Just when you thought it was time to hunker down for winter…
4 days / 60 miles
This trip runs from Sandwich, Cape Cod’s oldest town, to Provincetown, a breeding ground for artistic and alternative culture. Along the way, there’s time for beach hopping, antique shopping and plenty of oyster slurping. Originally but temporarily published on Lonely Planet.
Cruisin’ Old Cape Cod
As soon as I drive across the Sagamore Bridge from mainland Massachusetts to Cape Cod, I can feel it… The saltbox houses show their age. Intriguing art adorns the lawns. The air tastes salty. I slow my pace, roll down the windows and breathe it in. There is much to do – beaches to comb, bikes to ride, antiques to browse – but the summer days are long and the seafood is plentiful. There’s no need to rush.
Sandwich is the first town on the Cape. At its center, it feels not like a beach town, but like a historic village — which it is. In fact, it is the Cape’s oldest town, settled in 1637. The picturesque centerpiece is Shawme Pond, sprinkled with swans and graced with a working 17th-century gristmill on its shore. Cruise south along the pond’s shoreline to Heritage Museums & Gardens, an eclectic and enticing collection of — you guessed it — museums and gardens. There are antique cars, American art and outdoor playscapes, not to mention acre upon acre of gorgeous, flowering greenery. I timed my last visit with the June display of rhododendrons, which were ablaze with pinks, purples and magentas. But there are beautiful blooms at any time between April and October, especially lilacs, lilies, roses and hydrangeas.
Before leaving town, take a walk across the Sandwich Boardwalk, a wooden-plank walkway that extends a scenic 1350ft across the expansive salt marsh to Town Neck Beach. This is your first of many views of glorious Cape Cod Bay—the star attraction of this road trip.
Old King’s Highway
Driving east from Sandwich, you’ll start to feel what Route 6A is all about. For the next 20 miles or so, you’re traversing the Old King’s Highway – what used to be the main east-west thoroughfare along Cape Cod. White picket fences frame flower-filled gardens and stately old homes, many of which are now crammed with antiques for sale. Stop to browse and you’ll surely come home with some treasure.
By the time you reach Barnstable, you may be yearning for another glimpse of the water. If so, take a detour to the spectacular six-mile barrier beach at Sandy Neck. Miles of hiking trails meander among the beach, dunes and marsh. Go walking in the early morning or late evening for the best chance to spot wildlife like red foxes and shorebirds.
When you’re ready to rest, you won’t find a more romantic place to lay your head than Ashley Manor. This 17th-century inn will charm you with its wood-burning fireplaces, whirlpool tubs and historic architectural features. Did somebody say history? One of the rooms – Queen Charlotte’s Suite – contains a secret passageway, where Tories hid during the Revolutionary War.
Continuing east on 6A, you’ll soon come to Yarmouth Port, home to Captains’ Mile, where nearly 50 historic sea captains’ houses are lined up along Main St. Most of them are private homes, but you can peek inside the 1840 Captain Bangs Hallett House, which is now a small museum maintained by the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth (hsoy.org). Also along this stretch, don’t miss the chance to cool off with an ice cream from Hallet’s Store, which has been operating for more than 125 years.
Every village along 6A has its requisite seafood shack, but Sesuit Harbor Café, in Dennis, is one of the best of the bunch. Take Sesuit Neck Rd to Northside Marina for picnic table seating, fabulous views of beach and bay, and one heck of a lobster roll. If you’d like to wash it down with an ice-cold lager or a crisp rosé, you are welcome to bring your own.
The next village on Route 6A is Brewster, which is an outdoor adventurer’s playland. Your first challenge is deciding how you want to spend your afternoon. Fishing, swimming or boating? Head straight to Nickerson State Park, which contains some 2000 acres of woods and ponds. If you brought a tent, you can also camp here. Cycling is my game, so I would rent a bike and hop on the Cape Cod Rail Trail – 22 miles of scenic, off-road riding. On rainy days, I have whiled away some hours at the old-fashioned Brewster Store, where penny candy and hokey souvenirs are sold alongside museum-quality memorabilia. No matter how you spend the afternoon, at sunset you should find yourself at Point of Rocks: hunt for hermit crabs and seashells on the tidal flats, then watch the magic as the fiery orb drops into the bay.
Cape Cod National Seashore
On your third day, you’ll leave behind the leafy, old-fashioned charm of the Old King’s Highway, as MA 6A merges with the more modern US 6 in Eastham. Fortunately, the Outer Cape has its own appeal – namely, the Cape Cod National Seashore. Stop in at the Salt Pond Visitors Center to purchase your parking permit and pick up a map of this glorious expanse – encompassing about 70 square miles of unspoiled beaches, dunes, salt marshes and woodlands.
If you want to get started exploring right away, you can choose a trail for hiking or biking around the protected area. Or, drive up Nauset Rd to Coast Guard Beach, a magnificent, open ocean beach that’s perfect for swimming and body surfing. For a photo op, take a quick detour down Ocean View Dr to Nauset Light, which has been shining over the Cape since 1877.
Your next destination is Wellfleet, one of the unsung gems on the Cape. Pull up a picnic table at Mac’s Shack and order your first dozen oysters, which you can slurp off the half-shell while overlooking Wellfleet Harbor (and the flats where the oysters originated). After lunch, stroll around the charming town, browsing the bookstores and 20-some art galleries.
When the sky starts to darken, motor over to the Wellfleet Drive-In. After an exhilarating day of surf, sand and seafood, it’s time to sit back and enjoy a double feature. The technology and the flicks are up-to-date, but the drive-in experience is straight from 1957. After the show, you’ll be ready to snuggle in at the Inn at Duck Creeke, a quintessential Cape Cod lodging housed in a former sea captain’s house. It overlooks a tidal creek that leads out to the bay.
Your next and final day brings you to the tip of the Cape. Provincetown is the culmination of everything that I love about Cape Cod: wild windswept beaches and sand dunes strewn with wildflowers, not to mention seafood, art galleries and alternative lifestyles in every incarnation. P-town is the perfect place to rent a bicycle and use it to explore this end of the Cape Cod National Seashore. A 5-mile paved trail winds between the dunes, connecting two pristine beaches. If you’re hankering to get out on the water, this is an ideal launching point for Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch, since it’s the closest port to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the summertime feeding ground for humpback whales.
No matter how you spend your day, make sure you dedicate a few hours to wandering down Commercial St for the Cape’s best window shopping, gallery hopping and people-watching. When you need a break, stop at Aqua Bar (207 Commercial St), which is a sort of food court, where the options include a raw bar, sushi and – this is crucial – a fully stocked bar. It’s my perfect perch to slurp some oysters, sip a cool cocktail and watch the sun set into Provincetown Harbor.