October on the Cape

Vermont is truly magnificent in the fall, but sometimes it’s nice to get away.

East of America, there stands in the open Atlantic the last fragment of an ancient and vanished land. Worn by the breakers and the rains, and disintegrated by the wind, it still stands bold. Henry Beston, The Outermost House

We have been going to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for a quick fall break for five Octobers since 2007. It began by accident- finding a special off-season rate at a nice resort in Brewster- and it has turned into a treasured family tradition. In 2009, we swapped Cape Cod for Florida because we were already in the South that year, but we have enjoyed years of exploring the various towns, activities, and opportunities the beautiful, sandy landscape of Cape Cod offers to post-summer tourists.

The one thing we have done every time, without fail, is visit Coast Guard Beach. Cape Cod has 559.6 miles (900.6k) of coastline and over 100 beaches, which you can read about here, but my favorite is Coast Guard Beach. It’s part of the Great Outer Beach included in the Cape Cod National Seashore, of which Henry David Thoreau famously said, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” While that is technically true of many parts of America’s two coasts or borders, it feels especially true as one stands on the arm of the Cape in the mighty wind of the Outer Beach and looks out over the Atlantic Ocean and thinks about what is out there… the Azores and a lot of water.

Vikings, Basques, and Italians visited first, but the name “Cape Cod” came from Englishman Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602 due to the abundance of cod in the waters of the North American coast. Cod fishing has been very important to the economy of the region for a long time and its impact remains. In fact, there is a “sacred cod” sculpture which has hung in the Massachusetts statehouse since the early 1700’s (except when it was cod-napped by college students, but you can read about that separately). The Cape is physically separated from the rest of Massachusetts by a 7 mile long canal which was envisioned by the English pilgrims of the Plimoth Colony in the early 1600’s but it wasn’t created until 1914. How’s that for the most incomplete history of Cape Cod, ever? The Cape has a very, very rich past and there is far more to say than I can write about here. We have enjoyed learning new things about the Cape Cod area each time we visit and I’ll highlight a few of them below.

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The Cape is loosely divided into several parts: Lower, Mid, and Upper. These names are confusing, however, because they refer to numbers on the longitudinal scale. “Lower” is east, not south and “Upper” is west, not north. It’s just that kind of old-fashioned place.

Starting at the outermost tip, Provincetown is a fun artsy community. Driving there from the canal takes well over an hour (even in October), but it’s a beautiful drive and the beach at Race Point is fabulous. (Pictured above is the wave marker at Race Point.) Along the way is my favorite spice store, the Atlantic Spice Company in North Truro. It’s not as fancy as Penzey’s, but then the prices reflect that and what they have is of very good quality. I try to stock up on things I can’t find in my small town like powdered white cheddar, vanilla sugar powder, bulk dutch-processed cocoa (ok, we have that here), and really good cinnamon. It’s also a fun place for Christmas shopping for extended family members. In the middle of the Lower Cape lies Wellfleet, a charming little town and home to a very serious oyster festival, The Wellfleet OysterFest. It happens during October, but we’ve yet to introduce the children to oysters. Maybe next year.

At the “elbow” of the Cape is Orleans, Brewster, and Eastham, where one can visit the National Seashore visitor’s center and access Coast Guard Beach and Nauset Light Beach. This part of the Cape is the setting for Henry Beston’s marvelously descriptive (although not always scientifically accurate) book about his year spent in a little 20×16 foot house on the beach in 1926-1927. The Outermost House has been a pleasure for me to read because it is so easy to picture his seasonal scenes and experiences. The house he lived in was washed away in 1978, but the book remains an old-time naturalist’s treasure.

We love the way the wind at Coast Guard Beach blows the dust out of our souls and renews our spirits. I strongly recommend bringing a kite. And cousins, if you can manage it. Below are some of my favorite images from 5 years at CGB, followed by more Cape touring experiences.

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There’s a wonderful place for hiking and nature-watching in Brewster at Nickerson State Park. It has a lot of camping options as well, although we haven’t taken advantage of them yet. But it’s a beautiful place for a lakeside walk and a picnic.

Brewster is also home to one of the two units of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we have enjoyed returning to this branch and the one in Cataumet over the years. In fact, one of our favorite memories is showing up one year on the Sunday of the Cape Cod Branch’s annual children’s sacrament meeting program and doubling the number of kids there that day. Our four children were very generously invited to join them on the spot and the ones who agreed had a wonderful time. You just can’t plan great memories like that.

In the southeast corner of the lower Cape lies the lovely village of Chatham (CHAT-ham) from which one can see in so many directions at once. It has a lighthouse and makes a beautiful sunset-watching location. Chatham has a cute main street and also has a guest house/antique map store which we visited. The gentleman who ran it was so interesting and kind, we could have stayed for hours… or days, I guess, if we had rented a room.

West of Chatham, Harwich is the town where we hopped onto bicycles (or into bike trailers) and peddled away a gorgeous sunny October day along the Cape Cod Rail Trail in 2011. To quote the Department of Conservation and Recreation, “The Cape Cod Rail Trail follows a former railroad right-of-way for 22 miles through the towns of Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham and Wellfleet. Its paved surface, few hills, and well-marked automobile crossings make it ideal for cyclists. The trail has a wide unpaved shoulder on one side to accommodate horseback riding, walkers, and runners.” It’s a beautiful trail and I would definitely recommend it to all cyclists. We rented bikes from a local shop and they had a trailing cycle for the daughter who was still learning to ride and a pull-trailer for the little guys. Perfect. As we rode along the marvelous landscape, we saw a flooded cranberry bog at harvest time. What could be more classic on the Cape?

Where did it go?

Traveling westward in Barnstable County, we’ve spent some good times in Yarmouth. We have celebrated a two-year-old’s birthday at the Pirate’s Cove mini-golf course, eaten more than one excellent breakfast at the Keltic Kitchen (where the waitress has a true Irish accent), made a pre-Halloween stop at Edward Gorey‘s house, and watched the sun slowly set at Seagull Beach.

Hyannis is the next village west, and it still wears a vague feeling of the famous Kennedy family who frequented it (and its airport). We love it for the central location and off-season prices. (Not to mention the Trader Joe’s which is in the same shopping center as a Yankee Candle store, a Christmas Trees Shop, a candy store, and a Joanne’s. Some marketing genius is retiring early.) The town of Dennis is also on the Mid-Cape and there we have enjoyed the Cape Cod Art Museum and the Scargo Tower, a 30ft (9m) cobblestone tower which provides a nice overlook of a lake and the ocean. Cape Cod is quite flat, so this kind of view is a novel perspective.

On the Upper Cape, the South Cape Beach in Mashpee is a nice place to play and the Aquarium in Woods Hole is lots of fun for everyone. We took a ferry from Woods Hole over to Martha’s Vineyard, named for the daughter of Bartholomew Gosnold, where we had a nice walk around town and some awesome bagels.

Sandwich is a beautiful place to visit on the north side of the Upper Cape. It is named for the port town of Sandwich in England. They have a fantastic glass museum which tells the story of the local glass industry. East of Sandwich, in Barnstable, is Sandy Neck Beach, another nice place for a day of sandy fun.

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Just off the Cape, back on the mainland coast of Massachusetts, lies the famous American settlement of Plimoth (alternately spelled Plymouth), which conjures up all sorts of images of pilgrims and First Nation folks. And, yes, they have done a very good job of recreating all of that in a balanced way at the Plimoth Plantation. You enter through the Wampanoag homesite and learn all about their way of harmonious life before making your way to the 17th century English village and discovering their lifestyle, too. After a very thorough exploration, you can go visit the Mayflower II, which sailed from Devon, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1957 and is a remarkable replica of the original 1620 Mayflower.

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As I said, Cape Cod is a place rich in American history and family fun. We have enjoyed many experiences together there, look forward to new adventures in the future, and it will always be a special place to our family. We’ve watched as the kids go back to the same beaches and noticed how much they have changed since the last year. They grow so fast. The annual, predictable fall trip has been a good way to keep track of those changes and to add to our family’s account of treasured memories and shared experiences.

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