5 Things to Know About Cape Cod

I say “Cape Cod,” and you think … Patti Page song? Kennedys playing touch football at Hyannis Port? Jaws? Wellfleet oysters? Summer stock theater? Whale-watching?

For a small peninsula of just 339 square miles, Cape Cod manages to pack in an immense amount of history, food culture and local color. Cameron and I visited friends on the Cape a few weeks ago, and his recent blog on red pants – a sartorial favorite in the Northeast and most particularly on the Cape Cod island of Nantucket – generated rather a lot of feedback. We were inspired to tell you more.

There are plenty of Cape Cod books, magazines and websites that will tell you where to eat and where to stay. But in an effort to boil down some of the essentials for you, I asked our Cape Cod hosts to summarize their beloved Cape for you.

Diane and Charlie Deaton are our real estate clients who live here in Houston about two-thirds of the year and spend the steamy months at their home in Orleans, which is about half-way along the Cape. They have decades of traveling to the cape separately, plus the last four years summering there as a couple.

The first thing they will do is give you a quickie course on Cape Cod geography. On the map the Cape resembles a flexed arm extending out into the Atlantic Ocean from the southeastern edge of Massachusetts.

Click image for source.

So imagine a bodybuilder’s arm. The “bicep” is where the Cape bumps up against the mainland. Travel east along the muscular “upper arm” and you pass through Falmouth, Bourne, Sandwich and Mashpee. This is known as the Upper-Cape. Continue along through Barnstable, Hyannis, Yarmouth and Dennis, the flatter part of the “upper arm,” which the locals refer to as Mid-Cape. Brewster, Harwich, Chatham and Orleans form the bent “elbow” of the Cape and are known as the Lower-Cape. The “forearm” of our bodybuilder’s arm runs north and includes Eastham and Wellfleet; Truro is the curving “wrist”; and Provincetown at the northernmost tip forms the bodybuilder’s “fist.” These four towns make up the Outer-Cape.

There are also two main islands, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Both are accessible by boat – ferries run daily – or by air. There are no connecting bridges.

The Deatons suggest five big reasons to visit Cape Cod. Each of these five attractions can be found all over the Cape, not in just a single destination.

BEACHES There is a body of water for every personality. Along one side of the Cape is the wild, cold Atlantic Ocean. You can play in the surf (but respect the shark flags – they’re not kidding) or join a whale-watching cruise out of Hyannis or Provincetown. On the calm, warm Bay side, the protected coves are perfect for young kids to play in, dig sand and catch critters. (If you’re already imagining clam chowder for supper, you will need a license to dig clams. Read more here.) And if you prefer swimming in fresh water to salt, the Cape has a number of picturesque ponds.

Notice the shark flag — and the deserted beach.

BASEBALL The Cape Cod Baseball League is the oldest (established 1885) and best summer college all-star league. Young players from across the country and representing all college divisions are recruited to play in the 10-team loop. Several Astros, in fact, played here before turning pro, including George Springer, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. The league play is in July, with playoffs ending mid-August so the players can go back to school. Games are played in small hometown parks scattered across the Cape. The organization also offers clinics for kids during the day. Note: There are no tickets to the baseball games – you just show up and find a seat. But the non-profit league does often pass a hat at the game or ask for a donation.

Click image for source.

GARDENS Cottage garden flowers – in particular the most glorious hydrangeas ever – are at their peak on Cape Cod in late June and July, usually coming to an end by August. Don’t miss them on Chatham’s Shore Road. Don’t miss the Chatham Lighthouse, either, or the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge in Chatham. Some of the gardens are of the wild type, beautiful trails full of birds and game. Some are designed for walking, and some are viewed more readily from a bike. Some have a view of the sea. Don’t be surprised by the appearance of a windmill, either, as at Drummer Boy Park in Brewster.

Cape Cod has hundreds of paths, gardens and bike trails for garden-lovers.

SEAFOOD Cape Cod takes its name from the great schools of cod that once inhabited the waters in the area. The local finfish is sweet and always fresh. You can still order traditional fish and chips throughout the Cape, but you might be surprised (or not) to also find sushi and sashimi on menus everywhere. The area is justifiably famous for lobsters, clams (try them fried with their bellies, as opposed to clam strips), Wellfleet oysters, mussels and scallops. Plenty of half-day or all-day fishing trips are available for those so minded.

A lobster roll from The Raw Bar in Mashpee. Photo courtesy USA Today 10 Best.

THEATER The Cape Playhouse in Dennis is the oldest old-time wooden summer theater in the country and has top-notch stuff all summer. And there are many other such groups, too, some with ties to various college drama departments, such as the College Light Opera Company in Falmouth. Provincetown is also full of theatre all summer and into the fall. Provincetown’s Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, for example, is held the last weekend of September and stages plays all over the town. You should also review the line-ups for The Cape Cod Theatre in Harwich, Monomoy Theatre in Chatham, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Wellfleet and the Cape Rep Theatre in Brewster. As with the Cape Cod Baseball League (above), many of the theaters offer classes and other ways adult amateurs and children can become involved.

The Cape Playhouse

I’ll leave Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for another time. Each destination has had many books devoted to its singular attractions. But reading news today of Mark Dery’s new biography of illustrator/dramatist/poet/author Edward Gorey reminds me that one of the most noteworthy things we did on our recent visit to the Cape was visit the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port. You will be happy to know that the house and the staff are as, er, memorable as the great man himself.