Summer on the Cape

We asked those who know the shore best to share their secret haunts.

By | Boston Magazine |
cape cod travel guide

Photo by Joel Meyerowitz / Typography by Liz Noftle

Crossing the Bourne Bridge. A crispy bite of clam roll. That first chilly dip in the Atlantic. These are the milestones of summer, just as they have been for generations. We’re celebrating traditions—the people, places, and institutions that keep us coming back to the Cape (and flirting with the Islands) season after season. We asked those who know the shore best to share their secret haunts. These iconic stops—some favorites from a bygone era, some newly minted classics—will define a trip and live on in memory long after you’ve left the beach.

—Edited by Janelle Nanos and Sara James Mnookin. Reporting by Steve Annear, Calin Brown, Brennan Carley, Patrick Doyle, Courtney Hollands, Brittany Jasnoff, Molly Mirhashem, and Jason Schwartz.

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cape cod travel guide

Photo by Joel Meyerowitz

Alone in Truro

When I’m in Truro, I run nearly every morning. Sometimes I’ll head east-ish, two miles past the marshes of the Pamet River to the rough Atlantic. Sometimes it’s west-ish, to the undulating hills along the bay. If I’m feeling ambitious, I can do both in one run. But whichever route I take, I’m guaranteed to see one thing: nobody.

Okay, maybe a cyclist or two, taking the scenic route, or perhaps another jogger plodding back home. But that’s it. Instead of people, I’ll see strutting wild turkeys. Instead of cars chasing me onto the shoulder, I’ll be pursued by a cloud of biting black flies. (That’s when I run fastest.) But for the most part: silence and solitude, and the sense that water is always close by.

Apart from the asphalt, Truro isn’t much different from when the Pilgrims found (or maybe looted) a cache of Indian corn on what is now Corn Hill, where Edward Hopper painted a clutch of rhomboid houses in the dunes 310 years later. Of course, I know things have changed—new people, new houses, new complaints—but the magic of Truro is that it makes you forget.

Even now, Truro doesn’t have much, especially compared with its neighbors, cosmopolitan Wellfleet and hopping Provincetown. The population is just over 2,000. You’ll find only a handful of restaurants (including the worthy Blackfish). There’s a vineyard that produces dependably drinkable wines, and an arts center that draws talent from far beyond the Cape (the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rosanne Cash). We have a few beaches and a few ponds, but nightclubs, mini golf, skate parks—those are for other towns, not our village.

Here, our world contracts. We buy seafood at Mac’s or Cape Tip. We cook at home, inveigling wives and cousins to help shuck oysters, or studying a sister-in-law’s Manhattan-mixing method. Outside—is there anything going on but the rising of the moon? The neighbors’ house, I know, is just beyond that ridge, and if we’re really quiet we can hear them being quiet, too.

Now the only sound is teeth chattering—it gets cold at night—so in we go, to watch movies, play board games, and drink whiskey, just as everyone here has done going back 20, 50, 80 years.

—Matt Gross is the author of The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World, which was published in May.

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Fish Tales

I can’t recall a summer on the Cape that wasn’t memorable—it’s the most beautiful place. But one particular summer, about four years ago, I was out tuna fishing with some friends. I hooked up at exactly 9 a.m. It was a good fish—seemed like it was around 250 pounds. At exactly 1 p.m., after four solid hours of the toughest fight I’d ever had with a tuna, we saw it surface about 10 feet from the boat. We were screaming with excitement…until about 10 seconds later, when he snapped the line.

—Harry Connick Jr., whose new album, Every Man Should Know, will be released on June 11.

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Summer Love

We spent summers in Falmouth, fishing off the jetties, playing Wiffle ball in the backyard—and spying on the babysitter when she was taking a shower.

There was a little hole my brother and I drilled in this outdoor shower for when you came home from the beach. I was about eight or nine years old, and we used to come back home and watch her. Finally, one day, I’m looking through the hole, and I’m waving my brother Pete over, and he is pushing me aside because he knows it’s payday. But when he looks, he says he doesn’t see anything. I say, “What do you mean?” And then all of a sudden we hear, “Peter, I see you!” She came right up to the hole and was peering out. I snuck away, and my brother took the blame.

—Filmmaker Bobby Farrelly, whose parents still live on the Cape.

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cape cod travel guide

On the Water

Some of my earliest memories on the Cape involve a fishing rod. Whether it was catching sea robins off the pier or hiding from the November wind as my dad tried to catch the last bluefish of the season, we were always on the water. And whenever we needed bait, hooks, or advice, we went to the Sports Port bait-and-tackle shop, on West Main Street in Hyannis, where a mannequin, dressed in full rain gear and sitting in a bright-red dinghy, would greet us in the parking lot.

I called their number so many times when I was a kid that I still remember it. Every year for nearly a decade we entered their fishing contest for the biggest striper and bluefish. When I was 15, I somehow hooked into one that took home first place. The picture of that fish still hangs in the room where I grew up.

—U.S. Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, pictured above at age 15.

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Photo by Holly Ladd

Night Swimming

The pond is black. The quiet moonlight has come from far away to join us, and slips across the surface of the still water. I wade in slowly. Not just me, everybody. A pond at night seems dangerous.

Fear of snakes is part of it. And fear of snapping turtles, dislike of the way our feet slide on the slimy bottom or how long strands of algae cling to our bare legs. The uneasiness of pond entry is important, the hazing initiation to what will become the most memorable moment of summer, every summer—this one, the last one, and all the summers years ago.

In the dead gloom of winter, even more than I dream about being drenched in the hot sharp sunlight of the Cape, I dream about night swimming.

My friends are behind me, removing their clothes, leaving them on the damp deck. My husband is back there too, and sometimes our son. Nobody talks until we’re all in the dark water, until we’ve become a string of heads on the surface moving slowly through the soft, salty night air, when we speak in low whispers.

“Look at the moon.”

“Is it full?”

“Mmmmmm.”

“Full on Wednesday.”

“Sometimes I wonder about snakes.”

Growing up in California, we swam at the beach at night, when the phosphorescence in the ocean made the waves glow as they broke on us. Or we swam in chlorinated swimming pools with bright underwater lights and dead moths floating on the surface. The dark ocean is too cold for night swimming on the Cape. So we’re drawn to the warm pond, with its sweet-scented fresh water. To get there, we walk through the woods, down a pathway so thickly carpeted with moss our bare feet bounce on it.

I won’t say which woods, or which pond. There are more than 365 of them on Cape Cod, according to the National Park Service. Finding your favorite, and holding the memory of it inside you all winter long, is part of it. Their names are humdrum and prosaic: Pilgrim, Long, Sheep, Sand, Round, Black, Gull. Their names lowball their magic, like everything else on the Cape—an attempt to hide and not show off.

After 20 minutes or so, without any spoken coordination, all of us begin swimming to shore, to the deck where our dry clothes—and maybe a towel to share—are waiting. Somebody remembers the R.E.M. song and begins to sing it, and then, softly, we all join in: “Night-swimming deserves a quiet night.” And so it does.

—Martha Sherrill is a native Californian and former Washington Post staff writer whose fifth book, a memoir about her family’s move to Cape Cod 10 years ago, will be finished this summer and out the next.

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Photo by Maribeth Connolly Graf

The Sandwich Boardwalk

I’m what you call a wash-ashore. I didn’t move here until ’83, so I didn’t jump off the boardwalk when I was kid. But my favorite memories are of people and families doing just that. There are 1,800 boards, and stories from each one. “It all started here” is a board that was purchased by a now-elderly woman who loved the boardwalk, especially in the moonlight. “Don’t tread on me” is from one of the town leaders who had a reputation for correcting all injustices. They are all individual expressions, but together, they create a picture of a community.

—Dean Coe, founder and chairman, Sandwich Boardwalk Reconstruction Committee.

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Photo via CardCow.com

Provincetown’s Dunes

The solitude of the dunes and tidal flows is what I love most of all. Just sitting in the lagoons as the tide turns, and feeling the moon pull the water past your body, is Provincetown for me. A July afternoon or September dusk on a distant beach with a book and a prayer. What else could a man want? As Thoreau put it, here you can “put all of America behind you.” Given what I do every day, it keeps me sane and heals and centers me again.

—Andrew Sullivan, who spends his summers in Provincetown, is the editor of The Dish.

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The Highland Light

In the lighthouse, summer is a quiet time. You can see whales—almost always humpbacks this time of year. There are some 500 shipwrecks under the water as well. When you stand on the Head of the Meadow Beach, you can easily swim out to some of them. I’ve done it millions of times. My grandpa taught me how to dive off the Frances—but it has barnacles and sharp pieces, so you have to come in from downcurrent. Farther on is the Somerset, a 64-gun British ship that shows only once in a while, and only at low tide. It was the ship that shelled Bunker Hill, the one that Longfellow wrote about in The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

I’ve been going to the lighthouse since I was a little guy—in the old days the lighthouse would be open because the Coast Guard was running it. And if they saw you come in with long, sad eyes, and you asked to go up, they’d let you. I’m 77 now, but I first climbed with my grandfather, and I was scared half to death. I was told there was a ghost of a lighthouse keeper and his little girl. I’m still afraid a little bit. I’m probably the only lighthouse guy with a fear of heights. I’ve been haunting the lighthouse ever since. But I’m not dead yet, so it doesn’t count.

—Daniel Sanders, president of the Highland Museum & Lighthouse.

cape cod travel guide

Photo by Joel Meyerowitz

Cape Farmers’ Market

My favorite farm stand on the Cape is Crow Farm, in Sandwich. It’s been around for four generations. My dad bought sweet corn there 40 years ago and ate it in the car, sans butter or salt. My mother picked out the smallest vegetables and fruit with the deepest color to take home. Time hasn’t changed things. I do the same.

On Route 6A, Kelly Farm offers whatever its proprietor, Jean Iverson, isn’t going to eat herself. The feisty 91-year-old farmer always gets first pick. But even her leftover collards, onions, and squash are worth the trip to Cummaquid. Just get there before 2 p.m. or you’ll leave empty-handed.

Farther down the road in Barnstable, Tim Friary runs Cape Cod Organic Farm, which old-timers remember as the Barnstable County Farm. We bought eggs there and still do, because the yolks are as orange as the afternoon sun. Arrive late in the day and the freshly picked tomatoes might still be warm from sunning on the vine.

Our restaurants have mastered the art of preparing the bounty of the land and sea. All winter long I dream of these dishes: the briny Wellfleet oysters at the Captain Linnell House, in Orleans; the grilled lobster at the Red Inn, in Provincetown; the fish of the day at the Dan’l Webster Inn, in Sandwich; and the Chatham Bars Inn’s famous scallops.

—Stephanie Foster will be signing copies of her new book, Farms of Cape Cod, at the Orleans Farmers’ Market on Saturdays this summer.

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cape cod travel guide

Photo by Chamber of Commerce, Yarmouth

The Weeping Beech Tree at the Bangs Hallet House

People come from far and wide because they’ve heard about this tree. We have a lot of documentation from Captain Bangs Hallet and his wife, but nothing about the tree itself. But it’s wonderful to think up stories of how it might have arrived here—that maybe Bangs Hallet himself, when he came back from the Far East or Europe on his clipper ships, might have brought this weeping beech back with him.

If you stand and look up at the leaves, sometimes you see formations—an elephant, or wherever your imagination takes you. It’s like being in a magic house or a cave. It’s just charming, to feel so encompassed, hugged almost by it.

—Maureen Rukstalis, of the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth.

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Fleming’s Donut Shack

The summer of 1960, when we opened, was also the summer when John Kennedy was nominated at a convention in Los Angeles. My father was so excited. He packed up doughnuts and sent them to Hyannis Port. We got a letter back on Kennedy’s Senate stationery. He thanked us for our support, thanked us for our doughnuts, and said that they were delicious. When Kennedy was elected, my parents were celebrating—we’d never seen them so happy.

—Jane Fleming, of Fleming’s Donut Shack.

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The Lost Boys of Penikese Island

It feels like a place out of a dream, this little green-and-gold island with its swooping birds and mounds of grass. It might be far away—in the Scottish Hebrides, perhaps—or out of a children’s adventure story where barefoot boys roam free. But Penikese Island sits in Buzzards Bay, 12 miles from Woods Hole.

My husband grew up on Buzzards Bay and knew this 75-acre island as a therapeutic boarding school for troubled teens. For six months of the year, boys came to grow their own food, tend the animals, chop firewood, and go to class.

The first time I visited, over a decade ago, we beached our motor boat, climbed ashore, and were greeted almost instantly by a suntanned, tousled teenager. We returned at least once a summer, and were often the only visitors, though occasionally we’d run into a scientist who’d come to observe the roseate terns or American burying beetles—both endangered species making a comeback on the island. On a mid-October day a few years back, we took the boat out past seals gathering on Gull Island and arrived on Penikese. There, we played touch football with the boys, the sumac turning red, the waves the iron gray of fall.

In 2011 the school suspended operations. Since then, the island has felt ghostly without the boys’ presence. Now the school is scheduled to reopen with a new focus: helping teenagers recover from substance abuse. Meanwhile, the tern population is thriving. The American burying beetle is going strong.

Birds, beetles, boys. Give them an island, and they’ll grow.

—Elizabeth Graver’s fourth novel, The End of the Point, came out this spring.

cape cod travel guide

Photo by Joel Meyerowitz

My Traditions

I grew up in Connecticut, and my family would spend a week or two each summer on the Outer Cape. We’d rent a cottage in Kalmar Village, take shivery swims in the ocean, build sandcastles, and drive our SUV out to Race Point, in Provincetown, to watch my mother surf-cast for bluefish. I remember sampling fudge and staring open-mouthed at the drag queens on Commercial Street, trying my first raw Wellfleet oyster, and falling asleep to the sound of the waves. For me, the beach is and always will be Cape Cod.

I wanted my daughters to grow up enjoying the same low-tech adventures I had—long bike rides along the Rail Trail that runs from Dennis to Wellfleet; braving the icy waters at Longnook Beach; building campfires and watching the fireworks burst over Provincetown every Fourth of July.

Cape Cod cuisine has come a long way. There are the places I remember—lobster rolls and onion rings at Arnold’s, in Eastham, and Wellfleet’s Bookstore & Restaurant, which still serves clam chowder and steamed littlenecks in a white-wine-garlic-butter broth. One of my new favorites is Wellfleet’s Mac’s Shack, and its amazing, inventive sushi—some of the best I’ve eaten anywhere. Their curried scallops and fish tacos are not to be missed.

The perfect way to end a summer meal is with a cone. Savory & the Sweet Escape, in Truro, offers delicious flavors like Pomegranate Chip and Celebration Cake.

At least once a summer I’ll recruit a friend or sibling and make the epic kayak trip all the way across from Truro to Provincetown—depending on the wind and tides, it can take anywhere from three to six hours. We’ll pass lobster pots and fishing boats, wave at the whale-watching expeditions, and, right around the halfway mark, where it’s too far to do anything but keep going, swear to each other that we saw a shark.

—Jennifer Weiner, pictured above as a child, released her new paperback, The Next Best Thing, in April. 

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The Wellfleet Drive-In

The warm tickle of sand underfoot, the sweet sting of an ice cream headache, the flickering glow of a drive-in movie against an inky sky: For 35 years, these have been the sensory touchstones of my Cape Cod summers. Nothing and no one stays entirely the same for so long, of course—and indeed, nowadays my body is less forgiving of noonday sun and ice cream binges.

But the movies? Since 1957—when its hot, hulking RCA Dyn-Arc projectors first came whirring to life for a showing of the Hepburn and Tracy classic Desk Set—the Wellfleet Drive-In has bucked the momentum of the modern world and remained nearly unchanged.

The golden age of the American drive-in had long since come and gone by the late 1970s, when I first arrived as a pajama-clad stowaway sprawled in my mother’s lap. At the time the Wellfleet was one of eight drive-ins on the Cape selling tickets by the carload. Today it stands as the lone survivor.

To lure larger crowds, management has added a motley assortment of amusements to the 25-acre parcel over the years, including a sprawling flea market (great deals to be had on bikes!). Families can now get in a round of putt-putt or let the kids burn off steam on the swing set before settling into their SUV for the film. Die-hards can unroll their windows and hang the same monaural speakers that have piped in thousands of tinny soundtracks over six decades—or simply tune their FM dial to 89.3 to catch a stereo broadcast. The nightly showings may still kick off with a faded welcome reel, but the double features that follow are first run. Nestled in your familiar seat, clutching a bucket of popcorn, as gulls caw and clatter in the distance, past and present dissolve. And there is just the drive-in.

That’s why this June, I’ll return as I always have, though admittedly the circumstances have changed: At age seven I dragged a sleeping bag onto the roof of my father’s Jeep for a better view of Bill Murray’s showdown with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. At 17 I preferred to enter the gates via a trunk, smuggled alongside a case of Bud Light. This year, I’ll return with my own pajama-clad stowaway heavy in my lap, and I will half-watch whatever spectacle is on the screen. And I will be happy knowing for an hour or two that even though everything else in life has changed, summer hasn’t.

—Sarah Karnasiewicz, pictured above at age two on Cahoon Hollow Beach, is a Brooklyn-based food and travel writer.

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Photo by John Hughes Hall, Courtesy of Noa Hall

The Modern Homes of Wellfleet

The summer of 1937 was the Bauhaus Reunion, this rabble of oddball intellectuals from Germany who all bonded with the Cape. Simultaneously, a group of bohemian, self-taught American architects were buying land for about $20 an acre (now it’s more like $20 million an acre), and these guys hooked up and started building these experimental summer houses. They made the Cape their spiritual home. There were a lot of very big thinkers from Harvard and MIT, all writing books, or teaching, or working on exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art. They’d work until 4 p.m., then would emerge from their studios and go swimming, play Ping-Pong, and start cocktail hour, which was very rambunctious.

Then, in the ’60s, Kennedy introduced the national-park legislation protecting the seashore, which forced some people to abandon their homes. Decades later, the park considered demolishing them. That’s about when I came on the scene, with the push to preserve them.

We rent out three of these houses during July and August to pay the bills. We’re currently working on the Hatch Cottage, a super-rationalist abstract collection of boxes—it almost doesn’t look like a house, just cubes. Built for Robert Hatch, a book editor at the Nation magazine, it was a retreat for literary leftist types—Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky used to come visit. Our mission is to repurpose it for new creative thinking.

—Peter McMahon, founding director of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust.

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Photo via CardCow.com

The Melody Tent

A lot of famous acts have appeared at Hyannis’s Cape Cod Melody Tent, usually before or after they were major draws in bigger places. You can count on the tent, which first went up in July 1950, to present senior-circuit regulars and a mix of talent on the rise, along with the occasional night of boxing. A certain backwater pokiness contributes to the appeal. So does its status as a seasonal marker: The tent goes up, we know summer’s coming; once it’s packed away, it’s time to hunker down for fall.

But if I associate the Melody Tent with cozy reliability, I’ve also encountered there world-class brilliance.

There was, for instance, the moment in 1998 when Zab Judah, a talented contender out of Brooklyn on his way to a world title, lost patience with the journeyman Otilio Villarreal. From where I sat at ringside, with Villarreal’s back to me, Judah appeared to dematerialize at arm’s length from his opponent and then rematerialize right in his face with a left hook of Homeric finality. Villarreal pitched over like a felled pine, and Judah stood over him, an exultant hero.

Then there was Peter Frampton, who took the stage one cool August night in 2010. I expected him to be bitter about no longer selling out stadiums, or grandiosely delusional about persisting on the A-list. But he fell into neither trap, and he made abundantly clear that he had been practicing his instrument since his era of mega stardom. His flowing guitar runs were more elegant than ever, brimming with sheer liquid pleasure as he ascended toward classic-rock Valhalla from under the Melody Tent’s little top.

—Carlo Rotella is an author, most recently of Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles and Other True Stories. 

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A Night at the Box

cape cod travel guide

Robert Harris and Cap’n Seaweed photo courtesy of the Chicken Box

Let’s start with nomenclature and pronunciation: The proper name is the Chicken Box, but it should always be referred to simply as, “the Box.” And even if you hail from Galveston, Texas, the name of the bar must be pronounced as though you grew up eating Fenway Franks, preferably in a sentence like, “It’s ten-thihty, wicked pissah, we should head to the Bawks, it’s the greatest bah evah.”

Let’s move on to the history lesson: The Box was built in 1947 by Willie House, a domestic who came north to Nantucket with his employers. House wanted to open a place that served southern food (specialty: fried chicken) and played the music he was used to hearing (Muddy Waters once graced the stage). On any given night in the summer, there is live music—Grace Potter and Donavon Franken-reiter come to play often, and Jimmy Buffett will occasionally sit in with a band. Things get going at 10 o’clock, and the crowd—everyone from college students to billionaire captains of industry—empties out on to Dave Street at last call.

I first walked into the Box on Friday, July 9, 1993. I was 23 years old, had rented a room in a house for the summer, and knew exactly no one. Quizzing the cab driver who picked me up at the ferry had gotten me to the front door. He did not steer me wrong. I began my night by bonding with the bartender, who bought me a shot called the “Statue of Liberty,” which involved sticking two fingers in Sambuca, lighting them on fire, and drinking the shot while they burned over one’s head. I then latched on to a bachelorette party, and joined the group on the dance floor. I crawled home after last call, and vowed I would never go back.

But go back I did, again and again. I can’t reasonably describe the appeal—the bar is a dive, there is no food. However, I believe that there is no more festive way to end a summer night on Nantucket than by dancing in the front row, with a cold Corona raised in hand, at the Box. It’s the greatest bah evah.

—Elin Hilderbrand’s 12th novel, Beautiful Day, will be released on June 25.

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cape cod travel guide

Photo by Jackie Sullivan

Alley’s General Store, Martha’s Vineyard

I’ve lived on the Vineyard for 18 years, and have worked at Alley’s on and off for 12 of them. We’ve been around since 1858, in the same location, with a bunch of different names. We sell everything: hardware, housewares, groceries, fishing tackle. In the winter months, we’re literally the last outpost for three towns. It’s the only place to get milk.

I raised three kids on the floor of this store. I have all kinds of memories, whether it’s the pitter-patter of their feet on the floor, or watching them ring up customers now as a summer job.

There’s a certain inherent lifestyle here that doesn’t exist elsewhere these days. Martha’s Vineyard is one of those unique places that’s devoid of franchise. And that enables Alley’s to continue operating. We have so many regulars who come in all the time. We even have private mailboxes that have stayed in the same families for at least 50, 60 years.

—Spencer Booker, assistant manager, Alley’s General Store.

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