Looking for a special summer holiday? Cape Cod is known as one of America’s favourite vacation destinations. Great beaches; romantic inns, fine restaurants and history that goes back 400 years
Standing on a high dune, I look down to a sandy beach that runs away into the distance. Straight ahead is the blue Atlantic Ocean, stretching all the way eastwards to Portugal. I am on Cape Cod, the peninsula that, like a flexed arm, extends from the Massachusetts mainland out into the sea. Maps might say otherwise, but I feel as if I am at the easternmost tip of the USA.
Back in 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers waded ashore on this promontory before, later on, settling in Plymouth, across the bay. They were followed by fishermen and whaling captains, farmers and craftsmen, whose legacy ranges from seafaring history to antiques shops. But today ‘the Cape’, as everyone calls it, is known as a vacation playground, thanks to its sandy beaches and golf courses, whale-watching trips and cycle trails. Like all popular seaside destinations, summer is high season on the Cape; so avoid the crowds by going in spring or autumn.
Once over the Bourne Bridge, I take Route 6A, known also as the Old King’s Highway that runs for 34 miles. My first stop is Sandwich, named for the town in England. Settled in 1637, the oldest town on the Cape is a cluster of white clapboard homes, bed and breakfasts and craft shops. The 1640 Dexter Grist Mill still grinds flour, the Hoxie House looks much as it would have done when it was built in 1675 and the Sandwich Glass Museum glows with green and purple glassware made here 150 years ago.
Just outside the village are the Heritage Museums & Gardens (www.heritagemuseumsandgardens.org). In spring, the rhododendrons provide a blaze of colour, but this 75-acre estate is also worth a visit for the American art, the working 1912 carousel and the antique automobiles, including a ‘Duesy’, Gary Cooper’s 1930 Duesenberg.
Along the highway, the names on the signposts are straight out of a British atlas. In Barnstable, a 1604 Bible is the treasure of the Sturgis Library, whose heritage dates back to 1644, making it the oldest public library building in the USA. Yarmouth is dotted with historic buildings, such as the Winslow Crocker House (1780) and the New Church (1870). But there is more than history along this road. I like to poke about the antique shops and crafts studios, and check out the bed and breakfasts, often in historic homes.
New England has a long tradition of summer theatre to entertain holidaymakers. One of the best is in Dennis, where the 80-year-old Cape Playhouse helped the careers of Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck. Now it is part of an arts complex that includes the Cape Cinema, with its Rockwell Kent mural, painted in 1930, and the Cape Cod Museum of Art, whose collection showcases artists associated with the region.
Brewster, the next community, is known for its grand 19th-century houses, built by sea captains who made their fortunes trading around the world. Wandering round the cemetery of the First Parish Church, built in 1700, I note that most of the graves are for seafaring folk. Although Route 6A ends at the rotary (roundabout) outside Orleans, Route 6 carries on up the Cape to Provincetown. This part of the peninsula is more windswept, with some of America’s best beaches on its eastern shore.
Between Chatham and Provincetown, 40 miles of coastline are preserved as the Cape Cod National Seashore (www.nps.gov/caco). I always stop at the Salt Pond Visitor Center, to pick up a free map and see what’s on. Perhaps a ranger-led nature walk? Or a tour of a historic lighthouse? Or clamming (digging for clams on the seashore), though that requires a permit. Then there are the exhibits, which explain all about the flora and fauna, the shipwrecks and history of the Cape.
It doesn’t take much to work out that Marconi Beach is named for the Italian inventor whose transatlantic wireless station stood on the coastal bluffs. Near Truro, the Highland Light, often referred to as the Cape Cod Light, stands guard. Since 1797, a lighthouse has warned mariners; but as erosion clawed at the cliffs, new structures had to be built. This one is number three, erected in 1857. Across on the bay-side of the Cape is First Encounter Beach, in Eastham. As I walk the sands, I think of the Pilgrim Fathers, who helped to change the history of the world when they came ashore here, nearly 400 years ago.
At the tip of the Cape is Provincetown, known to aficionados as ‘P’town’ (www.provincetowntourismoffice.org). Cheerfully bohemian, with art galleries and B&Bs, bars and restaurants, it mixes ‘n’ matches fishing and artistic traditions – rather like St Ives in Cornwall. On the cliff above town stands the 252ft tall Pilgrim Monument. As a fan of good views, I climb the 116 stairs to the top of America’s tallest granite structure. To the south, I can see the curve of the Cape; due west across the bay is Plymouth; to the northwest is Gloucester, on the North Shore.
What I enjoy about the Cape is the choice of things to do. Rent a bike; go whale watching; test your nerve in the cold Atlantic water off Race Point beach. Explore the villages, such as Chatham, with its shops, and Wellfleet, known for its oysters and the clock on the First Congregational Church that runs on ship’s time. When you hear eight chimes (eight bells), your watch should read 4pm. It’s that sort of quirkiness that I love about Cape Cod.
Where to stay
Sandwich: Belfry Inne is a 125-year-old rectory that has been converted into a comfortable B&B.
Chatham: Chatham Bars Inn, overlooking the beaches of Cape Cod, offers old-world luxury with 21st-century comfort within walking distance of Chatham.
Provincetown: The Masthead is an informal collection of cottages on the water.
American Airlines (020 7365 0777; www.aa.com) flies to Boston direct from the UK.
Where to eat
Barnstable: Mattakeese Wharf (273 Millway Road; 508 362 4511; www.mattakeese.com). Overlooking the harbour, order up local littleneck clams, oysters and lobster in this informal seafood restaurant.
Centerville: Four Seas Ice Cream (360 South Main Street; 508 775 1394; www.fourseasicecream.com). Long-established, this is the place for 25 or so flavours of home-made ice cream. Go for the fresh peach - a real taste of summer.
Chatham: Wild Goose Tavern (512 Main Street; 508 945 5590; www.wildgoosetavern.com). Lots of seafood, Italian influence: cod insalata, haddock picatta.
Eastham: Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar (3580 State Highway, Route 6; 508 255 2575, www.arnoldsrestaurant.com). No relation - honest! Classic laid-back Cape Cod clam shack with a raw bar, also serving lobster rolls and fried shrimp.
Provincetown: Ross’ Grill (237 Commercial Street, on the second floor of Whaler's Wharf; 508 487 8878; www.rossgrillptown.com). Great views. Raw bar for local seafood, but dishes such as pan-seared duck breast and rack of lamb are great for carnivores.
Sandwich: The Belfry Bistro (8 Jarves Street; 508 888 8550; www.belfryinn.com). In a former church, this elegant Victorian-style bistro serves dishes with flare: habanero-seared tuna, slow-cooked lamb shank, Cape cranberry creme brulee, New England cheeses.