Route Details Length: About 80 miles. When to go: Before July 4 or after Labor Day to avoid crowds. Words to the wise: On summer weekends, expect bumper-to-bumper traffic at Sagamore Bridge. Not to be missed: Whale-watching excursions depart from Barnstable Harbor and Provincetown. Nearby attractions: Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, Brewster. Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island. Further information: Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 790, Hyannis, MA 02601; tel. 508-362-3225, www.capecodchamber.org.
To New Englanders, “the Cape” can mean only one place: “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts,” as Henry David Thoreau once called it. Less than two hours from Boston and reaching 70 miles out into the Atlantic, it abounds with idyllic beaches and quaint villages that draw huge crowds on summer weekends. But come mid-September, when mild sea breezes and crisp blue skies prevail, you’ll have most of these beaches, marshes, and cranberry bogs almost all to yourself.
1. Sagamore Bridge Though you have to cross a bridge to get to it, the celebrated spit of land known as Cape Cod is actually a peninsula, separated from the mainland by the seven-mile-long, man-made Cape Cod Canal. Three spans leap across this busy shipping corridor: the Bourne Bridge, connecting the mainland with the Cape’s crowded southern coast; a railroad trestle (designed to lift its center span—one of the world’s longest—for passing ships); and the Sagamore Bridge, gateway to Cape Cod’s northern, or bay, side. Encircled by the Cape’s crooked arm, the waters of Cape Cod Bay are calmer and colder than those to the south, and the land is less developed. The north coast, as a result, remains relatively unmarred by commercialism.
Once you cross the Sagamore Bridge, follow signs for Rte. 6A, also referred to as the Old King’s Highway (a hint of the Cape’s Colonial heritage). Slaloming past cranberry bogs, briny marshland, and the countless weathered cottages that have become hallmarks of Cape Cod, Rte. 6A has the feel of a quiet country lane, and locals much prefer it to the faceless efficiency of Rte. 6 (the Mid-Cape Highway), which parallels the route to the south. 2. Sandwich The New England of yesteryear is alive and well in Sandwich. Incorporated in 1639, this historic town is the oldest settlement on Cape Cod and one of the oldest in North America. It later became the site of one of the largest glass factories in the nation, and the Sandwich Glass Museum, on Main Street, is a must-see, with a glittering assemblage of 19th-century glass—cut, beveled, enameled, and blown.
The best way to sample Sandwich is on foot—it is, after all, in essence a 17th-century English village. A goodly portion of the downtown district remains remarkably intact, and many original buildings are open for tours.
Among the town’s more notable residents was Thornton Burgess, author of Peter Cottontail and other charming children’s tales. A museum on Water Street—actually a restored house that was built in 1756—showcases many of his original manuscripts and illustrations. Another nearby site, the Green Briar Nature Center and Jam Kitchen, honors both Peter Cottontail’s “briar patch” home and his creator’s affection for the sweeter things in life. “It’s a wonderful thing to sweeten the world, which is in a jam and needs preserving,” Burgess quipped. If you have any doubts, stop to sample the kitchen’s beach plum jelly and cranberry preserve.
Across the highway the Sandwich boardwalk rambles through marshland and dunes to Town Neck Beach. Destroyed in 1991 by Hurricane Bob, the boardwalk was later rebuilt by a corps of volunteers, many of whom carved messages into the planks—everything from literary quotations to eulogies for boats lost in the storm.
3. Sandy Neck Beach One of the Cape’s best-preserved shores, Sandy Neck occupies the eight-mile-long barrier beach that protects Barnstable Harbor. The south side of this peninsula is marshland—some 4,000 acres, teeming with shorebirds and other wildlife—while to the north, a long strip of sand (perfect for strolling) meets the bay’s chilly waters. Allow some time for an exploration of this marvelous stretch of dunes, beach plums, and lapping waves. Along the waterline, sand gives way to water-smoothed stones that, when jostled by the waves, sound rather like marbles being shaken inside a paper bag.
4. Yarmouth Port Back on Rte. 6A, the drive heads east into Yarmouth Port, a quaint village with many old sea captains’ homes that have since been converted to bed-and-breakfast inns. Among the properties relating to the town’s seafaring history is the Captain Bangs Hallet House, a Greek Revival structure crammed with treasures acquired by the good captain on his many voyages to the Far East.
Behind the post office (located just off the town green), a nature trail of the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth leads through 50 acres of lush, lovely woodlands, where brilliant foliage bedecks the canopy in autumn, and blossoming rhododendrons enliven the scene during the springtime.
5. Dennis Though it rises only 160 feet above sea level, Dennis’s Scargo Hill is a mountain by Cape Cod standards. On a clear day the view from its observation tower can extend all the way to Provincetown, some 40 miles away. Scan the landscape, too, for freshwater kettle ponds. These deep depressions were created many centuries ago when the glaciers that formed the Cape left behind, buried in debris, huge chunks of ice that later melted. Warmer and more secluded than nearby beaches, these shimmering pockets of fresh water make first-class swimming holes. Some 360 dot the Cape, and while a number of them are on private property, many others are open to the public. Check town maps to find their locations.