The prettier towns and villages of the Cape and islands combine the austere traditionalism of New England -- clusters of well-tended historic houses punctuated by modest white steeples -- with a whiff of their own salty history.
- Sandwich: For a "gateway" town, Sandwich is remarkably composed and peaceful. Not-too-fussy preservation efforts have ensured the survival of many of this first settlement's attractions, such as the pond that feeds the 17th-century Dexter Grist Mill (tel. 508/888-4910). Generous endowments fund an assortment of fascinating museums, including the multifaceted Heritage Museums and Gardens (tel. 508/888-3300), famous for its splendid rhododendrons but interesting to all for its many other exhibits.
- Woods Hole: Besides being the Cape's main gateway to Martha's Vineyard, Woods Hole is a world-renowned science community, a charming fishing village, and a bohemian mecca. A proper tour of the village should include visits to the aquarium and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a stroll along the bustling harbor, and a drink at the Captain Kidd bar, the Cape's top tavern.
- Yarmouth Port: It may look somewhat staid on the surface (Hallet's, the local soda fountain, hasn't changed much since 1889, except it now rents movies), but there are a number of quirky attractions here. A museum features the works of author/illustrator Edward Gorey, a Yarmouth Port resident who died in 2000. There's also the gloriously jumbled Parnassus Books, owned by vintage bookseller Ben Muse. Stop at Inaho, 157 Main St. (tel. 508/362-5522), all but hidden within an ordinary frame house, for the Cape's best sushi.
- Hyannis: The Cape's "city" is really a mere village within the town of Barnstable, but this is one bustling place. There is so much to do and see here, including three museums (African-American history, maritime, and JFK), some of the Cape's best restaurants and shops clustered on the Cape's longest walkable Main Street, and a fabulous harbor that is the stepping-off point for tours, ferry rides, and fishing. There are free music concerts and other entertainment most nights in the summer.
- Chatham: Only Provincetown offers better strolling-and-shopping options, and Chatham's are G-rated. This is perhaps the Cape's quaintest town. In summer Friday-night band concerts draw multigenerational crowds by the thousands. For a fun natural-history lesson, take a boat ride to see the hordes of seals on uninhabited Monomoy Island.
- Wellfleet: A magnet for creative souls (literary as well as visual), this otherwise classic New England town is a haven of good taste -- from its dozens of shops and galleries to its premier restaurant, Aesop's Tables. All is not prissy, however, and certainly not the iconoclastic offerings at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors' Theater (tel. 508/349-9428) or the goings-on at the Beachcomber, one of the Cape's best nightclubs.
- Provincetown: At the far tip of the Cape's curl, in intensely beautiful surroundings, is Provincetown. Its history goes back nearly 400 years, and in the past century, it has been a veritable headquarters of bohemia -- more writers and artists have holed up here than you could shake a stick at. It's also, of course, among the world's great gay and lesbian resort areas -- people come here for the pleasure of being "out" together in great numbers. If you're uncomfortable with same-sex public displays of affection, this stop might be best left off your itinerary. More open-minded straights will have a great time -- Provincetown has savory food, fun shopping, terrific company, and fascinating people-watching.
- Nantucket Town: This former whaling town is so well preserved, it looks as though the whalers left their grand houses and cobblestone streets just yesterday. Tourism may be rampant here, but it's without the tackier side effects thanks to stringent preservation measures. A gamut of enticing shops offers luxury goods from around the world. Time has not so much stood still here as vanished. So relax and shift into island time, dictated purely by your desires.
- Oak Bluffs: This harbor town on Martha's Vineyard evolved from a mid-19th-century Methodist campground. Pleased with the scenic and refreshing oceanside setting (and who wouldn't be?), the faithful started replacing their canvas tents with hundreds of tiny, elaborately decorated and gaudily painted "gingerbread" cottages. Still operated primarily as a religious community, the revivalist village is flanked by a commercial zone known for its rocking nightlife.
- Edgartown: For many visitors, Edgartown is Martha's Vineyard. Its regal captains' houses and manicured lawns epitomize a more refined way of life. Roses climb white picket fences, and the tolling of the Whaling Church bell signals dinnertime. By July a procession of gleaming pleasure boats glides past Edgartown Lighthouse into the harbor, and shops overflow with luxury goods and fine art. Edgartown's old-fashioned Fourth of July parade harkens back to small-town America, as hundreds line Main Street cheering the loudest for the floats with the most heart. It's a picture-perfect little town, a slice of homemade apple pie to go with nearby Oak Bluff's hot-fudge sundae.
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.