Cottage Guest Suites and Billmae Cot­tage Too, calls them “B&Ds” (“bed and dogs”) and caters to pet lovers.

Elan Zingman-Leith, a co-owner of the Leith Hall Bed and Breakfast Inn and a local realtor, insists Cape May’s gingerbread air remains strong and sweet. “All the indicators of a beach town’s well-being — parking, beach tags, occupancy — are thriving,” he says. Better yet, you really have to strain now to hear a toilet flushing.