In with the Cape crowd

Filmstars, writers and politicians head for New England in their quest for rest, relaxation and like minds. Philip Hoare joins Johnny Depp and the rest of the A-list in America's coolest summer retreat

For a century or more, Cape Cod has been a holiday retreat for Americans, from the glamour of the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport, past the harbour of Wellfleet - famed as the summer gathering place of New York psychiatrists - to the bohemian gay resort of Provincetown at its tip. In these few square miles, America seeks a kind of summer utopia, away from its everyday cares. Here, Henry David Thoreau came on his famed long walks in 1849 and 1855, and wrote: "A man may stand there and put all America behind him."

For a century or more, Cape Cod has been a holiday retreat for Americans, from the glamour of the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport, past the harbour of Wellfleet - famed as the summer gathering place of New York psychiatrists - to the bohemian gay resort of Provincetown at its tip. In these few square miles, America seeks a kind of summer utopia, away from its everyday cares. Here, Henry David Thoreau came on his famed long walks in 1849 and 1855, and wrote: "A man may stand there and put all America behind him."

Cape Cod is just an hour and a half away from Boston by fast ferry (or 20 minutes by plane), but as its vacationers disembark on to the wooden quayside of a New England harbour, or an airstrip whose sand-blown tarmac is patrolled by coyotes, they could not feel further away from the brouhaha of presidential campaigns and the "war on terror". "They commonly celebrate those beaches only which have a hotel on them ..." wrote Thoreau. "But I wished to see that seashore where man's works are wrecks; to put up at the true Atlantic House, where the ocean is land-lord as well as sea-lord."

Drive there, however, and you will pass those hotels, along with the sprawl around Hyannis, its Dunkin' Donuts and signs littering the periphery of the Lower Cape's populous hump. But as the settlements become more sparse along the Outer Cape, as this finger of ever-decreasing sandy land is known, you start to feel you have left the neurotic, yammering, celebrity-obsessed world behind. Here, as the MC in the Provincetown Players' elegantly dissolute production of Cabaret declares: "Life is beautiful." Not only that, but it is a sublimely blasé existence for those very celebrities who choose to spend their summers here, anonymously.

On a trip to Wellfleet and Truro, my landlord, Frank Schaefer, a German émigré who long ago established his eclectic boarding-house, the White Horse Inn (he named it after the New York hang-out of Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas and Norman Mailer), takes us on an insider's tour. After calling at the decidedly eccentric Susan Baker Memorial Museum - staffed by her poet partner, Keith Althouse - we take a sharp turn off the highway and into the forest. Frank knows the dirt tracks down which Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams lived in clapboard cottages; he points out a peeling sign painted with the word "Breuer" - home of the Bauhaus designer, Marcel Breuer. He shows us where Svetlana Stalin retreated into the woods; and most secret of all, he takes us to one of the mysterious, glacially deep kettle ponds, in which we swim. Surrounded entirely by trees, the dark water like velvet till you reach the colder depths, it's as though we had abandoned the 21st century for some Walden-like wilderness.

Nearby, the forest preserves the Atwood Higgins house, a perfect hamlet of ancient barns and farmhouses. The place is open to the public just one afternoon a week; the rest of the time, these decoratively decaying clapboard structures are the province of chipmunks and raccoons. One barn in particular seems to exude the idyllic vision of a perfect past in which the Cape exists - an illusion, perhaps, but one whose beauty allows you to forgive it. Beyond, the lane ends abruptly in grass-sown sand dunes and a largely deserted beach (and this is at the height of the summer season) which seems to extend into infinity.

Trudging through the hot sand, a young man in a sun hat, with goatee beard and moustache, passes us, speaking French to his young daughter; only after he has gone does my friend Mary identify his oddly familiar face as belonging to Johnny Depp. The world might be happening in another place, as far as the Cape is concerned. My neighbours' political discourse extends only to the fact that they met that nice Gordon Brown and his wife at a party here last year (the Chancellor is an established summer visitor). I've come 3,000 miles, and Cape Codders are more interested in British politicians than their own.

Wellfleet itself is a perfect New England town, more a village in scale (although its 2,750 population swells sixfold in the summer), first settled in the 1650s when the Pilgrim Fathers discovered the excellence of its oysters. It centres on its church, library, shops and galleries; the houses are architecturally distinctive "full Capes" or "half Capes", depending on the number of windows; some still have their traditional sleeping balconies on the first floor, refuges on hot summer nights.

Truro is much less distinct as a community; its downtown mall consists of three shops. These places revel in their own low-key glamour, almost down-at-heel, it's so subtle. One night, three young Truro women cook us dinner with provisions from their organic farm. Emily, Sarah and Alexis have the glow of the outdoors on their perfect complexions and in their dark hair; my friend says they look like Kennedy girls. Later, as we cruise the bars - including one surreal encounter in a Veterans' bar in a cellar decorated with folded Stars and Stripes - they hang out with fishermen and other locals; it's a glimpse of what life is like for the young and unattached, another kind of freedom.

There is great wealth here, of course; but there is vibrant culture, too - Truro's Castle Hill arts centre attracts international artists and writers, while the Wellfleet Harbour Actors Theater stages premieres of Patrick Marber and Sam Shepard. Here the creative and the celebrated join the powerful and the merely rich in unassuming, tasteful langour for the season, a summer's lease of self-exile - and yet it is one which, ironically, has its roots in economic collapse.

In the late 19th century, the Cape's great industries began to fail. Whaling ebbed away, from a point when the Pilgrim Fathers had seen Northern Right whales so numerous in Cape Cod Bay that it seemed they could walk all the way to Plymouth Rock on their backs, to today, when only 350 of these beautiful, baroque, slow-moving cetaceans are left. Meanwhile, the fishing fleets were decimated as the plentiful cod for which the place was named became almost as rare.

Instead, Cape Cod reinvented itself as a place of recreation, and creativity. While the tourists came to bask in the light which bounces off the sea like a photographer's reflecting screen, that same transcendent quality drew artists, writers and poets. New York bohemians would arrive by ferry direct from the piers of Manhattan, and in 1916, Eugene O'Neill turned up, clad in a nautical sweater, and proceeded to write and produce his first dramas with the Provincetown Players. Gay artists such as Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth, renowned for swishing around Provincetown in black shirts and purple ties, set the tone for what was, in effect, an American version of Bloomsbury, Greenwich Village-on-Sea, Brighton crossed with Aldeburgh.

At Truro, Edward Hopper painted the Cape's trademark lighthouses in faintly troubled, disconnected scenes which evoke the area's empty yet lush bleakness; Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko were fired in a more abstract manner by the beauty of the place.

Writers Norman Mailer and Michael Cunningham still live here, as do poets Stanley Kunitz and the Pulitzer-winning Mary Oliver, seeking inspiration from the area's outer reaches - the Cape boasts one of the longest protected stretches of National Seashore in the country. Here O'Neill, who lived in one of the ramshackle, primitive dune shacks where artists and writers can still spend an isolated summer, felt "a true kinship and harmony with life out here ... and you know that you are alone ... You can walk or swim along the beach for miles and meet only the dunes - Sphinxes muffled in their yellow robes with paws deep in the sea."

On a Sunday afternoon, tourists along Commercial Street pause to take photos of Provincetown artist Jackson Lambert's eccentric garden, studded with "biodegradable" sculptures of painted wood, while Lambert, a D-Day veteran, now grey-bearded and smoking a pipe on his ancient couch like some character out of Melville, offers his visitors tequila sours. "So many folks don't drink nowadays," he sighs, as he produces elegant martini glasses out of the dusty, chaotic still life that is his house, its walls decorated with his own paintings cut down to fit, and his studio yard overgrown by ivy and bright orange trumpet flowers planted by his late wife to attract humming birds. And so we sit, listening to my friend Mary's viola and the barking of black labrador Maggie, while drag queens and Maryland families pass by; and for a few stilled minutes, it really does seem as though this little enclave of paradise has all the answers.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Philip Hoare flew to Boston with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which offers return fares from £375 in September. Boston Harbor Cruises (001 617 748 1428; www.bostonharborcruises.com) runs a fast ferry service to Provincetown from $58 return (£32) per person.

Where to stay

The Dan'l Webster Inn, 149 Main Street, Sandwich (001 508 888 3622; www.danlwebsterinn.com) offers doubles, room only, from $149 (£87).

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