Last summer, writer Jessica Ritz hauled her kids, aged 3 and 5, across the country for some old-fashioned fun in Cape Cod. Fried clam eating and boogie boarding ensued.
CAPE COD – "Say hi to the Kennedys!" my friend jokingly called out to me when I ran into her en route to LAX. I was on my way to Cape Cod, and, well, I was wearing white linen and navy stripes. Not the most practical attire when traveling cross-country with two young kids, but I was slowly slipping into the Cape Cod mindset. Trying on the costume, in a sense.
To an uninitiated West Coaster such as myself, the image of Cape Cod stereotypically involves gin and tonics, talk of the yacht club, lavish estates, linen, and nonstop Kennedy family gossip. A week based in Provincetown, exploring nearby towns on the outer Cape proved otherwise.
THE PROVINCETOWN SCENE
A diverse community where essentially every day during peak season is Pride day, Provincetown is its own animal. There's a flurry of activity in the local theater and visual arts scenes all summer long, as well as the compact village's own take on Mardi Gras in August. This artistic and deeply progressive culture is juxtaposed next to all the old-fashioned candy stores and T-shirt souvenir shops you could ever want in a dense seaside tourist destination that punctuates the end of one of the country's most historic and picturesque geographical features. Plymouth Rock may get all the attention, but P-Town is where the Pilgrims first landed.
It only took traveling across the country to remember this valuable lesson: My kids could not be happier than when they're on a beach. I'll gladly make the 3,000 mile trek again to return to Cape Cod (in the meantime, I'll just to grin and bear the 20 heavily trafficked miles to visit the coast in our own hometown).
WHERE TO EAT
Two indie coffee joints bookend either side of Commercial Street downtown. Wired Puppy coffee shop keeps the eastern edge humming, while Joe Coffee & Café to the west is welcoming with a large charming outdoor patio area and a larger menu of breakfast and lunch items.
At Local 186 you can chose to sit on the street level patio, on the large, projecting wrap-around porch upstairs, or inside the former Victorian house that's now an outstanding, high-end burger restaurant. Meat is sourced from some of the best producers across the country, such as Snake River Farms. You can design your own burger or select one from the list, which includes the decadent Surf & Turk, made with a Kobe beef patty, butter-poached lobster, and aioli. Not in the mood for burgers? No problem. Go for oysters, salads, or specialties like fried pickles or artichoke hearts.
Finding fried clams, lobster rolls, oysters, and the like requires only taking a few steps in any direction downtown. As its beautiful vintage neon signage suggests, Lobster Pot is a local institution, as are other always-crowded places like John's Footlong on Lopes Square by the MacMillan Pier and Bubala's. For farm-to-table and locavore ethics, it's tough to beat the Provincetown outpost of the Boston area's Ten Tables neighborhood restaurants.
But for many meals, we hit the highway and headed to Wellfleet and Eastham instead, because planning dinner in these areas more easily tied into afternoon family beach outings. The waits are punishing during peak dinner times at the more popular shacks along Route 6. Down-home Cape charm and local tradition is harder to appreciate after waiting more than an hour to eat what's hardly an inexpensive meal on paper plates at picnic tables.
So after learning the hard way, the suggestion of one kid in our party to have ice cream first, dinner second — at Arnold's in Eastham — didn't seem so ridiculous. (We did not have time for a round of mini golf on Arnold's tricked-out course.) We were happy to stuff ourselves with the famous thin onion rings, lobster rolls, and Wellfleets and clams on the half shell from the raw bar. You could also call ahead for take-out.
Mac's on Wellfleet harbor is as dreamy as Cape Cod gets, with a playground nearby and direct access to the water dotted with tall grasses and elegant houses visible in the distance. Mac's Shack up the road has a cozy outdoor seating area and winds back up to Main Street, closer to Route 6, past Herridge Books and Wicked Oyster restaurant.
The menu at Wicked Oyster ranges from local basics (yup, more oysters) to higher-end fare. With warm, wide-plank floors inside and an abundant flower garden outside during the summer, it's both a neighborhood hang (with a drop-in coffee bar in the morning) and a special occasion destination. The dinner menu, which included braised short ribs with cauliflower polenta and seared scallops with seasonal risotto, was indicative of the kitchen's sophistication.
It's hard to pass by PB Boulangerie without grabbing authentic French pastries, fresh loaves of bread, and other treats. Eat sandwiches on the covered patio or grab and go for lunch on the beach. Come dinner time, it feels as if Lyon has been imported to the Cape. The food truck trend has arrived at the outer Cape as well, in the adorable form of the healthy, cheerful and stylish Sunbird, also on Route 6 in Wellfleet.
Food Shops and Provisions
The area's general shunning of the mainstream means you won't find a Whole Foods in these parts. But there is a Stop and Shop, and other small store options that bolster the local character, such as Bradford Natural Market. The Saturday Provincetown Farmers Market by Town Hall is a must-stop for local produce from May to November.
I'd heard about Cape Cod's mythical, wild beach plum jelly from a pastry chef friend back in L.A., so I made sure to grab a few jars from BriarLane James and Jellies' stand on Route 6 in Wellfleet.
Sure, I would have loved to crash a literary reception at the fabulous, picturesque Norman Mailer Center, spend a few quiet contemplative hours in the charming walls of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and peruse the many art galleries in Provincetown. But I had small, restless kids to entertain.
We could have stayed weeks and still barely scratched the surface of the Cape's outdoor adventuring opportunities. Marconi Beach is a favorite among surfers and folks who prefer more intense waves, but our favorite among all age groups proved to be Coast Guard Beach on the ocean side in Eastham. Managed by the National Park Service and part of the federally protected Cape Cod National Seashore, a NPS membership or fee gets you into the parking lot. From there a tram completes the journey to the stunning beach with ideal-sized waves for small children and boogie boarders.
Back in Provincetown, we'd walk across the street from our hotel and wade way out into the harbor during low tide, both day and night — a novelty for me and my kids who are used to the more rugged Pacific. For less mellow beach going, a rigorous hike over sand dunes winds up at stunning Race Point beach. Shuttles from the bus depot downtown are a good way to get around to beaches around the tip. Better yet, you can bike the winding trails. Bike rentals are readily available but often go fast. A smoother and flatter trail is the Cape Cod Bike Trail from Wellfleet, which starts across the street from PB Boulangerie near the Beachcomber shop.
Arrange a tide pool tour in advance with an NPS ranger for Junior Ranger certification, which was a popular activity for some of the kids in our group. (Mine overslept.) Or a walk along the breakwater provides access to finding crabs and other critters on your own schedule.
WHERE TO STAY
At the far east end, outside of the relative busy hum of town, Harbor Hotel is a minimalist, mid-century motel that's recently undergone a chic redo. Not all the rooms have been renovated, so be sure to request a rehabbed room when reserving. Rooms are painted spare white with practical rolled linoleum floors (easier for sweeping up that oh-so sneaky sand), platform blonde wood beds, and judicious pops of bright pastels. The lobby is bright and playful, with direct access to Provincetown Harbor across two-lane route 6A. Complimentary continental breakfast is served in the dining room, and at night guests and a smattering of locals relax by the fire pit in front while high tide comes in. A 30-minute walk gets you into the thick of things, though we were more than happy to take the convenient RTA shuttle bus that connects North Truro and Provincetown.
With block after block of clapboard and wood shingle-clad Colonial style structures, Provincetown is a B-and-B lover's paradise. Most hang the rainbow flag out as a sign of welcome to LGBT travelers. Condo and house rentals are plentiful as well.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly: Because our arrival on the Cape required a lot of coordination, I was pretty stressed getting all the way to P-Town as the lone adult with two kids in tow. Flying for around $99-$129 one-way is an option on Cape Air, which delivers passengers from more than 60 cities to Provincetown Municipal Airport, the most quaint (and hassle-free) airport I've ever seen.
Drive: Most travelers arrive by car, obviously, since Provincetown is only 100-odd miles from Boston.
Ferry: Taking the Bay State Cruise Company's fast ferry, however, was the best and most fun way to go, both for the pleasure of the journey itself and the cost. But this method isn't without its challenges; thankfully I had a cousin to help us manage getting ourselves and all our gear to the ferry terminal, which is located off a busy street without nearby lot access. We then drove back to Logan Airport in Boston for the return to Los Angeles. Here's hoping we'll have opportunities to take ferries to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard in the future.