When you look at a map of Cape Cod, it looks like a large shrimp with its tail swept skywards or an arm held up in a fist action, maybe a sign of defiance to rail against the weather that may bear down upon it from the Atlantic Ocean. Weather certainly plays a big part of life on the Cape, with summers bringing thousands of holiday makers to the Cape, and those crowds largely leaving the Cape to its own during the winter. The winters vary from year to year, sometimes mild and other times even very occasionally the ocean can freeze over in parts – so it is a good idea to check the weather forecast too.
The Peninsula or Cape is around 65 miles long and between 1 and 20 miles wide at any one point, with all its beaches, bays, inlets, marshes and dotted islands creating a coastline that is over 500 miles long. In many ways the Cape is an island as the 17.6 mile long Cape Cod Canal cuts across the Cape as a channel between Cape Cod Bay to the north and Buzzards Bay to the south, with three bridges – two for road (the Sagamore Bridge and Bourne Bridge) and a third Bridge, the Cape Cod Railroad Bridge being for rail traffic. The Canal creates a much shorter distance from Cape Cod Bay on the north side to the south side of the Cape and was built in the late 1800’s and opened in 1916. The Cape Cod Visitor Center is at 60 Ed Moffitt Drive, Sandwich Marina with information about the Canal. (See www.capecodcanal.us Tel: 508 833 9678).
Cape Cod, like Long Island off New York, is a Barrier Island, made up largely of sand, so the original Mashpee Wampanoag Tribes and English Pilgrims who arrived here in 1620 and the settlers who followed relied heavily on the ocean for their livelihood, the Cape itself named after the Cod fish for which the ocean was known for.
Spread out over the Cape are a number of small beachside towns and villages, and it is both their remoteness but also the beauty of the beaches and coastline, with their clutters of small houses, marinas, lighthouses, fishing boats and village feeling that attracts so many people to come here to escape the big city commutes of daily life.
There are very few places on earth that can claim to have created their own character, lifestyle and architecture – but Cape Cod has achieved that distinction, with Cape Cod houses being a recognized architectural style worldwide.
The original Cape Cod house was a simple rectangular structure designed to suit the Cape Cod environment – with a steep pitched shingle wood roof so snow could slide off it as much as possible, the roof space used for storage or small bedrooms, a door placed in the center at the front of the house, with a window to the left and right side, made up of six up to twelve small panes of class creating each window. Inside the ceilings would be set low to retain heat with a central fireplace and chimney for cooking and warmth. In later styles, a dormer window would be added to the roof style, with the overall house built from wood, with a picket fence added in front of the house completing the picture.
Many additions and variations to the Cape Cod style have developed over the years, but Cape Cod retains much of its character and charm in the way the houses seem to blend into the coastal environment creating the overall ambience of the Cape as a destination.
There is a real mix of small fishing village life mixed in with the Bays, Ocean, fresh air, marinas, great sandy beaches and small shops, restaurants, boutiques, craft and antique shops, bed and Breakfast establishments and vacation rental properties creating a blend of real fishing village, tradition, beach and tourist related activities. You are never far from the Ocean and wherever you stay will probably determine where and what you do in the day and night.
The town of Sandwich is located next to the Canal and is about 60 miles from Boston, almost at the entranceway to the Cape, being next to the Sagamore Bridge. The town dates back to 1637 and here you will find hiking, biking, kayaking and golf to enjoy, with the old 1834 Town Hall in the center of town with other heritage buildings around it.
Things to see in Sandwich include –
Provincetown is where the Pilgrims first landed in 1620, and a monument to commemorate the Pilgrim’s landing and a museum are located at 1 High Pole Hill. The monument tower, built in Granite from Maine is 252 feet high and there are 116 steps to climb to the top. At the base of the monument is the Museum telling the story of the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower and also the story of Provincetown in the early days when it was a center for whaling. In town look for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum at 460 Commercial Street (See www.paam.org Tel: 508 487 1750).
Provincetown is at the end of the road on the Cape, but it is also possible to get here from Boston by Ferry too, with the crossing taking around 1 ½ hours to make the journey. Whale watching is also one of the most popular activities here too. (For Ferries and whale watching – See www.bostonharborcruises.com ).
Whale watching is seasonal and only happens from the end of June to mid-September.
Chatham – is located about 36 miles from Provincetown on the elbow of the Cape surrounded by waterways – Pleasant Bay, Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic Ocean with the island of Nantucket offshore. They say it is “the first stop of the East Wind” – and they’re right, it can get windy, but that is also part of its attraction – the wind, the salt air and the ocean are all here. In summer they even in the afternoon have fogs that roll in from the ocean too, making for great photos. It is like most of the Cape very busy in the height of the summer as the summer crowds arrive, so it is best to book accommodation early, but other seasons can be just as much fun without the crowds. If you ever read or watched the Great Gatsby movie, this gives you an idea of the setting and sophisticated style that is here to enjoy. Main Street has the galleries, boutiques and small shops to wander into and just two of the many beautiful Inns to stay at are –
Nantucket is both an island and a township, about a 90 minute Ferry
ride from Harwich Port, Hyannis or from Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. You can rent houses and cottages to stay here, or stay at an Inn or B&B or just do a day trip from the Cape to spend just part of a day here. Nantucket is an old whaling village, with cobblestone streets and historic homes creating a unique atmosphere. Whaling in its time brought wealth and affluence to the island, and the old homes and buildings reflect this early wealth. In the early days, whale oil was used to make soap, candles and other items, including scrimshaw (carvings made by whalers using whale bone), and there is the Nantucket Whaling Museum at 13 Broad Street where you can learn about the days of whaling.
You can easily get around the island by bike or by catching the Shuttle bus that runs from Nantucket to other points of the island.
People come to Nantucket for the solitude, ambience and also great beaches and places to walk, bike along the bike trails, bird watch and just wander, watch the sunset, play golf, sit in the sun, your boat or eat in one of the restaurants or cafes. There is a big marina here too and many people come here by boat, fly in or charter an aircraft to land at the airport.
For bird watchers and other wildlife there is the Caskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge – on Waiwinet Rd in Nantucket.
The island is picture perfect with the old houses and buildings making Nantucket a National Historic Landmark. There are the lighthouses – Brant Point at 2 Easton Street in Nantucket, built in 1746 and right out on the point there is the Green Point Lighthouse first built in 1769. The other lighthouse at Siasconset (they call it Sconset) and named as the Sankaty Head Lighthouse was built in 1850, and in 2013 it was moved from its position near the Cliffside to where it is now, as they feared that it might well fall into the ocean with a big storm hitting the cliffs below it. Locals like to give it a hug for luck and you’re welcome to do that too. In Siasconset there are cottages which are semi-covered in Roses, making an interesting sight to see, along with an umbrella shaded outdoor restaurant that is there too. Locals Sconsets are very proud of their historic homes here and coming here to see and feel the ambience of the island and village is really a privilege.
In Nantucket the Old Mill built in 1746 at 50 Prospect Street and a saltbox house, the Jethro Coffin House at Sunset Hill Rd are sometimes open, and the Loines Observatory, part of the Maria Mitchell Association is at 59 Milk Street, the Aquarium at 28 Washington Street and Mitchell House built in 1790 is at Vestal Street. Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was a naturalist and one of the first women Astronomers in the world, and the Association was formed in her honor.
Martha’s Vineyard –
Martha’s Vineyard is best known as a place where the rich and famous come to have their holiday breaks and from movie stars to moguls and politicians, including President Kennedy, President Clinton and President Obama, they have all come to Martha’s Vineyard to spend holiday breaks on the island. With this celebrity status, staying here particularly in peak summer season can be expensive.
The island itself is around 26 miles long and 9 miles wide and has a resident population of around 16,000 people, a holiday population of about 100,000 people and another 10,000 or so day-trippers to the island. Many of its residents have homes in Boston or New York and have a holiday home here on the island, and over 60% of homes here are in fact second homes.
The island was first settled by the Wampanoag Native Americans, with the first English Fisherman, Bartholomew Gosnold sailing here in 1602 followed years later by the English settlers in 1642. Bartholomew Gosnold is said to have named the island after his daughter, Martha but the reason for the description ‘Vineyard’ is a bit of a mystery.
Martha’s Vineyard has a long history and many of the old homes on the island date back to the 1800’s, with whalers spending their fortunes here building their homes, with lighthouses built to help alert ships of the dangers of coming too close to shore. There are five lighthouses on the island – the East and West Chop Lights, and ones at Edgartown, Cape Poge and Gay Head Lighthouse at Aquinnah.
Besides the big old whaler’s houses, there are also some 318 “Gingerbread Houses” in Oak Bluffs – small cottages with decorative painted timber fretwork verandas in front, and a smaller balcony above extending from the double doors that lead into first floor roof space. These cute houses were built between 1859 and 1880 for Methodist Christians who came to Oak Bluffs to a hold ‘Camp Meetings’ set up at the Trinity Park Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs and camp site. The first ‘Camp Meeting’ on the island was held in 1827, with canvas tents erected to house those who attended. From just a few tents in the 1830’s this grew by 1860 to around 500 and this led on to the construction of the timber Gingerbread Houses that you see today, built along circular roadways. The Iron Roof Tabernacle was built in 1879. Today, the Gingerbread houses are both popular to see, and also to rent from private owners. The Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Society Association also still exists and they have an office here too. See www.mvcma.org
Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven are just 7 miles from Woods Hole on Cape Cod and the Ferries arrive here from there, but also to Oak Bluffs from Falmouth and Hyannis and Nantucket which are both further away. See steamboatauthority.com Tel: 508 477 8600. In Oak Bluffs you will find bars, restaurants and nightlife, and the best place to go is to Circuit Avenue where you will also find the Flying Horses Carousel and arcade, along with Tumbledown Theater. The Vineyard Sound beaches are here too, making Oak Bluffs a good place to just wander and see what you see, and do what you do! You could also hire a bike to see some of the scenery on the island.
Vineyard Haven has a population of around 2000 people, but this number grows in the summer months as both tourists and those with second homes come back here to enjoy the summer. There are lots of restaurants at Tisbury Marketplace on Beach Rd and also along Main Street. Taxis and also Buses also can take you to other parts of the island from here too. The Steamship Authority Ferry Offices are here too, with Ferries arriving and departing from the wharf.
Edgartown is where you will find old Captain’s Houses and gardens, the Old Whaler’s Church and the Vineyard Museum at 59 School Street. At the museum you can visit the Thomas Cooke House (built somewhere between 1720 and 1740), and see the 1854 Fresnel lens (light) used in the Gay Head Lighthouse until 1952. Also here are the Spotlight Art Gallery and the Carriage Shed that houses the ‘Active’ locomotive and two original old whaling boats, and outside a ‘Try-House’ used by whalers to extract oil on-board ship. From Edgartown you can also just enjoy the ambience of the village, grab something to eat, shop, look in an Art Gallery, head to the 3 mile long Katana Beach or catch the ‘On-time Ferry’ to cross over the Chappaquiddick Island. The Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary is on the Vineyard Haven Rd at Edgartown with marshes and pond areas to see and watch birds.
Chappaquiddick Island was made famous or infamous as the island where Ted Kennedy in 1969 crashed his car into the water at Dike’s Bridge after a party on the island. He left the scene, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne died in the accident. The Island is about 300 yards distance from Edgartown, and the only connection is by Ferry. On the island look for the Mytoi Japanese Gardens and also the highlight of a visit here is Cape Poge – a wilderness bird watching area that is best seen by canoe or kayak. The island has also been hit by Hurricanes at different times too, which have in the past caused erosion of some of the beaches too.
Chilmark – on the other side of Martha’s Vineyard from Oak Bluffs is a small fishing village, so is very scenic and renowned for its sunsets. Here you will also find the Native Earth Teaching Farm, a community based farm, along with other farms in the hills around here.
Menemsha – is near Chilmark but faces Vineyard Sound and the Cape. It is a picture perfect small fishing village where the fish, oysters and lobsters are sold from next to the harbor here.
Aquinnah – is where you will find the Gay Head Lighthouse and bordering the Aquinnah Public Beach are the long 150 feet high multi colored cliff faces that make for great photos. Aquinnah is also the home to people of Wampanoag Heritage. A small beach called Moshup Beach is a nude bathing beach.
West Tisbury is where you will find the Polly Hill Arboretum – a garden area covering some 70 acres of ground (See pollyhillarboretum.org Tel: 508 693 9426) located at 809 State Rd in West Tilsbury. The gardens date back to the early 1900’s when Polly Hill (1907-2007) first began creating this garden oasis. The small village has a lot of small town atmosphere with the General Store, Church and small farms around it. There is also an outdoor Sculpture Gallery to see too.
Martha’s Vineyard is expensive to stay in, which is why many people just do a day trip here took, or rent a cottage as a group to make it more affordable. The ambience and lack of development is what makes Martha’s Vineyard such an attractive place to come to, the heritage, architecture, beaches, food and scenery all adding to the enjoyment away from the big cities on the mainland. There is windsurfing, paddleboarding, swimming, kayaking, horse riding, sitting around a pool, tennis, golf, restaurants, the marina, yacht club, farm produce, workshops for such things as yoga, art, woodcarving, meditation, cooking, as well as beach walking, biking and hiking to see and feel the clean air and enjoy the countryside. Once you have booked a good place to stay, the rest of the island is then yours to enjoy.
We hope you have a great time coming to the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket and seeing some of the places we have described.