You'll find numerous large chain pharmacies on Cape Cod; there's a CVS and Brooks Drugstore in almost every town. In the Outer Cape towns of Wellfleet and Truro and in some of the towns up-island on Martha's Vineyard, you might be a half-hour drive from a pharmacy, so it's best to come prepared with everything you need.
Sun -- Even in this northerly clime, sunburn is a real hazard. For most skin types, it's safest to start with a lotion with a high SPF and work your way down. Be sure to reapply often and according to the directions, and no matter how thoroughly you slather on lotion, try to stay in the shade during prime frying time -- 11am to 2pm. Kids should always wear sunscreen with a high SPF number, or a cover-up such as a T-shirt, if they're going to be playing outside for long periods of time. Sunglasses with UVP (ultraviolet protection) lenses will help shield your eyes.
Insects -- The sea breezes keep most mosquitoes on the move, but not always, so pack some bug spray. Birds on the Cape have been diagnosed with West Nile virus, so it's a good idea to avoid mosquito bites if at all possible. Mosquitoes are the carrier of this disease, which just reached the United States a few years ago. However, the chances of catching West Nile are very low.
The most dangerous insects are pinhead-size deer ticks, which transmit Lyme disease. Widespread along the Massachusetts coast, they're especially active just when you're apt to be there: April through October. Nantucket has the highest concentration of Lyme disease in the country. A vaccine tested there is now on the market. Ask your doctor if you should consider the vaccine. If caught in its early stages -- symptoms include a ring-shaped rash and flulike achiness -- the disease is easily countered with antibiotics; if it's left untreated, however, the effects could eventually prove fatal.
Avoid walking in brush or high grass. If bushwacking is unavoidable, cover up in light-colored clothing (the better to spot any clinging ticks), consisting of a long-sleeve shirt and long pants tucked into high white socks. Camping stores such as EMS sell bush pants that are perfect for this purpose -- they're actually comfortable in warm weather. For double protection, spray your clothes and hands (but not face) with a DEET-based insect repellent. Check your clothes before removing them, and then check your body; it helps to use a mirror or call upon a significant other. Showering after such an outing is a good safeguard. If, despite your best precautions, you find you've brought home a parasite, remove it with tweezers by pulling directly outward, if you can manage to do so without squeezing the body (that would serve only to inject more bacteria into your bloodstream). Dab the bite with alcohol to help disinfect it, and save the tick in a closed jar. If you're within a few minutes of a medical facility, have a doctor deal with the extraction; if you do it yourself, go for testing and treatment as soon as you can and take the tick with you.
The Lyme Disease Foundation (tel. 860/870-0070; 24-hour hotline: 800/886-LYME ) distributes brochures to tourist areas and is also able to field questions. Other good sources of information are the Centers for Disease Control (tel. 888/232-3228 and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (tel. 866/627-7968).
Plants -- Poison ivy -- with its shiny, purplish, three-leafed clusters -- is ubiquitous and potent on the Cape and islands. If you so much as brush past a frond, the plant's oil is likely to raise an itchy welt. Clothing that has been in contact with the plant can spread the harmless but irritating toxin to your skin; it's even transmitted by smoke. If you think you've been exposed, wash with soap immediately so the oil doesn't spread on your body. Calamine lotion -- available without prescription at all drugstores -- should help soothe the itching. You won't spread the rash by scratching, because it's the oil that does the spreading, but scratches could get infected, so resist the temptation.
Food Hazards -- Most menus contain a warning to beware of uncooked fish because it can carry diseases. However, considering the amount of fish consumed in the region (fish is a staple in local restaurants), food illness is extremely rare on the Cape and islands.
Tourist areas in the United States are generally safe, and the Cape and islands are safer than most. Although a number of towns, particularly the larger ones, suffer their share of crime (much of it drug- and alcohol-related), there's no such thing as a "bad neighborhood" here, per se. However, with crime on the increase everywhere, you need to stay alert and take the usual precautions. Avoid carrying valuables with you on the street or at the beach, and be discreet with expensive cameras and electronic equipment. When milling in crowds (in Hyannis or Provincetown, for example), place your billfold in an inside pocket, and hang on to your purse; anything kept in a backpack should be buried beyond reach. In closely packed places, such as restaurants, theaters, and ferries, keep your possessions in sight, and never sling a bag over the back of your chair: It's too easy a target. Alas, anything left visible in a car, locked or unlocked, is an open invitation, even in secluded Nantucket.
It would be rare in this region to find security staff screening all those who enter a hotel, especially if there's a restaurant on the premises, so don't relax your guard until your door is securely locked. Many areas are still so countrified that homeowners don't even lock their doors, and you'll find that most B&Bs are fairly laissez-faire; a few lack bedroom door locks altogether. If you're traveling light, it shouldn't matter, but if you're the cautious type, inquire about security measures before setting out.
Women, unfortunately, are no safer here than anywhere else, so avoid visiting deserted areas alone, even during the day. Hyannis can get a bit rowdy when its dance clubs are in full swing, and even more so when they let out. For the most part, though, this is a peaceful place, more like the 1950s, and as long as you keep your wits about you, you should be able to relax, relatively speaking.
Driving Safety -- Though Massachusetts is quite strict, drunk driving is a definite hazard. The best tactic is to avoid the offenders as much as possible, primarily by staying off the roads late at night. It's probably not a good idea to cover long distances at night in any case, as there are no 24-hour gas stations to help out in case of emergency.
Carjacking has yet to make an appearance on the Cape, but car theft runs high in Massachusetts as a whole, so lock your doors even if the natives never bother.
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.