My father used to say that you were guaranteed good weather if you spotted a boat as you drove across the Cape Cod Canal—the thin strip of water that separates the 70-mile-long peninsula from mainland Massachusetts. As our Ford Pinto station wagon rattled over the Sagamore Bridge, my brother and I would press our foreheads to the window and hope for a sighting. To this day, I religiously scan the water every time I hit the bridge. It’s my signal to myself that I have left the real world behind—and it’s just as reassuring as that first whiff of briny air or the sight of pine needles mixed with sand along the roadside.
When I was growing up, my family rented shingled cottages in Chatham or Dennis, or stayed with friends in a beachfront apartment in Provincetown or a Victorian house in Harwich. A vacation on Cape Cod was all about simple pleasures: fishing off the Chatham drawbridge with my grandfather, putt-putt golfing in Dennisport, watching movies at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre (I saw Jaws there and, like half the country, was terrified to go in the water for years afterward). On sunny mornings, we’d debate whether to make the trek to the wide, wild beaches of the National Seashore or head to one of the placid coves on nearby Nantucket Sound. Gray days meant decamping to Provincetown, where my brother and I would create spin-art masterpieces at a toy shop while our parents explored the galleries. No trip to the Cape was complete without a platter of fried clams from a roadside shack.
Later I discovered the Hamptons, with its designer shops and sleek nightclubs. The Cape began to feel a bit “ye olde” by comparison; the fudge shops and five-and-dimes didn’t have quite the same allure. But something funny happened in my absence: the Cape stayed the same. When I started coming back after years away, I fell in love with its unpretentious charms all over again. Granted, there’s now a Marc Jacobs store in Provincetown, but my childhood shell shop remains tucked away behind the saltwater taffy store. And despite the influx of big money in Chatham, the town band still plays in the park on summer Friday nights and local fire trucks still lumber down Main Street in the annual Fourth of July parade.
Life hasn’t changed much thanks in part to the locals: Cape Codders are a fiercely protective bunch—a reputation confirmed for me firsthand while I was eating day-boat scallops recently at Abba, a restaurant in Orleans. I made the mistake of telling some fellow diners that I was writing a story on the area. Suddenly they were all over me for my credentials. Did I have a place here?(Luckily, my parents bought a house in East Harwich a few years ago.) What was my favorite beach?Lobster roll?Hiking trail?It was quite an interrogation, but I passed. I guess I had earned my stripes—and the right to lead others to my favorite spots.
Of course, narrowing down the whole Cape, with its myriad charming villages and hundreds of beaches, gave me butterflies. I know some people will ask why I left out a certain swimming hole or a particular seafood shack. But in my humble opinion, these are the places that best define Cape Cod and the joys of summer.