Eastern promise

Glamour, nostalgia, great scenery, fresh fish - that's Cape Cod, says CNN's Richard Quest

New England doesn't get much more historic than the Massachusetts coast and Cape Cod. After all, it was here that the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Today, of course, it is here that so much of the north-eastern elite whiles away the long summer days.

New England doesn't get much more historic than the Massachusetts coast and Cape Cod. After all, it was here that the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Today, of course, it is here that so much of the north-eastern elite whiles away the long summer days.

With a landscape that resembles the southern coast of Britain, some of the country's wealthiest and oldest families have had homes here for decades. This is old money at play. The Kennedy family has a compound of several houses right on the beach. (As a reporter, I remember spending days outside their beautiful compound in 1999 when John F Kennedy Jr crashed his private plane on the way to the Cape, killing himself, his wife and sister in law.)

Cape Cod is the large crab claw that comes out from the map of the Massachusetts coast, dotted with familiar British town names such as Falmouth, Truro, Yarmouth and Chatham. Driving from New York takes about four to five hours, via Providence and Rhode Island, while from Boston it's a mere 40 miles to the start of the Island (when a Depression-era canal was built, the Cape became, technically, an island). There is a mental sigh when you go from the mainland on to the Cape across either the Segamore or Bourne bridge, despite the often horrendous traffic. But at least you know you are on the Cape and the holiday, psychologically, can begin. Indeed, any devotee of the Florida Keys will find the Cape drive very similar to that of Miami to Key West. In both cases, the first time you do the drive it's charming and fun. The second time brings, "Are we there yet?", and the last time becomes, "Let's fly".

So if you're coming from Boston, I suggest you take the 35-minute puddle-hopper flight across the bay, guaranteed to give you the great feeling that you've made the journey as it should be done and arrived in style.

Today's Cape Cod, like any exclusive resort, is where those who have belonged for decades now butt heads with those of us coming in for a break. Mr Nimby meets Mrs Wannabee. My sister's family have rented a house or stayed with friends on the Cape for the past decade. I usually take advantage of their generosity and sofa beds. With hot summer days without the tropical heat and wonderful cool evenings suitable for a sweater but no more, it's among the most idyllic places.

And not unlike its New York neighbour, The Hamptons on Long Island, the Cape in the summer is "a scene" - the right family in the right restaurant on the right beach. But I have always found Cape Cod so much more enjoyable than The Hamptons. It is more relaxed, the houses are not as ostentatious and those who have holiday homes there genuinely seem to love the place, not just because it's the place to be. Without Wall Street's proximity inflating rental incomes, properties on the Cape are merely very expensive rather than offensively so.

To give you an example of how to make a holiday on the Cape successful, look no further than the rules regarding beaches. The western beaches around the bay side are sheltered and have gentle surf. The Eastern beaches are exposed to the Atlantic Ocean, wonderfully aggressive and much more fun for the adventurous. However, not all pebbles on the beaches are equal. Some beaches are private, some are federal land (thus open to all), while the best beaches are controlled by the local towns and require that you get a parking permit from the town hall. On the Federal beaches, you can just pull up and bathe and, in the summer, expect to wait some time before getting a space. Maintaining exclusivity is what places like Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard are all about and the beach regulations go some way to make sure that only those that "should" be there, actually are there. Woe betide anyone straying onto private beaches.

Most visitors to the area make Provincetown, at the very end of the Cape, their base. In the summer, abandon your car as soon as you can as it will be more of a hindrance than help here. Walk, cycle... just do anything to avoid battling with the horrendous traffic. From Provincetown, you can launch yourself off on a whale watch, or take a fishing trip to actually catch something. Provincetown happens to be one of the favourite resorts for the north-eastern gay community. A late-night ritual for adults is sitting outside Spiritus Pizza shop after the pubs close just watching the cruising.

When it comes to food on the Cape, I am reminded of the old story told to me as trainee journalist about the fishing shack sign reading "Fresh Fish Sold Here". "Which words are redundant?" asked our tutor. Well, obviously the fish is here - where else would it be? And we clearly aren't giving it away. And since we are by the sea it must be fresh. Hence all the sign needs to say is "Fish"! That just about sums up eating on the Cape. Driving along the central arterial road Route 6, you come across countless seafood restaurant signs. For me, simplicity is best, such as lobster or crab just sautéed in butter. There's no need for elaborate food. A fresh clambake. A simple pie. That's what life on the Cape is all about.

With an historical exception some 400 years ago, so far the British have only discovered Cape Cod in dribs and drabs. A weekend on the Cape is usually tacked on to a touring holiday through New England rather than being a destination in its own right. For some good reason: it's at least 12 hours door-to-door from London and rental properties start from $600 per week in high season. So the chattering classes may still prefer Provence and Tuscany, but in its own way, Cape Cod is America's equivalent.

Richard Quest presents 'CNN Business Traveller', airing the second Thursday of the month at 9.30pm on CNN International.

Cape Air (001 508 771 6944; www.flycapeair.com) operates a fleet of Cessnas between Boston and destinations in Cape Cod.

The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce (001 508 362 3225; www.capecodchamber.org) provides tourist information on the area, including details of estate agents for renting property and contacts for outdoor activities.

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