Cape Cod See And Do
The 115 beaches strung out along Cape Cod's 560 miles of coastline run the gamut from surfer-friendly to family-friendly to clothing-optional. The best (and generally the most crowded) are the ocean-facing beaches, especially those along the Cape Cod National Seashore's 40-mile stretch of soaring dunes and heavy surf. These include Coast Guard Beach, which has an intact Coast Guard lifesaving station (now used for educational programs), and Nauset Light Beach, under the lighthouse made famous by artist Edward Hopper. Enter the park at the Salt Pond Visitor Center, off Route 6 in Eastham ($15 per car, $3 per bike or pedestrian; 508-771-2144, nps.gov/caco).
To the south of the National Seashore is Atlantic-facing Nauset Beach, the largest beach on the Cape. Managed by the town of Orleans, it has a full-service concession stand, rental chairs, and umbrellas, and plenty of parking (Nauset Beach Rd., 508-240-3780, town.orleans.ma.us/Pages/OrleansMA_Parks/beaches). On the Outer Cape (i.e., furthest from the mainland), Wellfleet's Marconi Beach (Marconi Beach Road, off Route 6) and Truro's Head of the Meadow Beach (off Route 6) have mountainous sand dunes. In Provincetown, Race Point Beach (off Route 6) has huge dunes and powerful surf; the town-operated Herring Cove Beach (at the end of Route 6A) is more or less officially clothing-optional.
Beaches on the protected Cape Cod Bay side, where there are seldom waves, are usually less busy and attract residents and families with young children. The glaciers that formed Cape Cod also left behind more than 350 freshwater lakes and ponds, and some of those have beaches that are especially good for families with kids.
Some beaches restrict parking to residents only, though those are typically still accessible by bike. Most others charge up to $20 per day in the summer. Weekly and full-season parking stickers (typically from $50 to $70 and from $110 to $225, respectively, depending on the town) can be purchased at the town hall for beaches in that town. A list of beaches with their locations is at Capecodchamber.org/beaches, and a helpful map can be found at Capecodbeachchair.com/beachguide.
Cape Cod has a huge network of off-road cycling trails, many of which cruise through the woods and past cranberry bogs, clam shacks, ice cream stands, and freshwater lakes. Bike paths about seven and a half miles long line each side of the Cape Cod Canal. The Shining Sea Path in Falmouth runs nearly five miles along an abandoned rail line from Woods Hole to Falmouth Center; it will more than double in length when an expansion to North Falmouth is completed in spring 2009. But the longest off-road bike route is the hugely popular 28-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail, which runs from South Dennis to Wellfleet along another former railroad right-of-way (508-896-3491; mass.gov/dcr/parks/southeast/ccrt.htm). Parking is free at various points along the route, and the Rail Trail connects to a bike path inside Nickerson State Park as well as to the nine-mile network within the Cape Cod National Seashore. Note that many off-road trails get crowded in the summer.
Massachusetts Bike Route 1 runs from Boston to Provincetown and Woods Hole, partly on protected bikeways and mostly on vehicle roads. The Cape Cod Cyclist Club organizes free group road- and mountain-bike rides (capecodcyclist.com), and Bike and the Like runs seven-night fall cycling tours of Cape Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket (877-776-6572, bikeandthelike.com). Trail maps and rental shop locations are available at Bikecapecod.com.
The Cape Cod Baseball League is America's premier collegiate summer league and has been an incubator for some of the sport's top pro players since it was founded in 1885. Alumni include Mike Lowell, Mo Vaughn, Barry Zito, Nomar Garciaparra, Thurman Munson, Jason Varitek, "Buck" Showalter, Jacoby Ellsbury, and more than 200 players currently active in the major leagues. Visit the Web site for a schedule and directions—the teams play on municipal and public school fields between early June and mid-August—and bring a beach chair or blanket to watch the up-and-coming talent up close. Some teams ask for donations at the gate or pass a hat to pay for their expenses.
60 Hope Lane, off Route 6A
Dennis , Massachusetts
Tel: 508 385 4477
The Cape Cod Museum of Art, in Dennis, is devoted to Cape Cod's not inconsiderable contribution to American art. The permanent collection includes 950 works by the likes of Rockwell Kent, Charles Hawthorne, Henry Hensche, Oliver Chaffee, and sculptors Gil Franklin and Varujan Boghosian. The $8 admission fee is optional on Thursdays.
Open Thursdays 10 am to 8 pm, Fridays and Saturdays 10 am to 5 pm, and Sundays 12 to 5 pm, year-round; also open Mondays 10 am to 5 pm Memorial Day through Columbus Day.
869 Main Street (Route 6A)
Brewster , Massachusetts
Tel: 508 896 3867
Set on 383 acres of conservation land overlooking a salt marsh and Cape Cod Bay, the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History hosts kid- and adult-friendly programs and exhibits about local animals and sea life. Don't miss the nature trails or the Marshview Room—bird feeders hung outside make for fantastic indoor bird-watching, and binoculars are provided.
Open daily 9:30 am to 4 pm, June through September; Wednesdays through Sundays 11 am to 3 pm, October through December; Thursdays through Sundays 11 am to 3 pm, February and March; and Wednesdays through Sundays 11 am to 3 pm, April and May.
Tel: 508 771 2144
The Cape Cod National Seashore is a 43,500-acre park with great beaches, hiking, cycling, bird-watching, and nature-gazing, plus a visitor center. The seashore overlaps six towns, and is still home to some lucky individuals whose properties were grandfathered in when President John F. Kennedy established this protected area. In addition to its natural beauties, the seashore encompasses several historic sites. Inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic wireless transmission from a station in Wellfleet on January 19, 1903; nine years later, the same station received the distress call from the Titanic (Wireless Rd., off Route 6). A plaque off Nauset Heights Road marks the site where a German U-boat turned its guns on Orleans during World War I—the only place in the United States that was shelled during that conflict. (No one was hurt.) Stories like these, and more about the natural surroundings, are available in two-minute messages recorded by park rangers that you can access from your cell phone. Look for the "Dial and Discover" signs.
With temperatures moderated by warm ocean currents, Cape Cod is that rare place in New England where golfers can enjoy their sport almost year-round. Some of the Cape's 15 private courses are open to guests of certain hotels—you can play the Nicklaus-redesigned Ocean Edge Golf Club if you're staying at the Ocean Edge Resort and Club, for example—while others are ultraexclusive. The Donald Ross–designed Oyster Harbors Club in Osterville, for instance, famously turned away the billionaire president of Reebok, who ended up buying his own golf course in Mashpee. But no matter, the Cape's 20 public, municipal, and semiprivate courses are generally just as good. The Bass River Golf Course—also designed by Ross—has the Bass River as its inspiring backdrop. One of the newest courses, Ballymeade in East Falmouth, was redesigned by Chi Chi Rodriguez, and the oldest, Highland Links in North Truro, recalls Scotland with its windswept bluffs overlooking the ocean. A complete list of Cape Cod golf courses is available from the Massachusetts Golf Association (mgalinks.org).
Cape Cod has miles of hiking trails through woods, marshland, cranberry bogs, and seashore, varying by length and difficulty. The Cape Cod National Seashore is laced with 11 self-guided hiking trails. Our favorites are in the often overlooked Fort Hill section (Route 6 at the Orleans–Eastham line), where shaded paths ramble through a dwarfish forest of gnarled pitch pines and marshland, past the spots where French explorer Samuel de Champlain dropped anchor in 1605, the Mayflower Pilgrims first sighted land 15 years later, and merchantmen and pirates were shipwrecked. The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History offers guided wetlands hikes through the bay-side conservation land it owns. The Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary maintains five miles of trails through 1,100 acres of salt marsh, sandy beach, and pine woodland teeming with songbirds (291 State Highway Rte. 6, South Wellfleet, 508-349-2615, massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/Wellfleet). And you can hike through nearly 50 acres of holly trees at the Ashumet Holly Audubon Sanctuary (Ashumet Rd., East Falmouth, massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/Ashumet_Holly). The Cape Cod Trails Conference, a network of hikers, maintains a guide to hiking routes (cctrails.org), and the Cape Cod Commission has a longer list of everything from flat walks to challenging hikes, organized by town (capecodcommission.org/pathways/#directory).
Cape Cod has the nation's largest collection of historic lighthouses, 14 in all. A few allow visitors; some have museums. We've listed the five you shouldn't miss:
Originally built in 1797 and then rebuilt in 1857, Highland Light in Truro is the oldest lighthouse on Cape Cod. It was also the first in the nation to have a flashing beacon—sailors had been confusing it with the Boston Light. Visitors can ascend 69 winding steps to the lantern room (183 feet above the sea) and check out the keeper's watch room. The shipwreck rooms in the neighboring museum are popular with kids.
Nauset Light, above the dunes of what is now called Nauset Light Beach, is one of the nation's most picturesque lighthouses and is periodically open for tours. Since being depicted by the artist Edward Hopper, its fame has overshadowed the three smaller lighthouses, called the Three Sisters, that once stood on this site. Those wooden lights are now dark and—oddly—located in the woods along a marked path off Cable Road in the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Nobska Point Light on Nobska Road in Woods Hole is a quintessential New England lighthouse: a 40-foot-high circular cast-iron tower painted white, on a high bluff, with a whitewashed, red-roofed keeper's house. The grounds are open to the public, and the lighthouse is open periodically for tours.
Race Point Light in Provincetown was built in 1816 where the open ocean meets the calmer waters of Cape Cod Bay. Since the light is two and a half miles from the nearest paved road, it's not surprising that a former Race Point lighthouse keeper is credited as the inventor of the dune buggy. You can stay overnight in the four-room keeper's house; a volunteer keeper will drive you there. If you just want to look at the lighthouse and not stay over, you can park at Race Point Beach and walk. It takes about 45 minutes.
Bass River Light in Dennis was deactivated when shipping declined, but it is now a hotel called the Lighthouse and is the only privately maintained working lighthouse beacon in the country. The inn has ocean views, of course, and working fireplaces; 3 of the 72 guest rooms and suites are in the original lighthouse keeper's house.
460 Commercial Street
Provincetown , Massachusetts
Tel: 508 487 1750
The Provincetown Art Association and Museum, founded in 1914, displays an impressive collection of works by Provincetown-connected artists, such as Edward Hopper, Robert Motherwell, Claes Oldenburg, William Merritt Chase, Mary Fassett, Andy Warhol, and Joel Meyerowitz.
Open daily 9 am to 7 pm, June through mid-September; 9 am to 5 pm, April, May, and mid-September through October; and Thursdays through Mondays 9 am to 5 pm, November.
One High Pole Hill Road
Provincetown , Massachusetts
Tel: 508 487 1310
The Provincetown Museum is easy to find: It's at the base of the 252-foot Pilgrim Monument, the tallest granite structure in the nation. The exhibits include a cannon from the H.M.S. Somerset, which laid siege to the town during the Revolutionary War; a reconstructed captain's cabin from a whaling ship; and tributes to P-town residents Donald MacMillan, the Arctic explorer, and Eugene O'Neill, the first American playwright to win the Nobel Prize.
Open daily 9 am to 7 pm, mid-June through mid-September; 9 am to 5 pm, April through mid-June and mid-September through November.
The oldest professional summer theater in America, the Cape Playhouse opened in Dennis in 1927 and still brings in Broadway-caliber talent and productions. (Bette Davis worked here as an usher before making her debut on the Playhouse stage.) Three years after opening the playhouse, entrepreneur Raymond Moore built the 300-seat Cape Cinema, which now shows first-run independent and foreign films and hosts live music and HD simulcasts of New York's Metropolitan Opera. Don't forget to look up: A 6,400-square-foot modernist mural of the heavens by Rockwell Kent covers the vaulted ceiling.
The Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre operates year-round and is where David Mamet, Sam Shepard, David Rabe, and others have staged world premieres and other works. If summer blockbusters are more your taste, the Wellfleet Drive-In Theater, a Cape staple with a dairy bar and grill built in 1957, shows first-run double features nightly in warm weather. On weekend days, it's the site of Cape Cod's biggest flea market.
266 Main Street
Wellfleet , Massachusetts
Tel: 508 349 9157
The Wellfleet Historical Society Museum reflects the long reach of this small town. On display are memorabilia related to the first transatlantic wireless broadcast as well as exhibits on Wellfleet native Lorenzo Baker (who in 1870 imported bananas for the first time) and prominent residents Luther Crowell (inventor of the square-bottom paper bag) and Sarah Atwood (one of the country's first female lighthouse keepers).
Open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays 1 to 4 pm, Tuesdays and Fridays 10 am to 4 pm, late June through early September.
Whales, like tourists, summer here, and they've become a popular draw—a favorable twist of fate, considering that the Cape Cod whale trade almost wiped them out in the 19th century. Most of the whales off Cape Cod are humpbacks, but excursion boats have reported sightings lately of rare right whales. These boats leave from Provincetown and Barnstable harbors and head to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a plankton-rich area where the whales like to feed. In Provincetown, the Dolphin Fleet operates three whale-watch boats from lively MacMillan Wharf; aboard are naturalists from the highly regarded Center for Coastal Studies (800-826-9300, whalewatch.com). Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises, which leaves from quiet Barnstable Harbor, has a fast, purpose-built, 130-foot cruiser with whale-friendly water-jet propulsion. It, too, carries naturalists, several of them teachers, on its whale expeditions (888-942-5392, whales.net). Whale watches typically last three to four hours and cost from $40 to $45 per person for adults. Food is available on board.