At only 75 miles long, Cape Cod is a curving peninsula that encompasses miles of beaches, hundreds of freshwater ponds, more than a dozen richly historic New England villages, scores of classic clam shacks and ice cream shops—and it’s just about everyone’s idea of the perfect summer vacation spot.
More than 13 million visitors flock to the Cape to enjoy summertime’s nonstop carnival. In full swing, the Cape is, if anything, perhaps a bit too popular for some tastes. Connoisseurs are discovering the subtler appeal of the off-season, when prices plummet along with the population. For some travelers, the prospect of sunbathing en masse on sizzling sand can’t hold a candle to a long, solitary stroll on a windswept beach with only the gulls as company. For that experience, you’ll have to come in the springtime, or even better, the fall.
Things to Do
On Cape Cod, the landscape and its history are so revered that many of its beaches and bicycle trails are protected as part of the National Park Service. Collect seashells, search for tide pool creatures or sunbathe on Cape Cod's windswept golden beaches. Sandy Neck's unspoiled dunes draw naturalists and romantics with secluded shorelines and soaring coastal birds. Race Point Beach draws gay and straight couples for sunbathing and whale-watching, while Nauset Beach fills with families and young people playing in the surf. When you get tired of beachcombing, rent a bicycle for a ride along the Shining Sea Bicycle Path with views of glittering Nantucket Sound and the Nobska Point Lighthouse.
The tree-lined streets of Chatham draw shoppers to inviting storefronts filled with carefully arranged displays of leather deck shoes, beachwear and nautical-themed home furnishings. Chatham Glass Company is a local favorite, where glass artisans craft fragile, glittering creations while customers look on. Tony Wellfleet's art galleries sell something for every taste, from one-of-a-kind art jewelry to abstract garden sculptures.
Nightlife and Entertainment
Perched atop a dune at Cahoon Hollow Beach, Wellfleet's young and hopping Beachcomber bar and dance club scores high marks for its sweeping views of Cape Cod. But Provincetown steals the show when it comes to Cape Cod nightlife. Expect fun and slightly crazy bars and entertainment, from drag shows and cabaret to comedy and dance clubs.
Restaurants and Dining
It's no trick to find good, freshly caught seafood in Cape Cod. Feast at quaint sidewalk cafés in Chatham, where strolling and window-shopping have been honed to art forms, or indulge in the day's catch at linen-and-crystal restaurants in upscale Wellfleet. Visitors go casual at The Clam Shack in Falmouth Harbor. Sun-browned boaters and beachcombers crowd the picnic tables at this quintessential portside eatery and dig into plates of New England's freshest clams.
Although they are often lumped together, the two major islands off the coast of Cape Cod—Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—are surprisingly different from each other. Martha’s Vineyard, by far the larger of the two, has six distinct towns with striking variety. In parts of the Vineyard, you might feel like you are in Vermont, it is so rural, whereas the down island port towns feel more akin to other New England harbor communities. Nantucket, on the other hand, is small enough that the entire island is a historic district, composed of one main town—also called Nantucket—and a couple of beachy outlying villages. The cobblestone streets and most of the buildings downtown look just as they did 150 years ago—quaintness intact.
Martha’s Vineyard is much closer to the Cape Cod mainland—just 3 nautical miles, a 45-minute ferry ride from Woods Hole in Falmouth—and no matter which town you arrive in (boats land in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown), it’s worthwhile to explore other parts of the island, whether by car, bus, or bike. Nantucket is 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, though a fast ferry gets you there in an hour, and mainly everything a visitor could want to see is in walking distance of the ferry terminals.
Both islands have excellent beaches, shopping, and loads of things to do. Whichever you pick—or visit them both!—you won’t be disappointed.