Cape Cod is a curling peninsula, only 70 miles long, encompassing hundreds of miles of beaches and more freshwater ponds than there are days in the year. The ocean's many moods rule this thin spit of land, and in summer it has a very sunny disposition indeed. The "arm" of the Cape has beckoned wayfarers since pre-Colonial times. These days more than five million visitors flock from around the world every year to enjoy nature's nonstop carnival, a combination of torrid sun and cool, salty air.

On the Cape, days have a way of unfurling aimlessly but pleasantly, with a round of inviolable rituals. First and foremost is a long, restful stint at the beach (you can opt for either the warmer, gently lapping waters of Cape Cod Bay or the pounding Atlantic surf). The beach is generally followed by a stroll through the shops of the nearest town and an obligatory ice cream stop. After a desalinating shower and perhaps a nap (the pristine air has a way of inspiring snoozes), it's time for a fabulous dinner. There are few experiences quite so blissful as sitting at a picnic table overlooking a bustling harbor and feasting on a just-caught, butter-dripping, boiled lobster.

Be forewarned, however, that the Cape can be a bit too popular at full swing. European settlers waited nearly 3 centuries to go splashing in the surf, but ever since the Victorians donned their bathing costumes, there's been no stopping the waves of sun-, sand-, and sea-worshippers who pour onto this peninsula and the islands beyond every summer.

Experienced travelers are beginning to discover the subtler appeal of the off season, when the population and prices plummet. For some the prospect of sunbathing with the midsummer crowds on sizzling sand can't hold a candle to the chance to take long, solitary strolls on a windswept beach, with only the gulls as company. Come Labor Day (or Columbus Day, for stragglers) the crowds clear out, and the whole place hibernates until Memorial Day weekend, the official start of "the season." It's in this downtime that you're most likely to experience the "real" Cape. For some it may take a little resourcefulness to see the beauty in the wintry, shuttered landscape (even the Pilgrims, who forsook this spot for Plymouth, didn't have quite the necessary mettle), but the people who do stick around are an interesting, independent-minded lot worth getting to know.

As alluring as it is on the surface, the region becomes all the more so as you become more intimately acquainted with it. One visit is likely to prompt a follow-up. Although you can see all of the Cape, and the islands as well, in a matter of days, you could spend a lifetime exploring its many facets and still just begin to take it all in. Early Pilgrims saw in this isolated spot the opportunity for religious freedom, whaling merchants the watery road to riches, and artists the path to capturing the brilliance of nature's palette. Whatever the incursions of commercialism and overdevelopment, the land is suffused with spirit, and it attracts seekers still.

The Cape is really many capes: tony in some places, tacky in others; in patches a nature lover's dream, a living historical treasure, or a hotbed of creativity. Planning a trip to Cape Cod is a little more complex than packing flip-flops and suntan lotion. But remember, this is a destination that is supposed to be about relaxation, lying on a sun-kissed beach, listening to the lapping surf, or walking along a wildflower-lined path to watch the sun set over the horizon. These simple pleasures are why people have been coming to Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard to vacation for more than a century. This section will tell you what you need to plan your trip to this part of the world and steer you there smoothly; international visitors will find essential information, helpful tips, and advice on the more common problems that surface while vacationing on Cape Cod and the islands.

Visiting Cape Cod means traveling over either the Bourne Bridge or the Sagamore Bridge. Most visitors arrive by car, but you can also take a bus or even travel by plane to one of several small airports in the region. You'll need a place to stay in one of the Cape's 15 towns or on one of the islands, and this guide is loaded with options. You'll also need a way to get around. Public transportation leaves much to be desired in most Cape Cod towns, although several have good beach shuttles in season. Public transportation on both Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, on the other hand, is excellent. There is also the option of bringing or renting a bike, a great way to travel from your rental house or hotel to the beach. There's lots more nitty-gritty information below, from information on passports and dates for festivals to weather predictions and tips on dining. To pinpoint where you want to go in the area and what you want to do, peruse the region-by-region sections.

Visitor Information

The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce (tel. 888/332-2732) operates two welcome centers: A booth on the road to the Cape, just off Route 3 in Plymouth (tel. 508/759-3814), and the main office, just off exit 6 of the Mid-Cape Highway in Centerville (tel. 508/362-3225). Both are open daily 9am to 5pm from mid-April to mid-November, with reduced hours the rest of the year.

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.