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We went to Cape Cod every summer when I was young, and it was the highlight of the year. My family and my Aunt’s family met in a vacation rental and lazed away the week before the 4th of July. We went to beaches on the bay side and on the Atlantic side, swam in kettle ponds, built sandcastles, strolled through Provincetown, went to the drive-in movies, rode bikes, read books, dyed our hair, never wore the sunscreen we swore to our parents we put on, took showers in the outdoor shower, and always put on a play based on books we could find in the rental houses (generally Danielle Steele books).
It was the stuff all the best vacations are made of–enough things to do without actually taxing yourself too much. It all felt very American and our week often ended in a 4th of July parade in Wellfeet with a fireworks show over the dunes in Provincetown.
Then for some reason around 10 years ago we all just stopped going. None of us remember why we stopped going but we just didn’t keep up the tradition. I’m sure it was that some of us started having kids, health issues, being poor grad students, starting new jobs, and all the things that complicate life. We often traveled other places with my aunt and cousins, but the Cape was something we all said we should do again and never did…
Until this past memorial day weekend! We spent 4 idyllic days on the Cape with most of the old gang. You know the saying “you can’t go home again”? Well, you can on Cape Cod! Everything was the same! Our favorite restaurants were still making the same food, the beaches looked the same, the same smell of the sea was there, and the drive in was as kitschy and uncomfortable as ever. We reveled in the sameness of our favorite haunts. And I realized with horror that I was the same age as my mother was when we started going to the Cape! We have all decided that an entire week may be too long to dedicate to Cape Cod every year, but we can donate Memorial Day or Labor Day or a midsummer week to our favorite location.
If you want to begin your own Cape Cod tradition here are the things you must know:
Cape Cod is the muscley arm part of Massachusetts that boasts beautiful beaches on all sides. When you think of Cape Cod it might bring to mind Hyannis and the Kennedys, or the very tip that is Provincetown and its colorful community. But don’t limit yourself to the two well-known towns, there are so many beautiful towns in between that are less expensive, less crowded, and just as beautiful.
Our family trips were mostly in Wellfleet, but we have stayed in Truro and Chatham as well. I will focus on the areas near Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown.
Cahoon Hollow Beach, Wellfleet
This is my favorite beach on the Atlantic side of the Cape. Huge sand dunes are behind you and the blue sea is ahead of you with big waves crashing in crescendo as you near them. In fact you have to walk down a 75-foot sand dune trail to get to the beach, so if walking back up is going to be hard, you might want to skip this particular beach. Cahoon Hollow is swimmable, but it is always colder than the calmer bay-side beaches. However, it is great for boogie boarding, body surfing, and sand castles.
Visit the Beachcomber restaurant next to the beach parking for great seafood. Don’t miss the raw bar and the beautiful Wellfleet oysters. Over the years we were all paid $5 or so to eat a raw oyster by our parents and older cousins. Although we had to gag down the first ones, we eventually grew to love them. This past trip my cousin paid each of my kids $2 to eat an oyster, so the fun continues.
*Wellfleet parking stickers are required or you can pay to park at the Beachcomber. But go early or late to be able to get parking at all.
Although other Kettle ponds are scattered around the Cape, Wellfleet has the majority of them and is the main reason we continued to stay in Wellfleet year after year.
Our favorite of all the ponds is Great Pond (on the same road to Cahoon Hollow) and it is a beautiful pond (really its a lake) surrounded by pine trees with a small beach and quite a bit of shallow water for the little ones. Once again, it’s a little bit of a hike down but it is worth it!
Long pond is another great one for small kids. It has a roped in swimming area, frogs to catch and a much bigger, sandy beach. However, it is always much more crowded than Great Pond. It is worth visiting both to see which one you prefer.
There are many other ponds that are wonderful but are harder to find and have no parking. If you are lucky enough to be staying by one make use of it!
Indian Neck Beach, Wellfleet
This is a bay side beach with calmer waters, a big sandbar, and lots of fun critters to see. This was nicknamed “Hermie beach” by my brother and cousin because they could find dozens of hermit crabs on the beach. The crabs are still there and easily found buried shallowly in air holes in the sand. Also to be found are horseshoe crabs swimming in shallow water, fiddler crabs on shore, snails, and beautiful shells. If you have little nature lovers be sure to allot an hour or two here.
Drive-in movie, Wellfleet
What is more nostalgic than a drive-in movie? I’m not old enough to remember them in their prime, so the nostalgia for me is actually of the Wellfleet drive in. I remember watching The Princess Bride, Pocahontas, and Toy Story while lying on sleeping bags in the hatchback of my parents van. The drive-in plays a double feature every night during the summer season and features a playground for early arrivees and a decent snack bar. Be aware that prices are per person and they only take cash.
Although staying in Provincetown is not necessary and is generally more expensive, a trip to this beach town is a must. This is not your usual boardwalk town. The Mayflower landed there before heading toward Plymouth, and the Mayflower compact was signed here. The town then became a part of the Plymouth colony and was used primarily for fishing. It became a town in 1727 and continued to be a fishing and whaling center through the early 1900’s. The picturesque harbor attracted artists, and later the business guild began to promote gay tourism. Ever since then P-town (as the locals call it) has become the artistic capital of the Cape.
You can easily spend a day here with your family or stay longer for the many festivals P-town hosts. The souvenir shops have lots of fun and inexpensive treasures for you and your kids to take home with you. Stroll the historic streets that wind around, go visit the Pilgrim monument where the Mayflower docked, or rent bikes and ride the dunes trail.
Dolphin Whale Watch- Provincetown-
If you have an animal lover among you, this trip won’t disappoint. We have gone on these 3-hour boat trips and have always seen lots of whales, mostly humpbacks, very close to the boat. The boat has bathrooms, a snack bar and lots of seating, plus a great tour guide. A not-to-be-missed attraction.
Plan on 3-4 hours.
Many of the lighthouses on the Cape have tours that are short enough for the kids and informative enough for you. My picks for families is the Nauset Lighthouse in Eastham. It has free admission and has easy access from the road.
Or visit the Chatham Lighthouse overlooking Lighthouse Beach in Chatham. (This is a fabulous beach to visit as well.) I found the tour here to be a little more in depth but still very interesting. There is a lot of lawn to run on if the kids are too restless for the tour and parents have to take turns! I seem to remember reading that the Chatham lighthouse is the most photographed, but I can’t be positive.
The Beachcomber, Cahoon Hollow Beach-
This is always the favorite of the family! Great raw bar, huge nachos, and decent kids meals.
See more under attractions and Cahoon Hollow.
This may not be the single best place to get seafood on the Cape, but it is pretty delicious.
Clam strips, fish and chips, and good burgers and onion rings. Plus it is on the way to Cahoon Hollow, Great Pond and very close to Wellfleet center. This is a great grab and go option as well.
Bookstore and Restaurant-
This is a higher-end restaurant with a very diverse menu of baked and fried fish, pasta, salads and good kids meals. It is situated on the Wellfleet Pier and beach, and on a beautiful day it is great to sit outside to enjoy your meal. My favorite is the baked scallops; they are delicious every time.
High season starts the week after the 4th of July and goes through August. Prices for rentals are cheaper in June and the Cape is beautiful so go early and save some money and beat the crowds.
Every town has beaches that require their own town’s parking stickers to park at them. Check out your favorite beaches and then stay in the town in which they are located. You can purchase a parking permit from the town for the week of your visit. Some beaches do have paid parking, so check before you go. Our favorite swimming spots were the kettle ponds in Wellfleet, so we continued to stay in Wellfleet in order to park at the ponds.
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