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The Real Cape Cod

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 communities

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.

the mid-cape
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.

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