CAPE MAY — The Marquis de Lafayette Hotel in Cape May bears one of the most famous names in the national historic landmark city.
The hotel is named for the French general who helped the colonies defeat the British during the American Revolution. When Lafayette returned to the United States in 1824 at the invitation of Congress, he was hailed as a hero.
But guests who stay in its 84 rooms and suites overlooking the Atlantic Ocean are more interested in the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel’s amenities than its history, said Manager Margaret Evans of Cape May.
“We give you an opportunity to stop and relax, to leave the busy pace of the city behind,” she said. “Cape May gives you a chance to enjoy pristine beaches, wonderful cocktails and good food.”
All of the hotel’s 84 suites and rooms face the ocean, and most offer sweeping, panoramic views of the beach from private balconies. But the view from the sixth floor is perhaps the most dramatic; and in one corner suite, visitors can see landmarks and the Victorian architecture across Cape May that made the city famous.
The hotel also promotes its location across from the Promenade and Cape May Convention Hall and a couple short blocks from the Washington Street Mall. And the hotel offers a prized commodity in Cape May — free off-street parking.
The original Marquis de Lafayette Hotel was built in 1885 and was torn down in 1970 when Cape May was trying to reinvent itself to compete as a tourism destination, Evans said.
The old hotel was prized because it had survived so many fires that had destroyed many of the city’s other inns, Evans said. Its demolition led to the creation of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.
“That actually blew the ember of historic preservation into a fire in Cape May,” she said.
Reminders of the old hotel remain in its original and ornate front desk and wooden key rack, which now serves as a brochure stand.
Lafayette helped the Continental Army defeat the British during the American Revolution. After a storied life in which he was imprisoned for five years during the French Revolution, Lafayette returned to tour the United States where he visited New Jersey — but not Cape May, said Robert Heinly, director of museum education for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities.
Lafayette’s name soon graced streets, buildings — even a college in Easton, Pa.
“He was a great hero of the war,” he said. “He comes over here, serves valiantly and well and is probably Washington’s unofficial adopted son. Then he goes to France and for a while is seen as an inspirational character bringing the spirit of the American Revolution to the French Revolution.”
The hotel no doubt took its cue from the nearby Lafayette Street, Heinly said.
“Cape May started to bloom in the early 1800s, right when Lafayette was making his grand tour of the United States,” he said.
Today, the hotel is owned by investors and operated as a condo-hotel governed by a board of directors. Suites and rooms are individually owned and the expenses shared based on each unit’s assessed value versus profits generated by each room’s rental. Hotel staff choose the rooms based on the guests’ needs, Evans said.
The hotel expects to see extra business this year catering to visitors displaced from their traditional vacation destinations in New York and New Jersey that are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, she said. The hotel is offering discounts off its normal rates to attract these new customers this year.
If the alternative is to encourage these visitors to come to Cape May or lose them to other states this summer, Cape May merchants certainly will welcome their business, she said.
“There is a buzz already that things will be busier this year in southern New Jersey. People who normally would book their vacation in March are starting to call now,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking what happened north of us. But people will be looking for alternatives, so we say come to Cape May.”
Marketing is one of the biggest challenges in running a hotel in a resort with so much competition. Evans said she plans to expand the hotel’s reach this year by partnering with attractions such as spas, restaurants and amusement parks in Cape May and the Wildwoods to offer package deals.
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