31 miles E of Sandwich; 25 miles S of Provincetown

Orleans is where the Narrow Land (the early Algonquin name for the Cape) starts to get very narrow indeed: From here on up -- or "down," in paradoxical local parlance -- it's never more than a few miles wide from coast to coast; in some spots, it's as little as 1 mile. All three main roads (rtes. 6, 6A, and 28) converge here, too, so on summer weekends, traffic can be fierce.

But this is also where the oceanside beaches open up into a glorious expanse some 40 miles long, framed by dramatic dunes and blessed -- from a swimmer's or boarder's perspective -- with serious surf. The thousands of ship crews who crashed on these shoals over the past 4 centuries could hardly be expected to assume so sanguine a view. Shipwrecks may sound like the stuff of romance, but in these frigid waters, hitting a sand bar usually spelled a death sentence for all involved. So enamored were local inhabitants by the opportunity to salvage that some improved their odds by becoming "mooncussers" -- praying for cloudy skies and luring ships toward shore by tying a lantern to the tail of a donkey, so as to simulate the listing of a ship at sea.

Such dark deeds seem very far removed from the Orleans of today, a sedate town that shadows Hyannis as a year-round center of commerce. Lacking the cohesiveness of smaller towns, and somewhat chopped up by the roadways coursing through, it's not the most ideal town to hang out in, despite some appealing restaurants and shops. The village of East Orleans, however, is fast emerging as a sweet little off-beach town with allure for both families and singles. About 2 miles east is seemingly endless (nearly 10 miles long) Nauset Beach, the southernmost stretch of the Cape Cod National Seashore preserve and a magnet for the young and the buff.