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Bohemian Provincetown

We found less complex pleasures in the giant bins of shells and soaps and boating miscellany for sale at Marine Specialties, which is still thriving in the center of town. Stopping in last summer, I overheard a young boy exclaiming with puerile delight over a bin of fishing-boat "urine jars"—and was reminded of my own joy at that shop's eclectic mix.

Provincetown's actual marine life was no less wondrous to me. As awe-inspiring as the oceanfront was, I liked best of all to walk the bayside sand flats at low tide, collecting seashells and beach glass and driftwood and studying the tiny air bubbles emitted by subterranean quahogs.

Other times, my mother would take my sisters and me out to the end of MacMillan Wharf to sketch the fishing boats. I would be excited to show my grandfather the fruits of my labor before I'd even started drawing.

Even when I was a child, operations at the Davidson School of Art had wound down, though my grandfather, who was close to 80, was still painting his colorful, Cubist-inspired canvases each morning in the studio. I never thought to wonder where his students were. In truth, I stayed as far away as possible from the place. I found its exaggerated height as forbidding as the pervasive odor of turpentine. Every pewter vase, every purple cloth left draped over a box—remnants of now-forgotten still-life exercises—seemed to be masking a terrible secret. Somehow, I got it into my head that there was a bogeyman hiding behind a row of canvases stacked under the eaves. I didn't dare wonder where the nude models posed.

At the end of the seventies, after my grandfather died, with vandalism in the town an occasional problem—arson had nearly taken down the house a year earlier—my grandmother sold the property.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I finally returned to Provincetown. When I got there, I greeted the sights with a combination of despair and delight. I had never entirely forgotten Provincetown's glorious salt air, and to smell it again was to feel alive in some way I hadn't experienced in years. Nor did I remember there being so many sumptuous gardens as there are now along Commercial Street. What's more, thanks to the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown is home to a new generation of writers and artists.

With its (now) overwhelmingly gay summer population, Provincetown is also not a village that closes down at 10. From dinner hour on, Commercial Street turns into an offbeat and entertaining pedestrian mall, where shops and clubs stay open half the night and the people-watching can't be beat. During the day Commercial's three flat miles are great for social biking—so long as you don't mind navigating through crowds. And I still think Race Point may be the most dramatic beach on earth. In fact, it's doubtful that Provincetown would be any kind of destination at all if it weren't for the vast, pristine, and protected lands of Cape Cod National Seashore.

Yet Provincetown has now become, in some ways, just another overdeveloped beach resort. People drive nice cars. There's a real estate office on practically every block, and property values seem to double every few years. The place is growing more crowded with each passing summer. (The Portuguese community, meanwhile, has shrunk considerably.) The day-trippers from Boston can't be blamed entirely. There are brand-new suburban-style houses and condo developments all along the hill between downtown and the dunes—including next to my grandparents' old house. (Sadly, the new owners sold off most of the acreage.)

But Provincetown's traditional charms can still be found, if you know where to look: on the clay courts at the Provincetown Tennis Club; in the vinyl booths of the Tip for Tops'n Portuguese restaurant, in the far West End; on the sinuous bike paths through the dunes of Race Point and Herring Cove. If seedy charm is your thing, Provincetown has that, too—the Governor Bradford and Atlantic House bars have been serving their straight and gay clientele, respectively, for the last million years.

Something about Provincetown keeps bringing me back. Every summer, I rent the second floor of a converted "garage" in the town's East End for a couple of weeks. The place hasn't been renovated in 60 years. Standing amid its claw-foot tub, Mexican bedspreads, sea foam–colored walls, and strainers used as lampshades, I can imagine Provincetown the way it once was: relaxed, unpretentious, and just a little bit kooky.

Distinct from the West End of town, which attracts more tourists, the East is where old-timers still reside. These include the owner of the garage, an old family friend named Adlin Loud. Now 88, Adlin first came to Provincetown on her honeymoon, in 1944. Her husband's family owned the house across the street. It was a smaller town then, to say the least. How small?Adlin remembers telephoning her husband from New York—he had arrived in Provincetown a day ahead of her—and being informed by the operator that he was dining with friends, and would she like to be connected to their house instead?

Adlin also recalls a guy in a truck driving down Commercial Street yelling, "Strawberry, strawberry!" (It always sounded to her ears like "Robbery, robbery!") Finally, and perhaps most telling, to Adlin's recollection, back in the early years, there were just three real estate agents in town.

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