December 17, 2017

Cape Cod: It's Not Just for the Kennedys

From the beaches of Wellfleet and Eastham to the historical sites like Marconi Station and the Kennedy compound, Cape Cod has got something for everyone. Even tiny towns like Truro have quaint restaurants and vividly decorated art galleries, and the salt air smells fresh on the breeze.

A Brief History of Cape Cod

Ever since the Vikings first called it “Promontory of Vinland” in the ninth century, Cape Cod has been a waypoint and navigational landmark for sailors. Even today, stone walls built by Leif Erikson and his younger brother, Thorvald, still stand in Provincetown and at the mouth of the Manomet river. More than 500 years later, the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims. Today, the largest, free-standing, all-granite monument in the United States stands in Provincetown to commemorate those early Pilgrims and Native Americans. Other explorers, such as Henry Hudson and Captain John Smith, walked the willowy sand dunes and breathed deep the fresh air.

Things to Do

Sitting in the middle of the ocean as it is, “the Cape,” as it’s sometimes known, offers all manner of waterborne activities. Bathers who can get used to the seemingly frigid waters of the North Atlantic, even during high summer, can enjoy some of the best swimming around. The Cape receives fairly substantial tidal action, and the difference in water level between high and low tide is as much as 12 feet in some places. At low tide, this creates playful surf for bodysurfers and swimmers with inflatable rafts. There are even beaches dedicated to surfing itself, such as White Crest Beach in Wellfleet.

Cape Cod beaches are as famous for their spectacular sand dunes as well as their ocean water. Unfortunately, wind and water erosion has hit the dunes quite hard, and fun activities of yore, such as “sledding” on refrigerator boxes and running down the dunes, are now prohibited. Big dunes are still fun to look at, however, and the biggest are at Cahoon’s Hollow ocean beach in Wellfleet.

Lighthouse fanciers can visit dozens of the structures on the Cape. Most famous among these is the Nauset Light in Eastham, but there are also other notables, such as the Nobska Point Light in Falmouth, the Edgartown Harbor Light on Martha’s Vineyard and Chatham Light. The lighthouses speak to the Cape’s importance in the shipping history of the United States. Whalers used to call the Cape home, and travelers can visit not only old whaling stations but also the homes of famous seafarers, including whalers. Those interested in whales themselves can take whale-watching cruises from Provincetown or Hyannis. Sailors and fishermen alike can take advantage of everything for which the Atlantic Ocean is famous.

While in Hyannis, which is part of the larger town of Barnstable, Mass., vacationers can catch a glimpse of the Kennedy compound. The Kennedy family, though, donated the main house to the Edward Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in 2012. On specific days, it’s now open to the public. Also in Hyannis, visitors can feed their munchies at the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory. It’s open for tours year-round, and more than 250,000 people a year get a chance to get a bag in which the chips are still warm and steaming.

Culture fans can catch a play at The Cape Playhouse in Dennis. Such Hollywood luminaries as Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck and Bette Davis have been on stage at the oldest summer theater in the United States. In fact, celebrity watchers can catch a glimpse of stars as varied as author Mary Higgins Clark and former child actress Eve Plumb, who now paints and exhibits her work in Chatham art galleries. The Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra gives its concerts September to May and is one of the most highly regarded regional orchestras in the country. Perhaps the Cape’s biggest cultural claim to fame is its eclectic collection of art galleries. Even a small town like Wellfleet, which comprises 12 square miles and is home to barely 2,500 year-round residents, contains more than 20 galleries just by itself.

Food and Lodging Options

Aside from the ubiquitous family motels, there are properties for rent, which include cabins and even houses, campgrounds and bed-and-breakfasts of all price ranges. Most can be had by the day, week and even month.

From the world-famous Bayside Lobster Hutt in Wellfleet to P-Town Pizza in Provincetown and Captain Parker’s Pub in West Yarmouth, which features the best clam chowder anywhere around, travelers can discover something for almost any palate. As expected, however, the seafood is second to none.

Getting Around

Cape Cod is the scene of some of the worst traffic jams imaginable, so it’s a good idea to have a bicycle along on vacation. Most towns on the Cape are small to get around on two wheels—a great way to stay in shape.

Fun Facts

  • Billingsgate Island is the site of a town washed away by erosion. The buoy that marks the remaining shoal has a mournful tone.
  • Guglielmo Marconi broadcast his first message to Europe from Cape Cod.
  • One of the few remaining, functioning drive-in theaters in the Northeast is in Wellfleet.
  • “Jaws” was filmed in Martha’s Vineyard.
  • The clock in the Congregational Church in Wellfleet is the only town clock in the world that strikes ship’s time.

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