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.
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.
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.
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.
12. Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
No spot on Cape Cod is more than 10 miles from a waterside view, but as the drive heads north toward Wellfleet, the point is pretty much moot. Shrinking to a mere half-mile in width, the Cape’s forearm tapers to little more than a slender sandbar. Here, overlooking Wellfleet Harbor, sprawls the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Managed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the preserve embraces 1,000 acres of pitch pine and oak forest, marshland, and moors spangled with huckleberries. Just off Rte. 6 are two spur roads—one leading to Marconi Beach, a strip of sand backed by bluffs, and the other to the site of Marconi Station, from which Nobel prizewinner Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first transatlantic message from the United States to Europe in 1903.
Fronting one of the Lower Cape’s two great natural harbors, Wellfleet was once a lively whaling port, and the bells of the town’s First Congregational Church still keep ship’s time, ringing two, four, six, or eight bells according to the shipboard shedule used to change the crew’s watches. From Commercial Street follow Chequessett Neck Road west along the water to Sunset Hill and Great Island. Sunset Hill is indeed a terrific spot to enjoy one, but Great Island is long overdue for a name change; though still great by any measure, it hasn’t been an island since a sandbar connected it to the mainland more than a century ago. Seven miles of trails crisscross the dunes and salt marshes of this pork chop–shaped peninsula, where oysters and quahogs—the champions of Cape Cod clams—clot the mudflats like living stones. Digging for shellfish is allowed, but a town permit is required.
After returning to Rte. 6, the drive continues north to Truro. Knowing when you’ve reached the town, however, may not be easy. Truro doesn’t make much of a fuss over itself; the town center is a veritable pinpoint, with little more than a few stores, a library, a firehouse, and a police station. The beauty of Truro is its spaciousness. With about 1,400 year-round residents, Truro is one of the smallest towns on the Cape in population, but it’s one of the largest in area, spreading over some 20 square miles of dunes and moors. Numbered among the many artists who have sought out Truro’s inspiring blend of beauty and solitude was Edward Hopper, the American realist painter who summered and created his canvases here for 37 years.
15. Highland Light
Also known as Cape Cod Light, this bright beacon has been warning ships away from the treacherous sandbars found undersea off Truro’s coast since 1857. The original lighthouse, erected in 1797, was torn down when the bluff started to erode. Today its replacement is also on shaky ground, as the bluffs below it crumble slowly into the sea and the ocean’s waves undermine the shore. Just to the north is one of the Cape’s loveliest beaches, Head of the Meadow. A strong pair of legs can carry you there from the Highland Light, or you can return to Rte. 6 and drive east on Head of the Meadow Road.
Although Provincetown is the northernmost town on Cape Cod, it certainly is no lonely outpost. P-town, as the locals affectionately call it, combines the jazziness of a small city with the lazy charm of a coastal village. In summer the town’s population multiplies tenfold, bringing together such diverse groups as sightseeing families, a large gay community, Portuguese-American fishermen, and bohemian painters hawking their wares.
Stroll the busy environs of Commercial Street, then watch the day’s catch come in along MacMillan Wharf, one of only three surviving piers out of the 59 that once lined the harbor. (Throughout the mid-1880s Provincetown was known for a catch of a grander scale: it was the nation’s third-largest whaling center, after the towns of New Bedford and Nantucket.)
No tour would be complete, of course, without a visit to Pilgrim Memorial Monument, built to commemorate the first landing of the Pilgrims here in 1620. From atop the 255-foot-high tower, a 360-degree view takes in the entire Upper Cape, a boundless blue apron of ocean, and the whole of Cape Cod Bay from Provincetown to Plymouth.
17. Race Point Beach
Curving west on Rte. 6, the drive grazes the south shore of Pilgrim Lake, then jogs north on Race Point Road at the Province Lands visitor center. Because Race Point Beach faces northwest into the Atlantic, you can watch the sun here set into open ocean—perhaps the only spot on the East Coast where such a feat is possible—a fitting end for one’s first visit to Cape Cod.
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