Lay of the Land
The Cape Cod peninsula (70 miles long and 20 across at its widest point) includes 15 towns, most of them further divided into seemingly countless villages. The westernmost part, called the Upper Cape, includes pedestrian Bourne, which straddles the Cape Cod Canal, and scenic Sandwich, Falmouth (the main debarkation point for ferries to Martha's Vineyard), and Mashpee. The Mid-Cape consists of Yarmouth, Dennis, and Barnstable, the county seat, whose village of Hyannis is the Cape's commercial center, brimming with malls and big-box stores along congested Route 132. The density begins to thin out in the Lower Cape, the "elbow" of the peninsula; this area includes Harwich, picture-postcard Brewster, Chatham (the classic hub of old-money Cape Cod), and Orleans. The Outer Cape includes Eastham, which is dominated by the Cape Cod National Seashore; sleepy Wellfleet and Truro; and gay-friendly Provincetown. The protected north shore of Cape Cod is lined with peaceful, family-friendly beaches. Scenic Route 6A (a.k.a. Old King's Highway) curls around the bay and is the nation's largest historic preservation district. On the southern, Atlantic-facing side, you'll find wide beaches with dramatic bluffs and dunes and, often, heavy surf. The stretch of Route 28 along the ocean side between Hyannis and Harwichport is crowded with souvenir shops, miniature golf courses, seafood shacks, and touristy motels with neon vacancy signs.
WHEN TO GO
The moderating influence of northbound ocean currents generally keeps temperatures on Cape Cod higher than on the mainland year-round. But the Cape is at its best in summer, when salt spray roses, lilacs, and hydrangeas bloom under blue skies and temperatures average in the mid to upper 70s. The busy tourist season runs from Memorial Day to mid-September, although many seasonal businesses stay open until Columbus Day and an increasing number operate year-round. While the late fall and early spring are especially peaceful, temperatures can be cool, in the 40s and 50s; winters are cold and very quiet. Ocean temperatures reach the 60s between the end of May and mid-September.
HOW TO GET THERE
When the Cape Cod Canal severed the peninsula from the mainland in 1914, the Cape technically became an island, and there are only two ways to drive in or out: over the Bourne Bridge or the Sagamore Bridge. Although a multimillion-dollar upgrade in 2006 eliminated the Sagamore roundabout that notoriously backed up Cape-bound traffic for miles, summer weekend travel remains an enduring headache. Traffic is heaviest on Friday afternoons and evenings (inbound), midday on Saturdays (both directions), and Sunday afternoon and evenings (outbound). If you'd prefer to let someone else do the driving, there's frequent bus service from New York, Boston, Providence, and Hartford on Peter Pan Bus Lines (800-343-9999; peterpanbus.com), from Boston's Logan Airport on the Plymouth & Brockton bus fleet (508-746-0378; p-b.com), and from Providence's T. F. Green Airport on Cape Destinations (866-760-2555; capedestinations.com).
To avoid the traffic altogether, you can arrive by sea or air. Fast, passenger-only ferries operated by both the Bay State Cruise Company (877-783-3779; baystatecruisecompany.com) and Boston Harbor Cruises (877-733-9425; bostonharborcruises.com) motor from Boston to Provincetown in 90 minutes between May and mid-October. Flights from Boston and Providence to Hyannis are operated by Cape Air (800-352-0714; flycapeair.com). U.S. Airways Express flies to Hyannis from Boston and New York (800-428-4322; usairways.com).
Cape Cod is relatively easy to navigate by car—aside from the heavy summer weekend traffic and the relatively constant congestion along the main commercial strip of Route 132 in Hyannis—but you can also get around without one. The Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority (CCRTA) runs bus service year-round and adds wheeled trolleys in the summer (800-352-7155; capecodtransit.org). On the Outer Cape and Lower Cape, the Flex operates clearly marked city transit–style buses that you can flag down anywhere you see them (800-352-7155; theflex.org). Fares on both Flex and CCRTA busses are $2 a ride or $6 for an all-day pass, payable to the driver. There's also an extensive network of on- and off-road bicycle trails; see the Cape Cod Bike Guide for route maps and bicycle rental shops (capecodbikeguide.com). CCRTA and Flex buses have bike racks. For more about traveling to and around Cape Cod without a car, check out the SmartGuide (smartguide.org).
The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce is located in Hyannis at the Route 132 exit on Route 6, the Mid-Cape Highway (888-332-2732; capecodchamber.org). It can arrange hotel reservations Cape-wide and offers package deals and last-minute specials. The Provincetown Chamber of Commerce has printable coupons on its Web site for discounts on accommodations (307 Commercial St.; 508-487-3424; ptownchamber.org).