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.