Cape Cod has geographic serendipity to thank for its never-ending coastline, all 560 miles of it. Perched upon a peninsular landmass that resembles a bent arm reaching into the sea, every one of Cape Cod's 15 lucky towns faces at least one formidable body of water: Nantucket Sound, Cape Cod Bay, or the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, it's these same waters that have attracted travelers to the Cape for centuries, as a source of income, inspiration, and leisure
Fishing piers and marinas remain bustling in many Cape towns and artists still flock to Outer Cape, drawn to the soft light and expansive dunes. Most travelers, however, come today for the brief but incomparable summers, when bright, crisp mornings give way to perfect beach days and watercolor sunsets. Longtime visitors and locals know that shoulder seasons, starting in April and going through October, offer better-priced rooms and rentals, far less traffic, and equally nice weather (usually).
Unfold – or, more likely, download – a map of Cape Cod and you’ll see different regions referred to as the Upper, Mid, Lower, and Outer Cape. The labels, which trace their origins to maritime navigation, appear to defy logic, but think back to our geographic arm and you’ll have no trouble remembering that the Upper Cape is closest to the mainland, while the Lower (sometimes called Outer) Cape encompasses Provincetown and its neighbors toward the tip.
Unfortunately, getting to the Cape can be almost as tough as figuring out how to get around. Only two bridges connect Cape Cod to mainland Massachusetts, and buses are scarce, flights expensive, and trains nonexistent. Sitting in traffic at the Sagamore Bridge you may start to wonder why so many people put up with the hassle of getting here. Cross the Cape Cod Canal onto scrub-pine-bordered Route 6, roll down your window, and inhale the salty sea air, and you’ll have your answer. In any season, you can’t go wrong lazing away a day or two near the water. But beyond the many beaches are dozens of experiences that will reveal the Cape’s natural beauty and quirky charm, and make a visit worth the trip. From Upper to Lower – not that it matters – here are five to get you started.
For your first - and probably best - taste of Cape Cod's favorite summertime delicacy, pull off Route 6 at Exit 6 and drive south on Shootflying Hill Road. Four Seas Ice Cream (360 S. Main St., Centerville, 508-775-1394) embodies old-timey ice-cream parlor perfection. Opened in a former blacksmith's shop back in 1934, Four Seas is New England’s third-oldest scooping establishment. Squeeze through the swinging screen doors and try (just try) to choose among 30-plus homemade flavors offered on the hand-lettered placards crowding the walls. You'll never go wrong with the cranberry sherbet, rarely seen even in these parts and a perfect marriage of sweet and sour, creamy and tangy. Sundaes tempt, too, topped by sauces like caramel, claret, and melba, and served up in paper cones cradled in tin holders. To order, you'll need to jockey for position at the counter with a dozen other patrons, but there’s hardly ever much of a wait, and service is unfailingly cheerful thanks to the well mannered staff of local teens. On your way out, note the wall hung with portraits of scoopers from summers past; they’ll make you feel like another happy member of the extended Four Seas family.
Insider Tip: If you happen to be the type who can wait for dessert, order lunch from Four Seas' sandwich menu, served from 10 to 2:30. Grab a gingham-covered table in the tiny dining room alongside the ice cream parlor, and dig into the oldie-but-goodie date-walnut-cream cheese or splurge (though only relatively) on a lobster roll. Afterwards, hop in the car and drive a mile south to Craigville Beach, a favorite of local families. Facing Nantucket Sound, the beach shares a view with the Kennedy Compound, two miles east in Hyannisport. You’ll find ample parking, clean restrooms, and – in case you’re still hungry – a snack bar.
4…Take the slow road
Route 6A, also known (mostly to maps) as the Old King's Highway, runs parallel to and north of Route 6, its quiet country cousin. Between Yarmouth Port and Orleans, old-growth maples and oaks overhang picket-fenced antiques shops and inns. Traffic crawls, so sit back and enjoy the scenery. In Yarmouth Port (reached via Exit 7 from Route 6), take in the views from Bass Hole Boardwalk (Center St. near Gray's Beach), where an 860-foot walkway stretches toward the horizon, offering a stunning panorama of bay and marshland that invites contemplation in any season. As you stroll, look west to see the family of osprey that makes its home in a massive nest. Resting on a bench at the boardwalk’s end, you might try to conjure the busy port you’d have found here back in the 17th and 18th centuries. Salt was harvested from the marshes and ships were built, while fishermen launched their vessels in pursuit of once-prolific bass. Today, the area’s most abundant fauna are the annoying no-see-ums (midges) that swarm the shoreline in summer, so don't leave home without bug spray.
Back on 6A, turn south on Doctor Lord's Road and head east up the hill to find Scargo Pottery (30 Doctor Lord's Rd. S., Dennis, 508-385-3894), nestled in an idyllic pine grove overlooking Scargo Lake. Celebrated clay artist Harry Holl started the studio in 1952. He still works here today, along with his four daughters, whom you'll often find chatting with visitors while perched at one of the open-air potter's wheels (weather permitting, though the studio's open year-round). Holl's whimsical bird castles decorate the grounds, and there's a sweet koi pond with a clay bridge.
Having satisfied your appetites for nature and art, you may wish to stop for a snack. Locals queue up year-round for hearty breakfast and lunch at Grumpy's (1408 Rte. 6A, E. Dennis, 508-385-2911). As you continue west, another mealtime option is low-key Sesuit Harbor Cafe (open June-Sept.; Northside Marina, Sesuit Neck Rd., Dennis, 508-385-6134), which serves good omelets, soups, and sandwiches at picnic tables right on the water. At breakfast, don’t miss the oven-hot blueberry muffins (save time in line and buy two). To get here, turn north off Route 6A at Bridge Street and follow Sesuit Neck Road east to the harbor.
3…Do the bunny hop
Cozy Chatham, perched at the outer elbow of Cape Cod's arm, welcomes visitors with a picturesque townscape of white church steeples and cottages framed by brilliant hydrangea. The views from Chatham Light, birds at Monomoy Natural Wildlife Refuge, and charming shops along Main Street all make a visit worthwhile, but in summer it's the town's Friday Night Band Concert (508-945-5199 for information) in Kate Gould Park that offers visitors by the thousand a night to remember.
The town band strikes up at 8 pm, but come by with beach chairs and blankets first thing Friday morning to stake out the best views, which are from the gentle slope facing the Whit Tileston Bandstand. You won't be disappointed. As the sun sets, families unpack picnic-basket feasts and kids perch on parents' shoulders, brilliant-hued balloons and glow sticks in hand. The all-volunteer, 40-piece band, going strong since the 1940s, plays from a repertoire of musicals, marches, and old standards, and ends every show on a high note with round-robin sing-alongs and a Bunny Hop around the bandstand. Afterward, avoid the slow post-concert exodus down Main Street and treat yourself to some homemade fudge or a "ritzie" (chocolate-covered peanut-butter cracker) at Chatham Candy Manor (484 Main Street, 508-945-0825).
Insider Tip: If you happen to be here on Independence Day, don't miss Chatham's Fourth of July Parade. It's all here -- antique firetrucks, dancing lobsters, and revelers by the (literal) boatload -- and it's as all-American an experience as you'll find anywhere in these United States.
2…Ride the Rail Trail
Thanks to gentle breezes, bright sun, and meandering pace of life, Cape Cod is particularly well-suited to bike travel. Don your helmet and head for the Cape Cod Rail Trail (508-896-3491), 22 well-paved miles that pass fragrant pine forests, sparkling freshwater ponds, and expansive salt marshes. With few hills and a wide shoulder, the trail -- set upon a former railway right-of-way -- is safe and easy, perfect for family members of varying abilities and stamina levels.
The convenient parking and bike rentals at Orleans Cycle (26 Main St., 508/255-9115), near the trail’s 13-mile marker, make it a sensible starting point, whether you’re planning to ride southwest toward the Dennis trailhead or north to Wellfleet. On the former route, trail highlights include Nickerson State Park (with a half-dozen ponds perfect for swimming and picnics), the fantastic Brewster Store, and, straddling the Brewster-Harwich border, 716-acre Long Pond, the Cape's largest freshwater pond. Heading north, you’ll ride along the Cape Cod National Seashore, where you can cool off with a dip in the waves (via the Nauset Bike Trail extension) or stop by the Salt Pond Visitors’ Center in Eastham or the CCNS Headquarters in Wellfleet.
Whichever way you go, a multitude of lunch options present themselves, several marked with trail-side signage. Cobie’s (508-896-7021) in Brewster fries up a perfect whole-belly clam, as does Arnold’s (508-255-2575) in Eastham, which adds a raw bar, ice-cream shop, and mini-golf to the pit-stop mix. Remember that you can bike it all off later.
1…Go east in Provincetown
Artists like Edward Hopper and Robert Motherwell once summered in Provincetown, and as you venture north on Route 6 past the expansive dunes of the Outer Cape, you'll begin to understand why. Hints of Provincetown's origins as a Portuguese fishing village still turn up here from time to time -- most often on menus at the restaurants in town -- but these days you're more likely to encounter a drag queen on unicycle than you are a salty old sea captain.
Narrow, busy Commercial Street is far friendlier to pedestrians than drivers; park your car in the municipal lot off Bradford Street, at the base of Provincetown's Pilgrim Monument (a twin of the Siena's Torre Del Mangia) and head out on foot. Head first to First Pilgrims Park, at the western end of town, for fantastic sunset views, and work your way east, stopping to shop, ogle, and eat. Kitsch and candy stores abound. Most businesses are seasonal and locally owned, though in recent years a few major retail outlets like Marc Jacobs have begun to crop up, making Provincetown feel even more like "Greenwich Village by the Sea." Provincetown's restaurants are as eclectic as its population, and far more diverse than you'll see elsewhere on Cape Cod. Reliable options include Napi's (7 Freeman St., 800-571-6274) for international dishes with a vegetarian bent, Spiritus (190 Commercial St., 508-487-2808) for a quick slice on the go, and The Red Inn (15 Commercial St., 508-437-7334) for fine waterfront dining (book well in advance).
Save time and energy for an after-dinner stroll around Provincetown’s East End, where dozens of galleries display the work of Provincetown’s artists, some of them year-round and many from March or April through December. You'll find contemporary paintings from celebrated locals John Dowd and Chet Jones at William Scott Gallery (489 Commercial St., 508-487-4040); at Kiley Court Gallery (445 Commercial St., 508-487-4496), look for the saturated landscapes of Robert Cardinal. Galleries are open until 9 or 10 pm daily in summer, and most artist openings take place on Friday nights, with shows turning over as often as every two weeks.
Insider Tip: Just north of the Eastham town line on Route 6, Wellfleet's Drive-In Theater (51 Rte. 6, 508-349-7176) -- the last of its kind on the Cape -- screens blockbusters and family-friendly fare from late April to mid-September. (The regular cinema's open year-round.) On summer Wednesdays and weekends year-round, when the Wellfleet Flea Market takes over the drive-in lot, as many as 200 market stalls overflow with everything from cheap tools to vintage jewelry. Look out for market habitué Dianne Vetromile, whose eye-popping dot paintings and glitzy bottle-cap-and-kitsch mosaics will put a smile on your face.