Sightseeing at Cape Cod
Cape Cod’s attractions could take a year to see. But the following are among the great traditional sights and the ones.
Don’t rush past this end of the Cape – there are some gems that the flood of travelers headed for Provincetown miss completely. For instance, in Bourne the little Aptucxet Trading Post, a replica of the 1627 trading post built here, will suit kids better than many a more formal museum. There are furs hanging on the walls, barrels of tobacco, wooden scales, and the currency of trade: wampum. Check out the Native American arrowheads, stone tools, and fragments of pottery. Poke your nose into President Cleveland’s Victorian summer railroad station. To find it, after you cross the Bourne Bridge onto the Cape, turn right and follow signs for Mashnee Village, then Shore Road and Aptucxet Road, where you should see Trading Post signs. There’s a windmill at the entrance.
Falmouth & Woods Hole
Woods Hole is a village of Falmouth. Falmouth itself is best known for the ferry terminal to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and the huge parking lots and shuttle buses that serve it. But it deserves a reputation also for its lovely beaches and, most of all, for Nobska Light. Take Route 28 into Falmouth and make the well-marked turn for the Woods Hole ferry to Nantucket. When the road begins to descend toward the harbor, turn left onto Church Street, which winds along the coast to the lighthouse, half a mile from the Woods Hole Road. It’s perhaps the most picturesque on the Cape, with a dozen angles for great photographs. The sunsets are a treat here, too.
In the village of Falmouth itself there are pleasant rambles around treelined streets, including a village green, and along Main Street there’s a good selection of shops.
In nearby Cotuit, reached by taking Route 28 from Falmouth, the Cahoon Museum of American Art provides an exciting collection of American folk art, especially the whimsical paintings of Ralph and Martha Cahoon. The permanent holdings also include marine paintings, and there are regular special exhibits. The building is a 1775 Colonial, with period furnishings and stenciled floorboards.
Sandwich calls itself the oldest town on the Cape, dating back to 1639, and it is also one of prettiest. Many of its treasures are close together in the center of the village, just off Route 6A. Enter the village on Route 6A and find Carousel Candies & Fancies on your right, at 132 Route 6A, where the homemade chocolates are accompanied by pastries and good coffee (or tea). The Sandwich Antiques Center is across the road. Make a right onto Jarves Street, passing a bistro and an inn, and turn right again onto Main Street. Keep an eye out for a parking place, or drive into the parking lot of the Sandwich Glass Museum and make that your first stop. It’s on the right, at the major and very picturesque corner of Main Street and Water Street. The Sandwich Glass Museum recreates the glassblowing shop that dated to 1825 here, and has a superb collection of Sandwich glass as well as more modern pieces. Engraving, threaded glass, and cut glass are all demonstrated. There are 14 galleries here.
Across the road is Shawme Pond, and on its bank is the Dexter Grist Mill, still in operation, and the Thornton W. Burgess Museum. The museum is in a homey little cottage overlooking the duck pond, and features illustrations from his books, as well as recent reprints for sale.
Walk up Water Street to the corner of Grove Street and turn left to find Heritage Plantation and Gardens, where the exquisite plantings (spring daffodils, June rhododendrons, daylilies, heathers, herbs) are complemented by a museum collection of antique cars, an antique carousel, and early American portraits. There’s a museum store and a picnic area.
Mashpee isn’t on either Route 6 or Route 28, so it qualifies as “off the beaten path.” It’s on Route 130, which connects the two “long” highways across this wide portion of the Cape. Originally an Indian village, today Mashpee celebrates Native American life. The Mashpee tribe still uses the Indian Meeting House on Route 28. It was built in 1684 on Santuit Pond and moved to its present site. Some of the worship services are indigenous.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum is located on Route 130. See traditional baskets, tools, and articles of clothing; in another room, explore the colonial influence on the tribe.
Hyannis & Barnstable
The bustling resort town of Hyannis is a grand place to shop, dine, and stroll the waterfront. Made famous as the summer home of President John F. Kennedy, it has the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum (397 Main Street), a multimedia exhibit on JFK’s ties to Cape Cod. The photos alone are a wonderful nostalgic look at this family that connected so deeply to American hearts. The museum is open year-round. Just down the road, at 252 Main Street, is the Cape Cod Railroad, which offers two-hour excursions through the Cape on a vintage train.
Yarmouth & Dennis
Along the Bass River in South Yarmouth is land that was once set aside for hunting and fishing by its Native American residents . After their tragic death in a smallpox epidemic in the 1770s, part of this land eventually came into the hands of a Quaker, Mr. David Kelley. Other Quakers from Dennis and Sandwich came to join him, and this part of town is still known as the Quaker Village. At 58North Main Street is the Quaker Meeting House, and behind it the Society of Friends Schoolhouse, built around 1830. Yarmouth Meeting was reactivated in 1954, and the two buildings were brought together. Many of the homes around them belonged to Quakers of the early group, and they make a nice walking tour.
To the north, on Cape Cod Bay, is Yarmouth Port, another historic district. The many names that its main road has had reflect a lot of its past: first the King’s Highway, then the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, and now Hallet Street (for a sea captain who retired there in the mid-1800s), Main Street, and the Cranberry Highway. Its more prosaic label on the map is Route 6A.
Follow the walking tour suggested by the Chamber of Commerce: Start at the First Congregational Church, whose steeple has twice been swept off by northeast winds, and turn left (west) along Route 6A. Many of the old sea captains’ homes have become inns, like the Colonial House Inn. Past it, on Strawberry Lane of the village green, is the Captain Bangs Hallet House, parts of which date back to 1740. Back on Route 6A, at number 250, is the Winslow Crocker House, a Colonial cape with a superb antique furniture collection. Across the road is the gatehouse to enter Nature Trails of Yarmouth Port, 60 acres to ramble.
Dennis, like Yarmouth, reaches from the Cape Cod Bay to Nantucket Sound, right across the Cape. The Cape Cod Rail Trail starts at Route 134 here, a must for bikers). Most of the stores are in Dennisport, on the Sound. You can explore the town on a cruise of the Bass River; you’ll see riverfront estates, windmills, protected birds, a lighthouse, and sea captains’ homes, and enjoy narration that includes stories of pirates, Vikings, and Indians. Or for a quieter time, visit the Cape Museum of Fine Arts, to the north, on Route 6A.
Brewster, Harwich, Chatham
Nickerson State Park occupies much of Brewster, with its kettle ponds and wonderful hiking, biking, and picnicking. Long Pond and several other ponds also offer freshwater swimming beaches, although you might want to explain to the kids in advance that these are ecologically vulnerable areas, where it’s really important not to leave food scraps or other trash. The kettle ponds are “trapped water” and every bit of pollution affects them. They are quite lovely, and deserve to stay that way.
Brewster is also the home of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History.
Harwich, south of Brewster on Nantucket Sound, has a double personality: rich in art galleries and antique shops, and also bustling with beaches and conservation lands. In West Harwich, from Route 28, take Depot Street north into Herring Run, a 245-acre birdwatcher’s paradise where you may see egrets, ospreys, blue herons, and white swans. The town holds a Cranberry Festival in early September.
Chatham is surrounded by water on at least three sides, a knob of land pressing out into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a shopper’s paradise, full of variety; the beaches are varied too, from wild to placid, and there’s some great shell collecting here if you get up early enough in the morning. Make sure you wander over to the fish pier at midday to watch the fishing fleet come in and unload the shellfish and fish of the day. Drive along Old Queen Anne Road, from Route 137 to Route 28, for a good look at the town, or circle along Shore Road out to Morris Island for harbor and ocean views.
Orleans & Eastham
Now you have made the turn at the Cape’s “elbow” and are heading north, onto the Outer Cape. The Cape Cod National Seashore lies to the east of you, always open to exploration and exhilaration. To the west are noted Bay beaches, good for swimming or just savoring the gentle side of the Cape. At night the Bay beaches are especially lovely, with their view out to Provincetown and back toward the mainland.
Orleans has two great little museums, both with free admission most recently: The Meeting House Museum at Main Street and River Road was built in 1833 and houses early photographs and Native American artifacts. The French Cable Station Museum on Route 28 at Cove Road, near the summer information booth, is also a July and August spot. The Cable Station was, of course, the predecessor of the telegraph station, and here news of Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight arrived in 1927, as well as news of the German invasion of France. While you’re in town, don’t miss the rhododendron display gardens at the village green, and the Jonathan Young Windmill on Route 6A with a picnic area and water view.
Eastham offers the Cape Cod National Seashore Visitor Center at Salt Pond, where many trails leading into the dunes and beaches begin; it is also noted for First Encounter Beach, where some of the Pilgrims, fresh off the Mayflower, ran into the local Nauset tribe and were more or less warned off the territory.
Wellfleet, Truro, North Truro
This is truly the Outer Cape. Stop hurrying; sit down and watch the changes in light, as sunshine reflected from the waters to either side of the Cape bathes the landscape in mystery and power. Let the gulls call to you. Slow down even more. Sunbathe. Take off your shoes. Taste the sea breeze. Pick up a shell and contemplate its curves.
Somehow Wellfleet has never lost its village atmosphere. Fishing, swimming, boating, and the presence of skilled artists all blend into a gentle summery mood that lasts year-round. Its beaches on the ocean side are especially wide with spectacular vistas.
Nearly half the art galleries are on West Main Street and Main Street, along with some classic dining spots and an ice cream shop. Follow Main Street to Bank Street to Commercial Street to reach the other part of the shopping area and more galleries. On summer Saturday nights there are likely to be gallery openings in more than one location, making the most of noted painters and sculptors who either work here or bring their work for display.
Truro is as unpretentious as Wellfleet, simply a beach town waiting for people to stroll its waterfronts. Once the home of an Indian tribe with the name Payomet or Pamet, which became the village name, it includes the freshwater spring where the Pilgrims found their first relief from the long sea voyage; here also, the weary travelers found a cache of Indian corn that saved them from starvation. In 1709 the district of Pamet separated from Eastham and became Truro, but the name Pamet lingers for the river here. Truro sea captains are said to have led the whaling industry, and local inhabitants developed salt works to preserve the fish catches.
In North Truro stands the lighthouse that is most associated with Cape Cod, the Cape Cod Highland Lighthouse, better known simply as the Highland Light. Built in 1797, reconstructed in 1857, and moved with great difficulty in 1996 to rescue it from the eroding shore, it is the oldest, tallest (66 feet), and perhaps most important light on the Cape. The turn to it is well marked on Route 6. Next door is Highland House, home of the Truro Historical Society Museum. There’s a pirate’s chest here, as well as a scrimshaw collection.
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