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Cape Cod, Massachusetts

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Did You Know … ?

  • Before Plymouth, the Pilgrims landed at Provincetown where they wrote the Mayflower Compact framing their plans for self-governance.
  • Old King’s Highway on Cape Cod is the largest contiguous historic district in the U.S.
  • Screen legend Bette Davis was once an usherette at the Cape Playhouse.
  • Eugene O’Neill first appeared as a playwright when his “Bound East for Cardiff” was produced on the cape (1916).
  • President Grover Cleveland was first to have a summer White House on the cape (1890s), followed by JFK in the 1960s.

The sideways ‘L’

The name Cape Cod evokes images of a sunny, summery holiday destination, and with good reason, but its name indicates something else. In the earliest days of white settlement, locals made their living with farming, fishing and whaling — and there were a lot of cod around. Some farmers still farm; some towns are still fishing ports, but the whales aren’t hunted here now, except by tourists with cameras in hand.

Geography largely made Cape Cod what it was and what it has become. It is a scrawny patch of land that juts abruptly into the water off the coast of southeastern Massachusetts. It is totally surrounded by water but separated from the mainland by a mere canal.

The island looks like a sideways “L” on a map. Only 20 miles across at its widest point, Cape Cod extends 70 miles from the Cape Cod Canal to Provincetown, the town at its tip.

The era of big whalers made sea captains rich and it shows in the houses seen in the historic district lining Old King’s Highway. However, the collapse of the whaling business in the 19th century hit the local economy hard. The cape then began promoting tourism. Train service, from Boston to Sandwich, debuted in 1848; the train tracks finally reached the end point, Provincetown, in 1873.

The Kennedy family came in the 1920s when the patriarch, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, bought a summer home at Hyannisport. John Kennedy’s election to the presidency brought the world to Cape Cod. The Kennedy name remains a major draw for visitors. The John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum and JFK Memorial, both in Hyannis, are among the cape’s most popular attractions.

Other attractions vary widely, from the beaches for swimming to fine dining, upscale (or other) shopping, theater and garden tours. Sightseeing may be a self-drive itinerary or tours offered aboard a train or on a cruise.

But, even more, Cape Cod is a place for active vacationers, whether the activities are golf and cycling or sailing, skydiving and surfing. Or, at the extreme, there’s always the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Ride the waves at the Atlantic beaches on the Outer Cape, from Chatham to Truro. This is cold-water surfing, so wetsuits are recommended.
  • Download the Cape Cod ArtsApp to create a customized arts trail for yourself. Options include planning visits to artist studios and putting yourself in scenic locations that have inspired artists here.
  • At Barnstable, consider a tandem skydive.
  • Join a group of paddlers on a kayaking journey through the marshes and estuaries of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
  • If you can use the word “indulge” here, indulge in the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge (followed by a warm-you-up Chili Party) at Provincetown.
  • Charter a sailboat and test your skills on area waters.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Cycle the scenic, and paved, 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail, which winds its way from Dennis to Wellfleet. Alternatives are the 11-mile Shining Sea Bikeway in Falmouth and the eight-mile Cape Cod Canal Bike Path. Cape Cod boasts of 106 miles of bike paths.
  • The cape boasts nearly three dozen theaters. Attend a stage production.
  • Get married on Cape Cod.
  • Join a narrated sightseeing cruise in the cape’s bays and harbors. Look for the lighthouses.
  • Go out on a deep-sea fishing excursion. Or, fish in the surf, casting from the shore.
  • Take a Cape Cod tour for foodies. Then eat fresh seafood. For a different type of food experience, do the factory tour at Cape Cod Potato Chips, then enjoy the samples.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Play golf. Cape Cod claims to have the best golf in New England.
  • Go swimming. Eat fried clams.
  • Remember the 1960s and the president who had a summer residence here at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum.
  • Treat yourself to one or more garden tours, considering for example Sandwich’s Heritage Museums and Gardens and East Sandwich’s Green Briar’s Wildflower Garden and Giving Tree Gardens.
  • Ride the rails, meaning one of the Cape Cod Central Railroad sightseeing tours past cranberry bogs and sand dunes. Choose one that includes lunch or Sunday brunch.
  • rom roughly April to October, look for chances to go on a whale watching cruise.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce at www.capecodchamber.org