The Real Cape Cod
Published: May 2009
By Peter Smith
My dad, a dyed-in-the-wool Massachusetts Yankee, used to react forcefully every time he heard that Patti Paige song "Old Cape Cod," the one that goes, "You're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod." He didn't like it one bit. Not just because of Patti Paige's saccharine vocals, but because, in attempting to elevate the Cape to a Gershwin-like standard of myth and romance, the song ran counter to the resolute plainness that, on the Cape at least, my father took for granted.
When I was growing up, this tack-flat sensibility infected my thinking, too. Even today, one of the first things that strikes me when I cross the Sagamore Bridge onto the Mid-Cape Highway is how unsexy the Cape is. I mean that as a compliment. There's no drama in the air, no desire, qualities that, along with a contaminating tension and covetousness, suffuse the South Fork of Long Island (and, increasingly, Martha's Vineyard). It could be because Cape Cod, despite pockets here and there, isn't exclusive— it's easy to get to and welcomes all kinds of people. It could be because, even though the Cape attracts its share of New Yorkers and Washingtonians, they don't make much of a dent. Or it could be because, when people claim they're traveling to the Cape to get away, they actually mean it.
When outsiders think of Cape Cod, the first two towns that come to mind are Hyannis and Provincetown— which happen to be the two places most natives will visit only under extreme duress. At 408 square miles, Cape Cod is much bigger than the Vineyard and Nantucket, and since it has 15 towns, each with its own distinct character, locals tend to maintain their insularity. You can easily grow up here without ever crossing either the Bourne or the Sagamore Bridge, both of which connect the Cape to the mainland.
When I was a kid, spending summers on the Cape just hanging out barefoot was okay with me. What with earwigs, potato bugs, daddy longlegs, june bugs, deer, foxes, horseshoe crabs, fiddler crabs, minnows, mussels, clams; with woodpiles, blackberries, beach plums, full moons, Boston whalers, sunfish, slowly swinging hammocks, and the aromas of the place— honeysuckle, salty air, freshly mowed grass, skunk— Cape Cod for kids was, and still is, pretty close to heaven. In the early sixties, my parents left my grandparents' summer place and built their own house at the end of a long road on a beam of land halfway between Orleans and Chatham. The house still stands, a gray-shingled barn of a place whose sliding glass doors overlook Little Pleasant Bay and a clutch of tiny, feral, uninhabited islands that resemble Homeric resting stops. When I was young, in the early seventies, Little Pleasant Bay was wall-to-wall with sailboats from nearby summer camps, and although those properties were sold to private owners over the years, the naïve, undomesticated character of the harbor has stayed the same.
In my teens and twenties, I turned against Cape Cod. I was living in New York, and the Cape's stubbornly anti-glamorous ethos rubbed me the wrong way. It didn't matter that I had roots there, that many of my ancestors were buried there, or that to this day there's a brief, not very pretty dirt road named after my family— Smith Lane— on the Orleans-Eastham border.
Then the inevitable happened: I turned 30, got married, had three children, tried out a few other summer beach communities— and came back home. These days, I love Cape Cod for its lack of flash, in large part thanks to my kids, who summer after summer remind me of all that's magical about the place.
Here's what Cape Cod doesn't have: tons of celebrities. There's no $40-a-pound lobster salad. No cell phones (or very few) on the beach, no Humvees clogging the supermarket parking lots, not a lot of entertainment lawyers. In spite of chronic development and the crowds that follow, Cape Cod hasn't lost its perspective, or its humility. The landscape— marshes, beaches, dunes, osprey nests— has resisted assault by urban wills or egos. No massive houses hug the dunes on the ocean side (zoning laws won't allow it), and Cape Cod's toniest restaurant, Chillingsworth, in Brewster, seems as curiously out-of-place as black-tie in a sandbox. After 35 years or so of visiting the Cape, I still feel like a visitor, a guest of the land. And whenever a daddy longlegs curls a leg across the showerhead, or a cricket hops across my pillow, it's not a horror but an unexpected delight.
the upper cape
Falmouth A bikers' and runners' paradise, particularly on the third Sunday of August, when the town hosts the Falmouth Road Race. Its best-known village, Woods Hole, is where Nobel laureates mix with commercial fishermen.
Bourne As close as you can get to Boston and still be on the Cape side of the bridge. The town is bland, but it overlooks the beautiful Cape Cod Canal.
Sandwich Not blessed with a lot of natural beauty, but home to seven museums, this is the place to be on a rainy day. The source of Sandwich glass, not to mention the birthplace of children's book author Thornton Burgess (remember Old Mother West Wind?).
Mashpee Surprisingly, this Leave It to Beaverstyle town is ground zero for the Wampanoag tribe— there's a historic tribal meetinghouse here. Mashpee also offers scads of free events and activities during the summer.
Barnstable Its main village, Hyannis, is the transportation hub of the Cape— buses, planes, rental cars. It may be crowded and a bit tacky— places with names like J.F.K. Pizza are unavoidable— but this is the only game in town if you want to shop. Other villages in Barnstable include West Barnstable, Cotuit, Marston's Mills, Osterville (with the most expensive real estate on the Cape), and Centerville, Hyannis's bedroom community. If you're in a wistful mood, stand outside the hedges girding the Kennedy compound and try to catch sight of a passing freckle.
Yarmouth There are lovely stretches off Route 28, and then there's a strip of wind sockadorned stores, fudge shops, and the like— just the sort of commerce that kids love.
Dennis A peculiar name for such a pretty town. Climb Scargo Tower for a gorgeous view of Cape Cod Bay.
the lower cape
Harwich A large fishing industry, and big houses— perfect for people who'd prefer to rent a mansion overlooking the harbor rather than a salty cottage. Don't miss Wychmere Harbor or the raw bar at Brax Landing.
Chatham Preppy central. White-gravel driveways, combed lawns, and a hoity-toity reputation to rival Osterville's. (In Chatham's case it's largely undeserved.)
Brewster An old sea captain's town, full of white picket fences, that practically defines the word charm.
Orleans The shopping mecca for most of the lower Cape, that still has a kindhearted small-town feeling.
Eastham Less a town than a connecting point from Wellfleet to Orleans, though some summer visitors swear by it. The Fort Hill area is worth a detour.
Wellfleet Ever see the Bill Murray movie What About Bob?, about the guy who follows his shrink on vacation one August?Well, the shrink— and Bob— no doubt came to Wellfleet, or its rugged sister town, Truro. These are traditional summer stops for members of the mental-health profession (no one really knows why), and home, as well, to a gazillion art galleries.
Provincetown With its meandering streets, sophisticated restaurants, and East Village-meets-southern California feel, Provincetown is the funky, artistic capital of the Cape. It's also a famous gay resort. Despite its adults-only reputation, P-town is kid-friendly. Besides Hyannis, Provincetown has the Cape's only real nightlife.
Pirate Ship Cruise 508/255-4250; $16 for adults, $12 for kids four and older.
From the last week of June through Labor Day, the Sea Gypsy— a boat rigged to resemble a pirate ship— departs five times a day from Orleans (weather permitting), and also from Hyannis. Spend an hour on the water in search of buried treasure (don't worry; it's a pretty safe bet you'll find some). Face-painting, water guns, secret maps, floating skulls, and a witty, outgoing staff are all part of the adventure. Try to reserve at least three days in advance. Your kids'll be talking about this one for days.
Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch
307 Commercial St., Provincetown; 800/826-9300 or 508/349-1900; $19 for adults, $16 for kids 712, free for children six and under. Book at least a week ahead.
Several whale-watching services operate out of Provincetown, but we've found the Dolphin Fleet to be consistently the best. Boats leave from MacMillan Pier and make their way toward Stellwagen Bank, six miles out, on the four-hour round-trip. Among the species spotted last year were humpbacks, minkes, right whales, finbacks, and now and again a pod of dolphins. Aboard every trip are marine biologists from the Center for Coastal Studies. If Mom (or Dad) decides to stay ashore, she or he can while away the afternoon browsing through antique jewelry at Small Pleasures (359 Commercial St.; 508/487-3712).
Harwichport; 508/432-5611; $19 for adults, $16 for children 12 and under.
This 41-foot party boat departs from Wychmere Harbor twice a day for a four-hour fishing cruise. An experienced staff led by Captain Paul Donovan not only teaches kids how to fish, but cheerfully cleans whatever they pull in. A caveat: If it's rough weather, kids might not take kindly to the rambunctious waves, so bring along Dramamine or ginger ale.
Cape Cod Baseball League
Various locations; 508/996-5004.
Infectious, even if you occasionally find baseball to be slow going. Ten teams from the college leagues— under the gaze of pro scouts— play a 44-game season across the Cape, while locals, tourists, and sizable contingents of teenage girls cheer them on. One out of every eight major leaguers got their start here, including former Red Sox Carlton Fisk and Mo Vaughn. Admission is free.
Cape Cod Museum of Natural History
Brewster; 508/896-3867; MondaySaturday 9:304:30, Sunday 114:30.
"Our mission is to inspire and foster a better understanding of the natural environment through education," says museum spokesman Carol Dumas. This 45-year-old museum does just that, offering nature trails, canoe and kayak trips, and seal-spotting cruises, as well as $145-a-head overnight stays at the Monomoy Lighthouse— a 1 1/2-mile trudge from where your boat anchors. Inside the museum, kids can learn all there is to know about lobsters, horseshoe crabs, starfish, frogs, turtles, and even the lowly herring.
Pick up a permit at the town hall, and then hit the beach in search of those telltale airholes that signal the presence of clams.
Everybody has his or her favorite. The ones on the bay are sandier and warmer, those on the ocean are rougher and colder. There are 365 ponds— you're liable to find one off a bike path or walking trail. Many visitors make it a point to try out a different beach or pond every day. The best time for ocean swimming is August, when the water temperature typically rises above 60 degrees, but you'll see shivering diehards in the surf all summer long. By a long shot, our kids (ages seven, four, and two) prefer ponds and lakes to ocean beaches. Why?The water is clear and shallow, and now and then you can spot a turtle or a dragonfly. Whichever you choose, pack a picnic lunch and show up early, since many parking lots fill up by 10 a.m.
Nauset Beach East Orleans. Legend has it Sylvia Plath wrote some of her most despondent poetry here, but don't let that stop you from enjoying this legendarily beautiful ocean beach. Move a thousand yards to the right or left of the crowds, and you'll have plenty of room to spread out. Try the killer onion rings at Liam's, on the boardwalk. On the way home, stop at Crystal Lake or Pilgrim Lake to wash off the salt.
First Encounter Beach Eastham. At the end of Samoset Road, the clearly marked First Encounter, a sandier, roomier extension of its Orleans neighbor, Skakett, seems tailor-made for kids. Bring sunblock, pails, and minnow nets. During the biblically dramatic low tides, you can walk out for almost two miles.
Cape Cod National Seashore This preserve stretches up the Atlantic side of the Cape all the way from Eastham to Provincetown. Off Route 6, take Nauset Road to the end, where it spills into the National Seashore parking lot.
Old Silver Beach Falmouth. Warm-water swimming and windsurfing in Nantucket Sound.
Long Pond, Gull Pond Wellfleet. The nicest part about Long Pond and Gull Pond?Ample across-the-street parking. In addition, there's a pedestrian walk and warm, kid-friendly water.
Get tickets to a children's show at the Harwich Junior Theater (508/432-2002). Visit Snow Library in Orleans (508/240-3760) for story hour. Drop in at the Cape Cod Discovery Museum in Dennisport (508/398-1600) for a science workshop or a reptile show. Take a long, drizzly walk on the beach with your head bowed senatorially, then wash away your contemplations with a cappuccino and a peppermint stick ice cream cone at the hippy-dippy Chocolate Sparrow in Orleans (508/240-2230). Stop by the New England Fire & History Museum in Brewster (508/896-5711) and see more than 35 historic fire engines. Go to the Cape Cod Potato Chip Company in Hyannis (508/775-7253) to learn how potato chips are made, and scarf down free samples. While in Hyannis, give in: brave the crowds and go shopping.
Most restaurants reserve the right not to seat you if you're barefoot, wearing a wet bathing suit, or trailing a lasso of kelp, but if you look otherwise presentable, your table is waiting. Some good bets with the kids:
Kadee's Lobster & Clam Bar 212 Main St.,East Orleans; 508/255-6184; dinner for four $40. Indoor and outdoor dining, with great mussels and steamers, and picture books to amuse the kids while they wait for their foot-long hot dogs. Start things off with kale soup or the delectably creamy clam chowder. Kadee's also has an extensive take-out service, guest cottages, and a perfectly acceptable, if slightly weatherbeaten, miniature golf course.
Moby Dick's Gull Pond Rd., Wellfleet; 508/349-9795; dinner for four $60. No reservations. A relaxed, nautically themed seafood restaurant on Route 6, a mile south of the WellfleetTruro border. Crayons at each table, and a couple of boats out front to climb in and out of clinch the deal. BYOB.
Baxter's Fish-N-Chips 177 Pleasant St., Hyannis; 508/775-4490; dinner for four $40. Keep your kids entertained watching fishing boats unload their catch in Hyannis Harbor while you eat some of the best seafood around, either on the dock or at a table atop an old ferry. Baxter's is famous for its fried clams, lobster, and steamer lunches.
Red Barn Rte. 6, North Eastham; 508/255-4500; dinner for four $35. A perfect meal for kids who are tired of seafood: the best pizza on the Cape, and ice cream— hard or soft— for dessert. You can get pasta, sandwiches, and salads, too.
The Beachcomber 1120 Cahoon Hollow Rd., Wellfleet; 508/349-6055; dinner for four $35. The children's menu is a favorite— especially the chicken fingers— and parents love the raw bar. Walk off your seafood lunch or dinner on the ocean beach just outside the door.
Impudent Oyster 15 Chatham Bars Ave., Chatham; 508/945-3545; dinner for four $100. A formal dining room (candlelight, linen) with some of the best fare on the lower Cape. Try the sole français while your kids check out the quahog clam chowder.
Chatham Bars Inn Shore Rd., Chatham; 800/527-4884 or 508/945-0096, fax 508/945-5491; doubles from $190. Not only an ideal site for your daughter's wedding to Charles "Chip" Webster IV, but a sophisticated and traditional 205-room hotel, whose cabanas face a private beach. There are complimentary children's programs (pirate's treasure hunts, for example), an outdoor heated pool, bike trails, and three restaurants, each with kids' menus and coloring books. Oh, and baby-sitting, too. Some canny families reserve a year in advance for August.
Captain's Quarters Motel Rte. 6, North Eastham; 800/327-7769 or 508/255-5686, fax 508/240-0280; doubles $64$106, including continental breakfast. Less than a mile from Nauset Light Beach, this family-run motel— with 75 no-frills rooms— is midway between Provincetown and Hyannis, abutting the bike trail. Heated pool, tennis, and free bicycles.
Belfry Inne & Bistro 8 Jarves St., Sandwich; 800/844-4542 or 508/888-8550; doubles $95$165. In the center of Sandwich village, the 14-room, 1882 house is a 12-minute drive to Nantucket Sound and a walk away from seven museums, including one devoted to dolls and another to Thornton Burgess. Here you'll find king-size beds, whirlpools, gas fireplaces, and Victorian armoires. Large families have been known to rent the whole place.
Provincetown Inn 1 Commercial St., Provincetown; 800/942-5388 or 508/487-9500, fax 508/487-2911; doubles $119$184. Open April 1December 18. The four large suites at this family-operated hotel book up very quickly. Your stay includes an excursion on a Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch boat. The best part?In season, kids under 12 stay and eat for free. Check out the outdoor heated swimming pool: a great example of New England kitsch, it's shaped like a pilgrim's hat.
Old Sea Pines Inn 2553 Main St., Brewster; 508/896-6114; doubles $65$145, including breakfast. A 1907 shingled manse on 31/2 acres with expansive lawns, a secret garden, and two bay-side beaches ideal for children.
Ocean Edge Resort 2907 Main St., Brewster; 800/343-6074 or 508/896-9000; doubles from $175. This private house turned seminary turned 320-room resort, stunningly located on 380 acres near Nickerson State Park, has numerous programs for children three and over, including a tennis and golf camp and a Teen Night for kids 14 to 17. For the entire family, Ocean Edge offers a summer concert series, four restaurants, golf, tennis, a private 600-foot beach, two indoor and four outdoor pools (three with snack bars and hot tubs), and a kids' pool.
By air: From La Guardia Airport in New York, the Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis is served by US Airways Express and Colgan Airlines, a subsidiary of Continental. From Logan Airport in Boston, take one of Cape Air's nine-seater planes. By bus: The Bonanza and Plymouth/Brockton lines go to the Cape regularly from New York and Boston respectively. By car: Depending on your destination, count on at least two hours from Boston, 5 1/2 from New York.
• Having a truly over-the-top, amiably phantasmagoric miniature golf experience at Pirate's Cove in West Yarmouth. Afterward, stop in Harwich to ride one of Bud's Go-Karts.
• Spending a few hours in Plymouth, 12 miles north of the Cape Cod Canal, to show your family Plymouth Rock and a replica of the Mayflower.
• Renting bikes and pedaling along one of Cape Cod's bike paths.
• Stopping at one of those clinking, swaying touristy stores, the ones that sell fudge and saltwater taffy and penny candy. Your best bet?The Kandy Korner, in Hyannis (508/771-5313), or Chatham Candy Manor (508/945-0825).
• Taking a day or overnight trip to Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard (ferries leave regularly from Hyannis to both islands; one goes from Woods Hole to Martha's Vineyard). Call the Steamship Authority (508/477-8600) for information. For holiday weekends, book far in advance.
• Braving the lunchtime crowds at Arnold's, on Route 6, and ordering an artery-clogging meal of fried clams, fried onion rings, fried shrimp, fried oysters, and fried lobster.
Cabbages and Kings, Chatham
In summer, frequent readings by children's book writers and illustrators.
Eight Cousins, Falmouth
The Cape's best for kids, located in the former phone company headquarters from the 1930's.
Used books in what looks like the musty, cluttered office of an absentminded book editor.
Compass Rose Book Shop, Orleans
Great selection of books by Cape authors— like Riptide, by Frances Ward Weller.
RENTING A HOUSE
Time is of the essence for summer rentals on Cape Cod: some reserve as early as January. The range of available properties is vast— from a six-bedroom house on the Orleans waterfront for $5,000 a week to a three-bedroom bungalow in Eastham for a more modest $1,550. The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce (888/332-2732) is the best place to begin. Its Web site, http://www.capecodchamber.org, has a searchable accommodations database listing. Bay Village Realty (508/896-6200; http://www.bayvillagerealty.com) lists properties throughout the Cape that can be searched by price and location. On the All Seasons Vacation Rental Network (888/281-8660; also accessible from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce site) you can specify the amenities you require (oceanfront, furnished kitchen, outside deck). CyberRentals.com (802/228-7158, fax 802/228-7716) is a nationwide vacation rentals site with interior and exterior shots of houses. If you're too late for a luxury or economy rental, mid-range properties may still be available; according to the chamber of commerce, they're the last to go.
— Emily Berquist
Peter Smith's most recent novel is A Good Family (Doubleday, 1997).