“If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air,
quaint little villages here and there,
You're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod”
Yep, Patti Page said it all when she crooned about New England’s quintessential beach destination, Cape Cod, Mass. The 400-square-mile peninsula, with its signature flexed arm silhouette, has been welcoming generations of vacationers to its beaches, bike trails, waterways and as the song says, “Miles of green beneath a sky of blue.”
While many are drawn to the busier, more populated and more convenient area along the Upper and Mid Cape, like Falmouth, Woods Hole and Hyannis, others will argue that the true Cape Cod experience can only be found “above the elbow,” the Lower and Outer Cape area including Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown.
Those towns lie along the Cape Cod National Seashore, a 43,600-acre stretch on the Atlantic Ocean that includes woods, bogs, ponds, marshes and fascinating ecosystems, as well as some of the Cape’s most picturesque beaches.
“Cape Cod never loses its appeal,” says Brian Carlstrom, Cape Cod National Seashore superintendent. “Our lighthouses, trails, marshes, beaches, natural landscapes are the best that Mother Nature can offer.”
“This is a vacation that makes you look up and away from phone and tablet screens,” he continues. “And not just because there is no cell service in some of the areas. But because there is so much view to enjoy. “
For those with young children, a good place to stop is at Frist Encounter Beach in Eastham, a bayside beach where the flow of the tide offers easy swimming in calm, warmer water and the ebb allows the chance to explore a science-worthy collection of crabs and shells and other seaside curiosities.
For ocean waves, body surfing and a firsthand look at Cape Cod’s famous seals, head to the beach side to Nauset Light, to check out the lighthouses. Or visit Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. At the latter, learn about the site of the first transatlantic communication between the United States and Europe. Race Point Beach in Provincetown, like the other beaches, has parking, restrooms and soul-soothing karma.
Man really cannot live by beach alone. But plan to enjoy even more of the scenery by renting a bicycle and taking advantage of the Cape’s very rider/walker-friendly bike trails.
Jump on the well-marked Cape Cod Rail trail, a 26-mile path that runs from Wellfleet, south to Dennis. There is also a pretty 1.6-mile bike trail at the Cape Cod National Seashore Center in Eastham that connects the Salt Pond Visitor center, Doane picnic area and Coast Guard Beach. The Province Lands trail in Provincetown is a more challenging 5.25-mile hilly trail that leads through the dunes and Beech Forest area. Stop at the Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellfleet and take advantage of dozens of programs for adults and children. And as you travel , find some pleasure in the fact that you may be pedaling or walking along much of the same 30-mile route author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau hiked through a mere 170 years ago.
While the natural beauty of the beach surely feeds the mind and soul, it doesn’t do so much for the tummy. Seafood is king along the Cape and that means meandering down to the Wellfleet Harbor to check out Mac’s or The Pearl. In Provincetown, The Lobster Pot, that famed Commercial Street eatery, is celebrating its 75th anniversary and a menu that features its famed stuffed lobster and lobster rolls. Not a seafood fan? Make sure to stop at PB Boulangerie & Bistro for a Parisian-inspired baked goods and sandwiches or a romantic and inspired dinner. Fried chicken, barbecue? Head to Russ & Marie’s in Wellfleet. Don’t forget to watch the pop-up signs along the way. Many churches and nonprofits offer chowder, fried chicken, lobster roll and fried clam dinner nights, affordable meals made with loving hands for good causes.
Want to get down and local? In nearby Orleans, stop by Land Ho! where, around 4 p.m. or so, you can sip a cranberry juice and vodka-laced Cape Codder and chit chat with the local fishermen who consider this the place for an end-of-the-day beer.
Orleans is also home to the Hog Island Beer Co. for tours and tastings. Or head up to North Truro and the Truro Vineyards, a family-run vineyard that not only offers its own wines from maritime grapes, but also its artisan Dry Line Gin and Twenty Boat Rum. Take the tour, sip the samplings and make a day of it by eating from the gourmet Blackfish food truck, enjoying live music on the lawn or attending one of its special events including the Vinegrass Music Festival or the Grape Stomp and Music fest.
Speaking of stomping, looking for a little dance time? In gay-friendly Provincetown, it is the early-evening mostly male “Tea Dance” at the Boatslip Resort, where you can enjoy a triple treat, an expansive deck that overlooks Provincetown’s West End Harbor, some serious rum punch and a packed dance floor courtesy of DJ Mary Alice. Or head over to Brewster and The Woodshed, a vintage wood shed turned nighttime live music venue on Route 6A.
The Cape is well known for its myriad art galleries, exhibits, flea markets, drive-in theater, summer stock and outdoor concerts, as well as its Cape Cod Summer Baseball League. Give your nose a treat and head down to Harwich to the Cape Cod Lavender Farm or to the Truro Historical Museum in the old Highland Hotel.
Thoreau, impressed by the sand and the sea and the natural beauty of it all, authored his “Cape Cod” essays after completing his trip, predicting “this place will be a place of resort for those New Englanders who really wish to visit the seaside.” He was so right.