Cape Cod is a thick chowder of attractions

William M. Dowd photos

Shops and galleries are tightly packed on Provincetown's famous Commercial Street.

PROVINCETOWN, MA -- The man in the bow held one oar out of the water, feathering the other to act as a rudder. His partner in the stern gamely kept pulling with both oars. Slowly, the chunky rowboat turned, its prow now aimed directly at the Provincetown II, the largest Cape Cod Bay scenic cruiser, which was moored to the foot of MacMillan Wharf.

With a little more maneuvering, its crew managed to bring it alongside the cruiser, but it was a precarious spot. The usually calm waters of Provincetown Harbor were churned up by a steady stream of boats making their way to the processional lineup at the other side of the wharf.

"Hey, Father!" called a woman who had been hanging on the rail of the larger vessel, peering down at the rowboat bobbing 20 feet below. "Maybe you better bless 'em early. I don't think they can make it around again."

The priest obligingly shook the aspergillum, and a spray of holy water droplets from the wand went over the side and onto the rowboat and its occupants.

The scene was several years ago at the annual Blessing of the Fleet, a local tradition for more than a half-century. On this particular Sunday, it had begun 15 minutes early because that small interloper jumped the starting line. Each year some such oddity happens, which makes the culminating event of the three-day Portuguese festival so interesting.

This year the festival celebrating P-town’s Portuguese fishing village past is scheduled for June 21-23. For some it is the start of high season on Cape Cod, although some who mark the Fourth of July as the real tourist season regard it as merely an early bird special.

Whatever draws people to the Cape, and there is a stunning scope of activities on this storied 75-mile stretch of sandy soil jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, it has long been a primary domestic vacation spot for many throughout the Northeast as well as tourists from abroad, even in times of high gasoline prices such as the ones we're now enduring.

From Sandwich, the Cape’s oldest town, on the west just across the Cape Cod Canal from the mainland to Provincetown on the eastern end, it is a jumble of villages, art galleries, boat landings, iconic New England architecture and tourist kitsch. And, of course, the beaches, primary among them the protected Cape Cod National Seashore, a 43,600-acre legacy of the Kennedy Administration.

The Cape is a place that continually reinvents itself without throwing out its history. But the reinvention takes on different personae, from raucous P-town to reserved Sandwich.

P-town, for example, once was known primarily as a fishing port. Then it became better known for its art community. Now it’s known as a gay friendly vacation destination with lots of art galleries and a fishing community heritage that helps maintain its maritime atmosphere. A boisterous night life and a bustling Commercial Street shopping walkathon are legendary.

Many of its once-neglected alleys have been transformed into pedestrian pathways between neighborhoods. Buildings have been converted into charming little homes and B&B's with postage-stamp gardens. Some spots have become home to clusters of tiny stores that put less strain for rent and utilities on small-business owners.

The seasonal shops along narrow, bustling Commercial Street that runs the length of town are vying with the year-round businesses for tourist dollars. In a leisurely stroll, you come across everything from a Hallmark store to a drag nightclub, from fine dining to a saltwater taffy shop, from modern home decor offerings to antique finds.

Mid-Cape, Hyannis continues to trade on its history as a home to the Kennedy family, with a Kennedy museum on the main street in town and the famous Kennedy residential compound in adjacent Hyannisport still the target of gawkers and picture-takers. It is the most “typical American” spot on the Cape, with a hospital, radio station, the main office of the daily newspaper, a few shopping centers, a bustling main street, a small airport, loads of condos and hotels.

One of its biggest tourist draws is the annual Father’s Day classic car show that takes up several blocks of downtown and offers a visual feast for those into old Mercs and Fords and Chevys and Packards and more. I’ve visited it for several years, and each June the lineup seems to get longer and more fascinating.

The aforementioned Sandwich, on the west end of the Cape, is the quietest of the three benchmark communities. It is home to the Dexter Grist Mill, a working grist mill built in 1654 on Shawme Pond in the town center, to the Sandwich Glass Museum and to the Heritage Museums & Gardens, a sprawling year-round complex housing the J.K. Lilly III Antique Automobile Museum -– another spot for car buffs although obviously more formal than the Hyannis outdoor event, plus the Art Museum and 1912 carousel, plus various horticultural attractions.

The Cape can be a tough place to negotiate in high season – usually late June to Labor Day Weekend – for the uninitiated.

A view of Provincetown and Cape Cod Bay from the top of the Pilgrim Monument.

Travel is relegated mostly to a trio of main roads, which get backed up during peak hours headed to or from the beaches or to and from the nightlife.

The Cape proper extends from the Cape Cod Canal in the west to Herring Cove Beach in the northeast, shaped like the upraised arm of someone "making a muscle." It is traversed largely on routes 6, 6A and 28. Once you're off them, you'd better know the local layout intimately to avoid being caught hungry in the many cul-de-sacs and roads that dead-end at salt marshes or ponds.

I say “caught hungry” because this is a crowded place at feeding time despite the huge range if dining spots.

Logistically, since Route 6 (the Mid-Cape Highway) is a limited-access thoroughfare until you get past Orleans and head north, the principal dining clusters are mostly on routes 28 and 6A.

A four-mile stretch of Route 28 from the edge of Hyannis east to West Dennis on the Bass River is a prime example of how packed with dining variety the Cape's main roads can be.

At least 40 food-related spots are jammed into that span, from the fairly-new Oinky & Moo's southern barbecue in West Dennis to the self-explanatory old Riverway Lobster House in Yarmouth.

This is a good base of operations for families who like casual, inexpensive food plus proximity to inexpensive motels and elaborate miniature golf layouts, or for couples who need the nightlife. You never have to leave the locale to experience an astounding variety of foods: Irish pub, seafood, Thai, hot dogs and ice cream, soups and salads, Chinese, brunches, Mexican, Polynesian, pizza and the inevitable Dairy Queen, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts spots and more.

Breakfast is a big deal on the Cape, what with most people wanting to just grab lunch on the run or pack a picnic to take along to the beaches or a trek on the Cape Cod Rail Trail bike pathway.

In West Yarmouth, for example, Molly's offers a traditional Irish breakfast (thick Irish bacon, sausage, black and white pudding, eggs, tomatoes, beans and home fries) for a paltry $8.50. I still think of the tiny slip of a girl I saw easily polish one off while her boyfriend toyed with a regular-sized ham and eggs.

And, Persey's Place, several blocks east of the Kennedy Museum, serves what it boasts is "New England's Largest Breakfast Menu" from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Recommended: such delightful oddities as hash Benedict, or chocolate chip/banana/walnut pancakes.

Once fortified, take a crack at climbing the Pilgrim Monument in P-town. The 252-foot tower was built to commemorate the Pilgrims’ first landing there. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in 1907. Three years later. President William H. Taft dedicated the finished structure. Climbing the interior stone steps is quite an undertaking, but worth it for the views of P-town and the bay from the observation area on top.

For those whose idea of a dream vacation is doing nothing but watch other people doing things, the Cape is a wonderland.

Watching the fishing boats unload a day’s catch at the Chatham pier on the southern tip of the Cape is an eye opener, and can be a nose-closer if you get too close.

Grabbing one of the many whale watching excursion boats heading into the bay or the ocean can be a relaxing experience in fair weather.

If you long for the simpler summer evenings of old, or for those who have seen it in movies but never experienced it, the Cape is a great place for strolling a sidewalk with an ice cream cone in hand. Or taking in a baseball game at any of the 10 fields that are home to teams of college-aged minor leagues in the 114-year-old Cape Cod Baseball League – Bourne, Brewster, Cotuit, Wareham, Chatham, Falmouth, Hyannis, Harwich, Orleans, and Yarmouth-Dennis. Factoid: One in seven major league baseball players get started in the CCBL.

In the final analysis, the words of the 1950s Patti Page hit song "Old Cape Cod" say it simply and precisely:

"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."

Cape Cod Online
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State forests and parks
Golf Cape Cod
Insider's Fishing Guide
Cape Cod recreation guide
Boating & other watersports
Cape Cod Bike Guide


Anonymous said...

It was mine and my family's time to Cape Cod and we had the time of our lives. There was something to do for all of us, and never have I met friendlier locals. The seafood was amazing and so was our stay at the Wequassett Inn was perfect. I think we have a new spring/summer vacation spot!

JOHNNY said...

Cool post, check out my P-town carnival parade photos.

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