Best Kept Secrets of Cape Cod, MA: Our Family Shares a Few

The sound of crashing waves, the smell of salty air, and the plaintive call of a gull all conjure up special memories for me that can be simply summed up: The Cape.  Every summer growing up, we’d eagerly look forward to our two week Cape Cod beach vacation.  The nature of those Cape vacations has evolved over the years, now being shared with another generation of the Crowley/Connolly clan.  So it is a pleasure to share some of our family’s favorite spots–some well-known, some hidden gems, with others who might want to start their own Cape tradition–or simply check-out this great destination for the first time.

Planning Your Cape Trip:  Some shun the Cape, writing it off because of monstrous traffic jams they’ve experienced or heard about, but this issue is really overstated.  Yes, if you set out in the summer after work on a Friday or Saturday morning (Cape rentals usually run from Saturday-Saturday), you will sit in quite a traffic jam.  But it’s not too hard to get down to the Cape in the summer by planning to avoid the peak times.  Speaking of avoiding peak times, spring and fall can be wonderful times to visit.  The crowds thin out, and you can get some beautiful weather, especially in September & October (think deep blue skies, dry air, and long marsh grass starting to put on autumnal hues).

The other reason to not get too worried about the traffic issue is that Cape Cod is about 60 miles from its start at the Cape Cod Canal to the tip.  So the bridges one needs to cross to access the Cape by car (Sagamore on the North, Bourne to the South) can be a logjam during peak times, but there’s plenty of room on the Cape side of the bridge for people to spread out and find their own spots to enjoy.  Speaking of the bridges, our 4 year old said I should tell people about the “Bridge Game”, seeing who is the first to spot the canal bridge–a fun way to build anticipation for the vacation.

I’d say the Cape is best explored by car, unless you want to focus on one of the bigger towns such as Hyannis, Falmouth or Provincetown, which can be enjoyed on foot along with local public transit.  Nantucket & Martha’s Vineyard, known as “The Islands” can also be enjoyed without your own car.  The Islands really warrant their own article though and won’t be covered here.

The Cape has a distinctive shape, appearing on maps like a bent arm stretching into the Atlantic.  The bridges are around the shoulder, the town of Chatham where we’ve often stayed, marks the elbow, and the tip or end of the Cape is the artsy community of Provincetown.  The majority of our tips come from the Chatham area.

The Cape Cod Chamber has a good website to help you find hotels and other local businesses.  Check out the area’s primary paper online, the Cape Cod Times, to get grounded in what’s happening there.

What to do: Well, of course what to do in the summer needs to start with the beach.  In Chatham, Hardings Beach has been our main go-to place, with good swimming, room for playing ball and building sandcastles, and a lovely walk to a lighthouse at low tide.  Ridgevale is a great Chatham option for younger kids, with tidal pools and clear water.  Both are located on Nantucket Sound, where beaches typically get some moderate surf and warm water, making for good swimming.

I’d say the Cape’s most dramatic and beautiful beaches can be found on the “forearm” that faces the wide-open Atlantic.  Much of this shoreline is protected as part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, so you have the unspoiled beauty of dunes that give way to beach and long, rolling waves.  I recommend starting by heading to the Seashore visitor center in Eastham, which has a nice walking trail through marsh, dunes  and woods along with being a good source for info.  My brother in-law also recommends White Crest Beach in Wellfleet, which is town-operated, uncrowded and his favorite spot for surfing.

The Chatham area has an abundance of great spots for walking and biking.  Chatham Light Beach is a great destination, and it serves as a reminder of the sea’s power and how the shoreline changes over time.  When I was a kid, the beach was protected by a long outer barrier breach.  Then ocean broke through in the fury of a Nor’easter in 1987, and there’s been a growing “Break” and changing shoreline ever since.  The resulting currents can be quite dangerous, so this one is better for walking than swimming.  There’s limited parking right by the Lighthouse, so in season it’s best reached as part of a walking loop from Chatham Center or the Fish Pier.

Chatham Center is a nice place to stroll and browse the quaint shops.  It can get crowded in the summer, but there are many great spots to walk where you can enjoy natural beauty in solitude even during peak vacation season.  Morris Island in Chatham, Kent’s Point in South Orleans, and Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary are all great walking destinations offering a variety of views and trails.  If you’d rather get your exercise on wheels, head for the Cape Cod Rail Trail or other biking spots, described on this biking site.

Alas, not every day at the Cape offers weather conducive to sitting on the beach, and one must have some other options–especially if children are in the picture!  We would always make an annual day trip to Provincetown at the Cape’s tip on a non-beach day to explore the art shops, sample some fried clams, and check out the activity at the docks.  And of course, people watch, for P-town, as it’s known, is full of colorful character.  I recall an artist telling me that the lighting there makes it one of the best spots in the world for painting–if you paint you’ll have to go try it and let me know.  It’s also a good place to grab a whale watch or other cruise.

Closer to where we stay, the Chatham Railroad Museum became a fast favorite of our 4 year old train maven.  In fact, we wound up there 6 days in a row last summer so he could play engineer on the old train they have, sometimes it’s easier to give in than to negotiate!  My cousin had similar success with her 3 year old at the Harwich Junior Theater, and it’s definitely on our list to try.  The Chatham Fish Pier is another good spot, where you can see fishing boats coming in and often see seals frolicking about in hopes of getting some scraps from the catch.

What to eat: What to eat at the Cape of course needs to start with seafood.  There are many clam shack type spots where you can get fried seafood, personally I gravitate toward the more wholesome variety of fish.  If you’re staying at a cottage, you can pick up some fish fresh off the boat–the Chatham Fish Pier is one good spot for that–and cook it yourself.  I’m especially fond of striped bass and scallops from the Cape waters.  Bass is easily grilled, served with quick sauce of soy, ginger & garlic, along with a glass of Pinot.  I’m not a huge fan, but some in our family also love to fix “steamers”, clams steamed and then dipped in a rich buttery sauce.

Some of our family’s favorite food spots at the Cape are not the full-service restaurants but places for getting various treats.  Bonnatt’s Bakery in Harwich, famous for their “Meltaway” pastries, comes first to mind.  We typically get a box of Meltaways to go, but they also serve a full breakfast and lunch menu in the restaurant.  I’m not a huge pie guy, but my family (and many others) swear by Marion’s Pie Shop in Chatham; be forewarned, you need to get there early to get your pie of choice.

But of course, dining out is a fun part of any vacation.  Our new favorite Cape restaurant is Pisces, with great seafood, a creative menu and strong commitment to locally sourced ingredients.  My sister & brother in-law, trusted sources for such matters, cite Thoreau’s Tavern at the Wequasset Inn as their favorite Cape dining spot, where in a relaxed setting you can order off the fancier 28 Atlantic menu or the bar fare.  Humbler fare can be had at the Chatham Squire, where vacationers and locals alike belly up to the bar or enjoy a meal in the dining area.  Joe’s Bar & Grill in Orleans is another spot we’ve enjoyed for more casual fare.

Where to stay: Most of our Cape time, we’ve stayed in weekly cottage rentals.  Staying in such Cape homes has the advantage of being able to make your own meals and spread out a bit more.  A couple nice examples of Cape rentals available can be found in the footer below.  But clearly the cottage option doesn’t work for everyone, particularly more if you’re heading down for a few days.

The Cranberry Inn has a great location and atmosphere in Chatham Center.  We’ve only eaten at the Chatham Bars Inn, but clearly with its sweeping views of the Atlantic it would be a special place to stay. They actually have some good off-season package deals that we’re thinking about trying one of these days.  The Chatham Highlander has worked for us, though it’s been awhile, for a basic, moderately priced motel that is conveniently located near Chatham Center.  Another good value is The Cove Motel in Orleans, also pretty basic in terms of the rooms but it does have some water views.

These are just a few of our favorite things at the Cape.  I’m sure if you give the Cape a try, you’ll soon quickly fill out a list of your own!

Thanks to my family members for sharing their tips and more importantly for creating all the great Cape memories!  Check out the listings below for some places where you can uncover your own Cape secrets.

Beautiful Chatham home- Short walk to Ridgevale Beach

Escape to the Cape in this wonderful 3 bedroom, 3 bath, light & bright home in a great Chatham neighborhood on a quiet cull- de- sac. Just 1/2 mile to Ridgevale Beach on Nantucket Sound, yet convenient to town, shopping, restaurants, the bike trail and more! Enjoy a comfortable floor plan with an open kitchen/ dining/ and living area. Sliders off dining room lead to a large deck overlooking conservation. The recently finished spacious lower level offers extra living space, with sliders to a stone patio just outside. Central A/C and an outdoor shower make this a perfect summer getaway! Amenities include premium cable TV, DVD/VCR, High Speed Internet access, well equipped chef’s kitchen with dishwasher, outdoor gas grill, and washer/dryer. For more information, click here.

Contemporary Eastham home close to the beaches! 1st 2 wks of July open!!

Name your price for March-April! Email us with your offer! Spring & Summer booking fast- don’t wait! This modern house on Whidah Lane is cozy, yet spacious and is the ideal vacation home for the beachcomber and the nature lover with plenty of nearby beaches, ponds, and bike paths. Cathedral ceilings with dark wood beams, skylights & stylish furniture fill this house with character. The house is equipped with comfortable seating for eight, a business center with wireless DSL, DirecTV, as well as books & games for the whole family. Outside is a patio with a gas grill, comfortable outdoor furniture & an enclosed shower. Beach chairs & toys are also provided for your use. The property is tucked off the road for peace & quiet and has a large private yard to enjoy. This home is also pet friendly for most dogs. There’s a fully equipped kitchen, washer/dryer, dishwasher, DVD/VCR, & window A/C in the living room and master bedroom. The fireplace is perfect for a cozy winter vacation! For more information, Click Here


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