The best time to visit Brewster is at low tide, when you can walk more than a mile out from shore on the bay’s tidal flats and wade amid tidepools filled with sea life. A good many ship captains once resided here; Thoreau noted in 1849 that Brewster had more mates and masters of vessels than any other town in the country. At the eastern edge of town, look for the entrance to Nickerson State Park, once the private fish and game preserve of a railroad tycoon. Laced with trails and dotted with ponds (several of them filled with jumping and biting trout), Nickerson boasts nearly 2,000 acres—a remarkable spread, given the Cape’s small size. A bike shop provides rentals for excursions along the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a 20-mile-long paved path that runs through the park, en route from South Dennis beyond the National Seashore at Eastham to Wellfleet.
At Orleans the Cape’s three main east–west arteries converge in a busy crossroads, making for such bustle that you might think you were entering the most populous quarter. But in fact the Lower Cape (as in lower arm, from the elbow to the fingertips) is, if anything, less visited, less developed, and more remote than its upper half. Here, where the Cape meets the turbulent Atlantic, the boundaries between sea and land blur, and one comes face to face with the fragility of this unique peninsula.
Orleans may be the commercial hub of the Lower Cape, but once off the highway, visitors will find that it possesses all the weathered charm of its neighboring towns. Go for a stroll in nearby bustling Rock Harbor, the home port for a small commercial fishing fleet. Then drive south on Rte. 28 until you reach Main Street, which leads east into Beach Road on its way to Nauset Beach, where for 15 miles sand dunes soar above the pounding surf.
The scene hasn’t always been so serene; Orleans enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only place in the continental United States to be targeted by enemy gunfire during World War I. In 1918 a German U-boat off the coast fired on a group of barges, sinking four of them. A lone shell, perhaps missing its target, is said to have fallen harmlessly on land. Once back on Rte. 28, continue south to Chatham.
Although locals like to say that Chatham is the most “capey” of all the Cape’s towns, it’s also one of its most “tony.” Chatham is known for its special main street, filled with boutiques, gourmet candy shops, and restaurants. If you find yourself there on a Friday, the evening band concerts, held from Memorial Day to Labor Day, draw more than a thousand visitors each week. Concert-goers put down their blankets as early as 6 a.m. in order to save their favorite spots around the bandstand.
The talk of the town remains the “Chatham breakthrough” of 1987, when a powerful nor’easter broke through the protective barrier beach outside Chatham harbor. Another storm in 1992 widened the gap and exposed miles of coastline to the ocean’s rages. Across the drawbridge, Chatham Light tells another compelling tale: look 200 feet offshore to the wave-torn spot where the original Chatham Light stood until a tempest felled it in 1841.
9. Nauset Marsh
Backtracking north on Rte. 28, the drive leads into Rte. 6 as it heads toward Eastham. At Fort Hill, just east of the highway, a spur road dead-ends, looking out on a green pasture that reclines to Nauset Marsh. Follow the two-mile trail to the wetlands, where red maples fire the scene with blazing color in fall. A few miles west, at the end of Samoset Road, lies First Encounter Beach, whose name stems from the fact that it marks the site where Miles Standish and his band of fellow Pilgrims first clashed with the tribesmen of the Wampanoag in 1620.
10. Salt Pond Visitor Center
Farther north on Rte. 6, the Salt Pond visitor center welcomes travelers to one of Cape Cod’s greatest natural treasures—the Cape Cod National Seashore. Signed into existence in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy (whose family home in Hyannis Port made him the first and only permanent Cape Cod resident elected to the White House), this park land occupies much of the shoreline from the Cape’s elbow to its fist. The seashore preserves over 27,000 acres of dunes, scrub oak and pine forest, bountiful wetlands, and mile after shimmering mile of wild, windswept coastline.
11. Nauset Light Beach
From Nauset Light Beach and adjoining Coast Guard Beach—both linked to the seashore’s visitor center by trail and road—you can walk 30 miles north without once leaving the sand. Though the landscape seems little changed since the days when Thoreau hiked on this stretch, an average of three feet of beach continues to recede each and every year, dragged northward by the ocean’s currents and deposited near Provincetown.
A few miles to the south, Nauset Spit marks the site of Cape Cod’s most famous literary landmark, The Outermost House. Naturalist Henry Beston spent a solitary year here writing a book about life on the great beach. The cottage where he lived was swept into the sea during the great storm of 1978, but the literary classic that bears its name, as well as the transcendent beauty of the place, lives on.