Massachusetts' summer playground

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Escape to the sandy beaches and clapboard villages of Cape Cod, says Kate Simon

"I didn't eat any lobster yesterday, I'll have to make up for that." My travelling companion, Rachel, is determined that a day will not pass on our tour of Cape Cod without lobster featuring in one of her meals. It's not a big ask: lobster is as common as chips here. They load it into buns and heap it on to salads with such generosity that it's hard to resist gorging on the sweet pink meat.

Eating locally caught lobster – along with clams, oysters and crab – is just one of the joys of Cape Cod, the flexed arm of land that juts off Massachusetts' southernmost point into the Atlantic. The 340 square mile area is portioned into the Upper Cape, the western end taking in Bourne, Sandwich, Falmouth and Mashpee, the Mid Cape, from Barnstable to Dennis, and the Lower Cape, between Harwich and Provincetown at the north-east tip.

Once a peninsula, the Cape was transformed into an island by the construction of a canal in 1914 between Cape Cod Bay in the east and Buzzards Bay in the west. The Bourne and Sagamore bridges, which span the man-made waterway, heave with traffic between Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) and Labor Day (the first Monday in September), when holidaymakers and second-home owners flee Boston and New York to wiggle their toes in white sands and breathe in the fresh salty air on the Cape's 560 miles of coastline.

This landscape of dune-backed beaches, lighthouses and clapboard and shingle dwellings seduces visitors to pull on their linen shirts and loafers and bunk down in B&Bs and holiday homes, swelling the resident population of about 200,000 to half a million. They come to sit on the sands (there are about 60 beaches), mess about on boats, go in search of whales, hunt for big-game fish, play golf and ramble or cycle amid the dunes, marshes, pine woods and cranberry bogs.

Tourism took off on Cape Cod in the late 1800s and was boosted in the mid-20th century when John F Kennedy made Hyannis Port his summer retreat – holidays at the family compound are recorded in photos at the rather provincial John F Kennedy Hyannis Museum (001 508 790 3077; jfkhyannismuseum.org; 397 Main Street; $8/£5). Since the 1970s, Provincetown has been a favourite holiday hangout for the gay and lesbian community. The Cape picks up passing visitors, too, heading to the nearby islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

But Cape Cod offers more than wide skies. Provincetown is where the Pilgrim Fathers first made landfall in the Mayflower in 1620 (they later settled at Plymouth), commemorated by the Pilgrim Monument (001 508 487 1310; pilgrim-monument.org; $12/£8), a 252ft-high turreted tower built in 1910 which dominates the town.

Many of the names of Cape Cod's communities are reminders of the world the Pilgrims left behind – Truro, Chatham, Sandwich, Falmouth, Harwich, Yarmouth and Barnstable. Mashpee and Sagamore recall the original inhabitants, the Wampanoag Native Americans, who lost their land to the English colonists they had helped. Their ancestors still live here and their story is told at the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum (001 508 477 9339; mashpeewampanoagtribe.com, donations).

Creatures from the deep

The waters around Cape Cod are so popular with whales that many of the boats are prepared to guarantee a sighting.

You don't have to go far from Provincetown, pictured, to see these leviathans emerge from the deep. At the edge of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (stellwagen.noaa.gov), humpbacks, minkes, the endangered right and the second largest whale on Earth, the fin, are frequently seen. Porpoises, dolphins and seals provide a delightful supporting cast. The Dolphin Fleet (001 508 240 3636; whalewatch.com; from $42/£28) offers tours of between three and four hours, led by a naturalist, from the MacMillan Pier at Provincetown. From Hyannis, try Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises (whales.net; tickets $49/£33).

Eating and drinking

Seafood lovers will be spoilt for choice. For restaurant service in Provincetown try the Lobster Pot (001 508 487 0842; ptownlobsterpot.com) for treats such as cajun bouillabaisse ($28/£19). Turn a blind eye to the tired decor at the Dan'l Webster Inn (001 508 888 3622; danlwebsterinn.com) in Sandwich, because the food is superb (starters from $9/£6, mains from $18/£12). Head for Chatham Pier Fish Market (001 508 945 3474; chathampierfishmarket.com) to snack on the daily catch while watching the seals. At Truro Vineyards (001 508 487 6200; trurovineyardsofcapecod.com) you can taste the wine produced on this estate and, from this summer, the vineyard will team with BlackFish restaurant (001 508 349 3399) to serve lunches from its mobile eatery.

Time to brake away

Get on your bike on the Province Lands Trail, a pleasant six-mile ride through beech forests and grass-fringed dunes. The trail is within the Cape Cod National Seashore (nps.gov/caco). PTown Bikes (001 508 487 8735; ptownbikes.com) in Provincetown, near the trailhead, offers hire from $18 (£12) a day. Or try the Cape Cod Rail Trail (bit.ly/RailT), a 22-mile greenway from which you can explore Wellfleet, Dennis, Harwich, Brewster and Orleans.

King of the road

Instead of speeding along US Route 6, the main thoroughfare that bisects Cape Cod, take in the scenery on 6A, the Old King's Highway. This road connects the main streets of several communities, revealing as it goes the area's artistic heritage through roadside galleries, studios and showrooms. You'll find more than 50 antique shops and other highlights, including the Sandwich Glass Museum (001 508 888 0251; sandwichglassmuseum.org; admission $6/£4), the Cape Cod Art Association at Barnstable (001 508 362 2909; capecodartassoc.org; free) and Scargo Pottery & Art Gallery, pictured (001 508 385 3894; scargopottery.com) in Dennis. For more art-themed venues and trails, consult Arts & Artisans Trails, available to download as an app at: capeandislandsartsguide.com.

Where to stay

There's something to suit all budgets in Cape Cod. In Provincetown, pictured, the Harbor Hotel (001 855 447 8696; harborhotelptown.com) has 129 clean, comfy rooms with kitchenettes, a restaurant, bar and fire pit. Book a room with a sea view – from $179 (£119) per double per night.

Just outside Chatham, the 120-room Wequassett Resort (001 508 432 5400; wequassett.com) is a smart collection of cottages on the bay's edge. It has two beaches and four restaurants, including the revered Twenty-Eight Atlantic – from $420 (£280) per room per night.

The quaint town of Sandwich, near Sagamore Bridge, is a good tour base. Its quirky collection of guesthouses includes the Belfry Inne & Bistro (001 508 888 8550; belfryinn.com), a six-bed guesthouse in a former church with a well-regarded restaurant. For holiday homes, try Cape Cod Rental (001 888 661 4921; capecodrentals.com).

Travel Essentials

Kate Simon travelled to Cape Cod courtesy of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (020-8464 8483; massholiday.co.uk), and British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com), which offers a week's fly-drive from Heathrow through Boston from £549pp. You can also fly non-stop from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 2770; virgin-atlantic.com) and Delta (0871 22 11 222; delta.com).

From Boston's Logan airport, Cape Air (001 508 771 6944; capeair.com) has return flights to Hyannis or Provincetown from $185 (£123). Or go by train, taking the free Silverline bus from the airport to Boston's South Station. The CapeFLYER (001 508 775 8504; capeflyer.com) runs from 24 May to 2 September for $35 (£23) return.

From Boston's Long Wharf, you can sail on the Boston to Provincetown Fast Ferry (001 877 783 3779; provincetownfastferry.com) to MacMillan Wharf (16 May to 14 October), return fare $85 (£57). For more information on public transport go to bit.ly/Codways or the Cape Cod Travel Guide (smartguide.org).

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