At many bed-and-breakfasts, there’s a thin lace line between historical accuracy and over-the-top frills. I’m happy to report that Leith Hall in Cape May, N.J., stays on the former side.
Those with an aversion to doilies and potpourri sachets (if not communal dining — we’ll get to that later) need not fear this B&B, located an enviable half-block from the beach.
Innkeepers Susan and Elan Zingman-Leith bought the 1878 Victorian in 1989 and have turned it into a veritable museum. Their goal: Restore it to what the home might have looked like in the 1880s. I can’t say that I have firsthand experience of what the 1880s looked like, but from my perspective as an amateur fan of historic homes, I’d say that they did a pretty bang-up job.
Which is why I was a bit nervous as my husband and I, bulked up in winter garb and carrying our suitcases, squeezed through the front door, into the demure front parlor and, after a brief orientation from Elan, up the narrow staircase. Meticulously painted walls, a plethora of framed art, antique knickknacks placed seemingly everywhere — I felt like a disaster waiting to happen. Hello, bull. Welcome to the china shop.
Our room, the Empire Room, put me at ease. There was nothing too fragile-looking. I fell in love with the mahogany sleigh bed; a gauzy canopy hung from the ceiling. A bay window flanked by two chairs and a table offered ocean views. The mini-fridge and flat-screen television weren’t exactly period-appropriate, but I appreciated them nonetheless.
We didn’t spend too long admiring the decor, because afternoon tea was upon us. We’d passed on a fast-food lunch in anticipation of this treat, the inn’s site having boasted of Elan’s baking prowess. His chocolate chip bars and pumpkin-apricot cake didn’t disappoint, and it was only the presence of the rest of the guests that kept us from going back for seconds and thirds.
Ah, the other guests. Not long after we’d sat down and engaged in a highly choreographed attempt to balance tea cups, plates and silverware — antiques, remember — the rest of the overnighters began to trickle into the parlor. Soon, all the chairs were filled, and a few small conversations had evolved into — gird yourselves, B&B skeptics — one group discussion. With a list of sights to see and minimal knowledge of the topic at hand (wine), my husband and I began exchanging stealthy looks, wondering how to escape. Sometimes, though, the best solution is the most straightforward one. We politely excused ourselves and went on our merry way.
We didn’t encounter anyone later that night when we sneaked downstairs for a glass of sherry. I sipped it daintily while reading more about our room and the house, thanks to the notebook provided by our hosts. It told me why our room looked slightly different from the rest. The Empire Room was named after the American Empire style, a design movement that spanned a good part of the early 19th century. The idea is that, like your basement filled with college furniture, even a wealthy 1880s family would have had older pieces that they might have assembled in one retro room. So, this one was a little more Jane Austen than Queen Victoria.
Speaking of Victoria, I came face to face with the long-reigning monarch the next morning at the breakfast buffet. A small bust of the queen sat at right about eye level, flanked by those of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, and son Edward VII. I think that Edward, a man with a not altogether flattering reputation as a food lover, would have envied my plate of challah French toast.
Only moderately panic-stricken at the idea of a communal breakfast after the previous day’s tea, my husband — before piling up his plate — dashed into the parlor to secure us a tiny two-top. Us, social? Not so much, especially first thing in the morning.
Still, I found myself regretting the brevity of our stay at Leith Hall. Dripping with a carefully curated array of artifacts, its walls seemed primed to talk. Maybe if I stayed longer, I’d get better at it, too.