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Newcomers -- known locally as "wash-ashores" -- invariably struggle with the terms "Upper" and "Lower," used to describe, respectively, the westernmost and easternmost sections of the Cape. The distinction is thought to allude to the longitude, which decreases as you head east.

Many find it helpful to use the analogy of the "arm" of Cape Cod, with the Upper Cape towns of Sandwich, Falmouth, Bourne, and Mashpee forming the upper arm; Chatham the elbow of the Lower Cape; and Provincetown the "fist." On Martha's Vineyard, similar confusion reigns over what's meant by "up-island" and "down-island." Down-island consists of the touristy port towns of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown. In the summer months, locals try to stay up-island, avoiding down-island at all costs.

Even the term "land" may be a bit misleading; the Cape and islands are actually just heaps of sand, without bedrock. Described geologically as "terminal moraine," they're what remains of the grit heaved and dumped by the motion of massive glaciers that finally receded some 12,000 years ago, leaving a legacy of "kettle ponds" -- steep-sided freshwater pools formed when sharp fragments of the glacier were left to melt in place. Under the relentless onslaught of storms and tides, the landmass's outlines are still subject to constant change and eventual erasure.

The modern landscape is vastly different from what was visible a century ago. Virtually all the trees represent new growth. The settlers, in their rush to build houses and ships and to fuel hearths and factories, plundered all the lumber. Were it not for the recession during the late 19th century, you'd be looking at turnip fields and "poverty grass" -- so called because it will grow anywhere, needing next to nothing to survive. Instead the Lower Cape and Mid Cape are now lushly forested, and if the tree cover gets spindly along the Outer Cape, it's the result of battery by salt winds rather than human depredation.

The islands also show the effects of the ocean winds -- predominantly those out of the southwest. Harbor towns and down-island areas enjoy a canopy of trees, and the more exposed portions consist primarily of grassy sand plains and moors.

The 15 towns on Cape Cod have quite distinct personalities to match the varied landscape. Few similarities exist, for instance, among rural Truro, rowdy Hyannis, and historic Sandwich Village.

Most frequent vacationers to Cape Cod return to the same village every year, rarely venturing beyond their chosen town's lines. But the resourceful visitor who explores the region, perhaps driving the Old King's Highway (Rte. 6A), shopping in Chatham, beaching it at the National Seashore, and checking out an island or two, will get an eyeful of the area's diversity.

Visitors may be confused by the similar names of towns on the Cape, particularly in the Mid Cape area. When you book a room, it may be helpful to understand these distinctions. Barnstable County consists of the 15 towns on Cape Cod, all of which are made up of individual villages. The largest town on Cape Cod is called Barnstable, and it is made up of eight villages: Cotuit, Osterville, Marstons Mills, Centerville, Hyannis, Hyannis Port, West Barnstable, and Barnstable Village.

Despite the similar names, towns and even villages on the Cape retain their distinct characters. For instance, picturesque little Barnstable Village (along Rte. 6A, the historic Old King's Hwy.) couldn't be more different from Hyannis (off Rte. 28), transportation hub and home of the mall. Both are villages in the town of Barnstable. In the same vein, the sleepy, rural village of West Barnstable (off Rte. 6A) doesn't have much in common with wealthy, preppy Osterville (off Rte. 28 on the coast). Other notable villages in Barnstable include Cotuit (off Rte. 28; historic and quaint), Marstons Mills (off Rte. 28, but inland; mainly residential), Centerville (off Rte. 28; beachy, yet with some commercial sprawl), and Hyannis Port (off Rte. 28, on the coast; a residential neighborhood made famous by the Kennedys).

A number of other villages and towns are notable for their unique characteristics. Woods Hole -- where bohemians and scientists coexist in a bustling ferry port -- is a village in the town of Falmouth, whose downtown has a pleasant Main Street and picture-postcard town green. Chatham and Osterville both have main streets that are destinations for shoppers seeking expensive, quality wares. Gay-friendly Provincetown has a colorful main street with great people-watching opportunities. Sandwich may well be the quaintest town; Wellfleet, the most artsy. West Barnstable, Barnstable, Yarmouth Port, Dennis, and Brewster are all prototypical New England villages along the historic Old King's Highway. Of these, Dennis Village has the most going on, with a museum, cinema, and playhouse all in one historic complex. The Outer Cape towns (Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown) have the National Seashore beaches, but many families prefer the accessibility of the villages on Nantucket Sound: West Dennis and Harwich Port offer pretty beaches with calm surf and warmer waters.

On the islands, location is also an important factor. Most visitors to Nantucket choose lodging in town, where everything is within walking distance. On Martha's Vineyard, down-island towns (Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown) host the majority of the action -- shops, restaurants, and multitudes of tourists. If a serene escape from the grind is what you seek, you may want to be up-island (West Tisbury; Chilmark, including the village of Menemsha; or Aquinnah), but you'll need a car -- or a passion for biking -- to enjoy these locations.

Socially, the towns of the Cape and islands have their differences, too. Older, more protected communities, such as Sandwich, Falmouth, and Edgartown, appeal to traditionalists, while 20-somethings and adventurous types of all ages seem to feel more at home in open-minded, forward-thinking settings such as Wellfleet or Provincetown. Families are sure to have a fabulous time everywhere on the Cape and islands, because splashing surf and expanses of sand are ubiquitous.

Route 28 east of Hyannis, an eyesore of tacky strip-mall development, represents a warning of what the future holds unless residents continue to clamp down on zoning. Though the pressures of development are unrelenting, Cape lovers have done a pretty good job, so far, of fending off more egregious offenders. The Cape Cod National Seashore -- though hotly protested when it was instituted in 1961 -- serves as a living reminder of the glory that could have been lost, or perhaps reserved solely for the enjoyment of the ultrarich.

Today it is the unspoiled natural beauty and historical charm of the area that attracts visitors. Cape Cod's yearly haul of 17 million visitors infuses the region with more than $700 million in revenues. Tourism has been the leading business sector since the late 19th century and is likely to remain so for centuries to come.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.