South of Boston, the waterfront has a different feel. Most travelers take Route 3 from Boston to the beginning of Cape Cod, an hour away. Plymouth, celebrated as the home of the Pilgrims, is also on Route 3, and is the first seacoast town that the highway approaches. But if you want to discover a less traveled region – or if you have a passion for sea kayaking, or are ready to take a lesson – then take Route 3Ainstead, through the old coastal towns and detouring to their beaches: Nantasket, Cohasset, Scituate.
Beyond Plymouth, Route 3 arrives at the Cape Cod Canal, and there are two bridges leading onto Cape Cod. The first is the Sagamore Bridge, which puts you onto Route 6, the rapid route out to Provincetown at the tip of the Cape, 70 miles or about 1½ hours farther. The second bridge, the Bourne Bridge, leads onto Route 28to reach Falmouth andWoods Hole, best known as the ferry station for Martha’s Vineyard, but deserving a lot more attention. Here you’ll find good hiking trails, a superb bike trail, and little-known beaches and wildlife preserves. After Falmouth, Route 28turns eastward toward the mid-Cape towns, most notably Hyannis, once the summer home of President John F. Kennedy. It then continues toward Provincetown, meeting Route 6 at Orleans.
Provincetown itself is a 19th-century fishing village down underneath, with ships captained by a long tradition of Portuguese ocean-going families, as well as folks whose roots were in England. (My own ancestors from Provincetown include the Conwells, Palmers, Perrys, and Lancys; boy, do I have fun exploring!) Old churches still actively serve congregations, the cemeteries and museums display centuries of American history, and you can stand on the docks and watch the evening catch arrive.
But that old-time fishing village is accompanied today by a summer resort atmosphere that includes adventures on land and water, bicycle touring, environmental stewardship, and a busy downtown of shops and restaurants. In the summertime, the town swells from its population of 3,500 with the addition of over 40,000 visitors, and streets become madly crowded with traffic and pedestrians. Parking can be a challenge if you arrive too late in the day! Provincetown is also an artist’s haven, and there are painters and galleries galore. You can still see the 1970s alive here in the “head shops” that sell Indian print fabric, “hippie” posters, and incense. The town has also warmly welcomed gay and lesbian guests, and was for decades one of the few places in the East where gay couples could relax. Alternate life-styles still bloom in town; those shy of freely displayed gender-bending need to know this in advance.
The best treat of the Outer Cape is its sunsets. The way the “wrist” of the Cape bends around, you can look west over the water, just as if you were on theWest Coast, and the colors are spectacular. There is a deep peace in the steady flicker of the lighthouse lamps, the soft boom of fog horns, the sparkle of the nearby village lights, and the occasional water-riding lights of passing ships. Once Provincetown becomes part of a person’s or a family’s life, it tends to call them back always.
Cape Cod Geography
The length of Cape Cod is about a 70-mile drive, but because of the “elbow” bend halfway, Provincetown is only some 30 miles out to sea from Boston. The Cape is made up of 399 square miles, with 560 miles of shoreline – the Cape Cod National Seashore along the Outer Cape has more than 20,000 acres of beach and wetlands. Fifteen towns make up the Cape, which is, properly speaking, Barnstable County. But many of the towns have added villages – say, East Brewster, or West Dennis.
There are four sections to the Cape: First is the Upper Cape, closest to the mainland, and viewed as “upper” by the sailors from the outer tip of the Cape. Bourne, Sandwich, and Mashpee are the towns of the Upper Cape, along with Falmouth and Woods Hole and the smaller villages of Cotuit, Waquoit, Cataumet, Pocasset, New Seabury, and Forestdale.
Next comes the Mid-Cape, with Barnstable, Yarmouth, and Dennis to the north, along the Cape Cod Bay side, and Chatham, Brewster, Orleans, and Eastham to the south, working eastward to the start of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Also tucked into this region are Hyannis and Hyannisport, Osterville and Craigville and Centerville, plus Marstons Mills. Hyannis is strictly speaking a village within Barnstable, a confusing situation because Hyannis is much better known! It is the busiest town of the Mid-Cape.
The Lower Cape includes Chatham, Harwich, Orleans, and Eastham. Then Wellfleet, Truro and North Truro, and Provincetown make up the Outer Cape.
To go “Down Cape” means to go toward the mainland, away from Provincetown.
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