Leafy streets with dappled sunshine, un-pretentious, local spots serving up super fresh seafood, and gorgeous beaches stretching as far as the eye can see, Cape Cod is the quintessential family vacation spot. Last week I gave you a visual taste of our week in Cape Cod this summer. Here are some more details on what we saw and did.
Everyone comes for the beach, yet there are more things to see and do there than you may realize: the local history is fascinating; there’s whale-watching right off the coast; cycling trails lace the landscape; cute shops abound, selling everything from antiques to chocolate; and you can dine on just-caught seafood, creative contemporary cuisine, or most anything in between.
Let’s start with the beach. Every town has its own and it’s hard to go wrong.
Cape Cod is known for the beautiful white sands, rolling sand dunes, lighthouses, shorebirds, and the gentle waves of Cape Cod Bay. Every summer thousands of people flock to here from all over to take in the beautiful views and beaches of Nauset Light Beach, Coast Guard Beach, Rock Harbor, Sandy Neck, and other favorites across the Cape. There really is a beach for everyone depending upon your tastes.
Nauset Light Beach and Coast Guard Beach (at which we spent an afternoon), both set within the Cape Cod National Seashore, are the quintessential beaches. Combining serious surf, sweeping expanses of sand, magnificent dunes, and mesmerizing views, these spots deliver on the wow factor. Nauset Beach boasts clean, soft sands, beautiful views, and some of the biggest waves on the East Coast. Both are often named on top beaches lists.
- We parked at the nifty visitor’s center and rode our bikes down the path about a mile or so to the beach. This avoided any parking or beach fee and was a pretty ride mostly through woods.
- Pack a cooler as there are no food stands.
- Once you get to the beach, you’ll see it’s a bit crowded, but stroll just 5-10 minutes south and the crowds thin out a lot, plus you might spot some seals in the water like I did!
Race Point is most remote beach on the Cape, and has an incredible view of Stellwagen Bank, the marine sanctuary in Massachusetts Bay. If you’re lucky, you might be able to spot a whale or two off the coast with the naked eye.
Rock Harbor has some of the most unique scenery for a Cape Cod beach. Pine trees line the harbor and then head out into the water. At dusk, you can catch a glimpse of one of the best sunsets on Cape Cod on one of the few western facing beaches. Get there early if you plan on seeing the sunset, as it tends to get crowded in the summer.
Aptly named Lighthouse Beach is located at Chatham Lighthouse in Chatham. While the water might be a little cooler and rougher on Lighthouse Beach than the south facing Nantucket Sound beaches, it’s the experience and scenery that makes this very white-sand beach great. Across the water, you can see the beginning spits of Monomoy Island, home to seals that visit the island.
A trip to the Cape would not be complete without a visit to its smaller neighbours, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Both islands are accessible by ferry from Woods Hole and Hyannis respectively, and are popular for their natural beauty and charm.
There’s no shortage of cycling around the cape, from the seven-mile Cape Cod Canal path maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which goes under the bridges connecting the mainland (technically Cape Cod is actually now an island!) to the wonderful Cape Cod Rail Trail, which starts in Dennis and goes all the way up to Wellfleet. It runs 22 miles through forest, past cranberry bogs and along sandy ponds. I jumped on the trail near Harwich and took the offshoot to the lovely town of Chatham with its busy main street full of shops and eateries.
For even more “Americana” catch a double feature at the Wellfleet Drive-In, which has a full-service snack bar and playground for the kids. On Sunday mornings, you can come here for some unique finds at the Wellfleet Flea Market.
Because of its proximity to Stellwagen Bank, a perennial feeding ground of many whale species, Cape Cod is a great place to go whale watching. Excursions depart from scenic Barnstable Harbor in the mid Cape and offer sensational sightseeing voyages of the Cape’s bayside coast en route. Provincetown, at the Cape’s tip, is another spot for these popular excursions.
Hyannis is also an ecotourism destination with natural wildlife and conservation areas including the Sandy Neck Great Salt Marsh and the Cape Cod Pathways Trail. At Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, you can see a variety of wildlife, including the piping plover, at this 7,600-acre refuge.
Boardwalks: We liked the ‘hidden find” of Bass Hole Boardwalk in Yarmouth port right off of scenic drive 6A. The boardwalk extends over a marshy creek, crosses salt marshes, and has a little beach at the end. The boardwalk was busy with young “fishermen” using giant chicken (or Turkey) legs as bait to catch crabs (and throw them back). We also checked out the better known Sandwich Boardwalk, which leads over marshy land to the beach.
Ten lighthouses dot the shoreline. Take a free tour of the Chatham Lighthouse, the Nobska Light in Woods Hole or Race Point Light in Provincetown.
Famous for its world-renowned and succulent namesake oysters, Wellfleet is a tranquil community that many artists and writers call home. Less than two miles wide, it’s one of the most attractively developed Cape resort towns, with a number of fine restaurants, historic houses, art galleries, and a good, old Main Street on which to stroll down.
The oldest town on Cape Cod, Sandwich, was established in 1637 by some of the Plymouth Pilgrims. Today, it’s a well-preserved, quintessential New England village with a white-columned town hall and streets lined with 18th- and 19th-century homes. The Heritage Museum and Gardens and Glass Museum are popular stops. The Heritage offers miles of walking paths and three museums that feature American Art and a even a hand carved carousel.
Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod, is known for its natural resources, eco-tourism, and the first landing place of the Mayflower Pilgrims in the New World almost 400 years ago. Sometimes called “P-town”, the town is known for its beaches, artists, tourist industry, and status as a vacation destination for the gay community. Commercial Street runs along the harbor and boasts shops ranging from surplus stores to quiet galleries to old saltwater taffy candy shops, like Cabot’s Candy.
From seafood shacks to more modern affairs, Cape Cod is all about seafood. I couldn’t get enough lobster rolls and fresh oysters. Just some of the spots at which we ate:
Swan River Restaurant – Eat inside or out, this spot overlooks the banks of the Swan river in Dennis Port and was my first lobster roll…of many.
Wee Packet – I loved this place. It’s the perfect homey, seashore spot with a screened-in porch with nautical do-dads on the walls, friendly staff and down home comfort seafood dishes. I loved the combo plate of crabcake and my first stuffed quahog (pronounced: Ko-hog). They know how to do it…they’ve been serving locals since 1949!
Ebb Tide Restaurant – Another classic place that’s been open for more than 50 years, this spot is a bit more upscale (think white table cloths and wall sconces) that anywhere else we ate. The lobster ravioli was scrumptious…and Dean, of course, liked his fine mac n’ cheese.
Auntie’s Ice Cream Parlor – Nearly as ubiquitous as seafood shacks were ice cream shops! Every town seemed to have it’s place to head for a scoop of creamy goodness. Auntie’s didn’t disappoint with it’s many flavors and neat throwback parlor feel.
Brax Landing – One of my favorite locations, Brax is located right on the Saquatucket Harbor, and has a huge outdoor deck full of tables and umbrellas. Here, I sampled another lobster roll, although this one I shared with 10-year-old Dominic who now loves lobster!
Ember Pizza – When we needed a tiny break from seafood, we hit up Ember for some surprisingly good pizza made right in their 1,00o degree coal-burning oven. The place is like a big modern bar plus there’s a nice patio out front complete with fire pit.
Cafe Chew – I’m a cafe kind-of-gal and I loved this indoor/outdoor spot in Sandwich. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that it’s sort of in a shopping plaza, they’ve really designed it well with a cozy patio and cute indoor place. Great sandwiches and salads!
There are inns, small resorts, and home rentals up and down the cape. Book early for summer. Try to figure out what town you want to be in or near, and start your search around there.
The Corsair and Cross Rip Oceanfront Resort in Dennisport is a great family spot thanks to three pools (one indoor, two outdoor), a hot tub and your own private beach access, so there’s something for everyone (we loved the popcorn machine in the game room!).
Perhaps my favorite stay was at the Inn on the Beach in Harwich Port. This inn was cute and fresh with a great breakfast, colorful, bright rooms, and a lovely, large deck with lots of seating, couches around a firepit, and access to the private beach. Plus the cute town of Harwich Port is easy to walk around to grab lunch or ice cream.
Too bad it was mostly windy and rainy when we were there, but alas, it gave us a chance to enjoy a coastal, blustery fisherman kind-of-day.
Just this year, JetBlue launched their service from New York City to Hyannis with one daily flight during the summer. JetBlue also serves the Cape and Islands with nonstop flights to Martha’s Vineyard from New York and to Nantucket from both Boston and New York.
The CapeFLYER, a seasonal train service, which re-commenced in May 2013, was the first Cape passenger train service from Boston since 1959. CapeFLYER operates in both directions weekends only through early fall.
Disclosure: While visiting, I was a guest of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. As always, all opinions here are my own.