If you pore over a map of Cape Cod – the most mystical of all holiday haunts on the US east coast – you will see that visiting it is like falling down an Alice-In-Wonderland rabbit hole.
If you pore over a map of Cape Cod – the most mystical of all holiday haunts on the US east coast – you will see that visiting it is like falling down an Alice-In-Wonderland rabbit hole. Everything is turned fabulously on its head. The town of South Dennis is north of West Dennis; South Chatham is west of West Chatham. There is only one real highway down the middle of the Cape, and every exit is like a door in an enchanted hallway that leads to an equally enchanted room, or inn, or lighthouse. I have made pilgrimages to the Cape Cod town of West Dennis (exit/door number nine) since I was a boy. My family has a beach house at the mouth of the Swan River. Now I am 31 and live in Manhattan, but I still trek to the Cape every April and October, in the off-season. I go for the quiet, the lore, the crab bisque, the starlight.
Okay, okay, now let's hit the beach
The absolutely coolest and least known locale on Cape Cod is Gray's Beach in Yarmouthport on Cape Cod Bay. It's not a recreational beach, so don't bother bringing swimming trunks. Take exit eight off the Mid-Cape highway and follow the twisty roads and tiny signs indicating Gray's Beach. You will come to a small sandy brink of the bay with a glorious, reedy marshland teeming with wildlife and stunning views. Walk the quarter-mile long wooden dock out over this marsh and photograph the most spectacular sunset you will see north of Key West.
If you like it remote and quiet but prefer to soak up sun, seek out one of the inland Cape lakes or ponds that most tourists never find. Pleasant Lake, between Harwich and Brewster, is the largest of these gems. If you are an athlete, don't miss the biking paths near Pleasant Lake either, but if you are a truly sick puppy, grab your surfboard or windsurfer and head for Nauset Beach. The waves pack a punch, though the currents can be treacherous: check with locals about where to launch before trying anything heroic.
No, let's not do anything heroic
If you are a more traditional beachgoer, visit friendly West Dennis Beach off Lower County Road. Popular in summer with Cape locals and tourists alike, this beach is closer to civilisation and it is right smack beside the Swan River, where you can raft or kayak. When lunch comes around, sample the chowder at The Swan River Restaurant just half a mile away, or better yet buy the giant, unbeatably fresh lobsters at their fish market and take them home for a steam and a feast.
Talking of chowder, let's talk some chow
If you do nothing but eat out on Cape Cod, you won't be sorry. Many of the best eateries on Cape Cod are just that: diners, breakfast nooks or delis with little to recommend them beyond their stellar chow. The best such place is Bonatt's Bakery in Harwichport, famous for its pastry creation, the Melt-Away, a brown sugar, butter and blueberry sensation. If the Melt-Aways are sold out (as they frequently are in summer), dry your tears and cross the street to The Mason Jar Deli which combines simple, perfect ingredients to please the most eclectic palate. Other sure bets are The Red Lion on Route 6A in Barnstable, A'Louette on Route 28 outside Chatham, and, for the literally sea-faring, The Lobster Boat (on 28 between Hyannis and Yarmouth), an actual giant trawler converted into a seafood lover's dreamboat restaurant.
Enough with the food, already. How about a little retail therapy?
My favourite store on Cape Cod, and perhaps in the world, is a hidden woodland artists' colony called Scargo Pottery on Dr Lord's Road South (off Route 6A) in Dennis. Scargo is a family operation: one man and his six daughters are the artists. The wares on display (plates, statues, jewellery, you name it) are affordable, and arrestingly unique.
Or hop the ferry from Wood's Hole (in Hyannisport) to the island of Martha's Vineyard. A popular summer hideaway for celebrities like James Taylor and Bill Clinton, the Vineyard is quaint but crowded. Rent bikes in Vineyard Haven and cycle your way along the coast to Edgartown, where there are as many boutiques and nautical sundry shops as there are tourist wallets. Less commercial and more cosmopolitan, Provincetown, at the tip of the Cape, gets everyone's vote as New England's funkiest port and it's a great place to stroll and people-watch. Overall, though, the best thing is to wander around and follow whatever curious white rabbit catches your eye. The weirdness and wonder of Cape Cod will surprise you every time.
Can't wait. How do I get there?
Trailfinders (0207 9375400; www.trailfinders.co.uk) book flights from all major UK airports to Boston. Prices for a direct return flight, Gatwick to Boston in August, start from £459 including taxes. Car hire can also be organised through Trailfinders. Prices start from £190 for one-week rental, including insurance, unlimited mileage and taxes. Cape Cod is 90 minutes' drive from the airport. USA Tourist Information (0906 5508911).
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