Cape Cod, Mass. — Maybe it's the 550 miles of unspoiled coastline, or the art galleries, museums and summer theater.
Perhaps it's the picture-perfect lighthouses or the hundreds of restaurants serving fresh seafood and homemade ice cream.
Or it could be, as Patti Page sang back in 1957, the sand dunes, salty air and quaint little villages that draw millions of vacationers to Cape Cod each year.
Whatever the appeal, there's no arguing that "the Cape," as the area that stretches 70 miles from Cape Cod Canal to Provincetown's Race Point is affectionately known, is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations.
"There's no place that has everything the Cape has," says Christopher Setterlund, author of "In My Footsteps: A Cape Cod Travel Guide." "It's got this indescribable charm, and no matter how much time you spend here, it never loses its appeal."
He should know. Setterlund, a 12th generation Cape Codder (his ancestors first docked in Plymouth in 1640), has spent his life exploring the area, and he still uncovers surprises.
"Cape Cod has so many well-known and wonderful attractions," says Setterlund. "And it also has nooks and crannies tucked here and there that only the locals know about. Each time you visit, you really have to pick and choose because there's no way to see it all."
Different spots along Cape Cod have different vibes, and Setterlund says people are fierce fans of their favorite spots.
Hyannis, located mid-Cape, is one of the seven villages that make up the town of Barnstable. The election of John. F. Kennedy put Hyannis on the map in 1960 (the family compound is in Hyannis Port) and the area still reflects that history. The John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum, (jfkhyannismuseum.org) highlights the legacy of President Kennedy, his family, and their deep connection to Cape Cod. The Kennedy Legacy Trail (kennedylegacytrail.com) is a self-guided walking tour of sites in downtown Hyannis.
While you can't see the Kennedy Compound from land, you can see it from the water. Hy-Line Harbor Cruises, (hylinecruises.com), which operates fishing charters and cruises to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, also offers a "Harbor Full of History" experience that includes an hour cruise by the compound and other landmarks and admission to the Cape Cod Maritime Museum.
The area isn't all history.
Hyannis' Main Street offers a mix of gift, clothing and toy shops, ranging from high-end to funky, and the free hop-on-hop-off Cape Cod Trolley is an easy way to see the sights.
If you need a sugar boost, grab a sundae at Katie's Homemade Ice Cream (katiesicecreamcapecod.com) or stop for fudge, salt water taffy or penny candy at the Kandy Korner, (kandykorner.com), a fixture on Main Street for more than 40 years.
For more Hyannis fun, take a Cape Cod Duckmobile tour, (duckmobile.com); stop by the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory, (capecodchips.com for a self-guided tour and samples of the namesake snacks; and check out the wind and kite surfing at Kalmus Beach, (capecodonline.com/beaches/barnstable/kalmus).
Nearby popular beaches include Craigville Beach, a long stretch along Nantucket Sound, and Sandy Neck Beach on Cape Cod Bay in West Barnstable.
When you get hungry, head to Spanky's Clam Shack and Seaside Saloon, (spankysclamshack.com). The spot, overlooking Hyannis Harbor, features a raw bar, seafood and chowders. Baxter's Boathouse, (baxterscapecod.com), also on Hyannis Harbor, has been serving up fish and chips, fried clams and more since 1957.
Dennis, made up of five villages stretching from Nantucket Sound on the south to Cape Cod Bay on the north, is a popular family destination. Tourists come to the area to drive the Old King's Highway (Route 6A), a scenic road (and historic district), with white-picket-fenced captain's houses (look for the Josiah Dennis Manse & Old West Schoolhouse), picturesque churches, yards filled with pink beach roses and vivid blue hydrangeas.
Make a quick detour off 6A to climb Scargo Tower. Built in 1901, it offers a beautiful view of Scargo Lake and Cape Cod Bay, then stop by Captain Frosty's, (captainfrosty.com), for clam cakes, lobster rolls, and fried clams. The place, which has been serving seafood since the '50s, shows up on "Best Of" lists regularly. The Food Network's show "The Best Thing I Ever Ate," featured the hot fudge sundae at the Ice Cream Smuggler shop, (icecreamsmuggler.com) where all the ice cream is homemade.
The arts take center stage in Dennis. The Cape Playhouse, declared by Actors' Equity Association to be the "Oldest Professional Summer Theatre" in America, opened in 1927, and theater-goers can still see productions there today.
On the same grounds as the Playhouse is Cape Cod Cinema, which opened in 1930 and continues to screen films in its art deco auditorium. (Be sure to look away from the screen long enough to see the spectacular 6,400 square foot mural by American painter Rockwell Kent.)
Corporation and Mayflower beaches, on the Bay side of Dennis, are popular places for sunbathing and swimming.
Provincetown, an artist's colony since the 1800s that is situated at the far end of the outer Cape, maintains its bohemian atmosphere, and you won't find any better place for people-watching than on the town's main drag, Commercial Street. Find a spot on one of the benches in from of Town Hall and settle in for the show.
Doug and Christy Revsbeck of Lakeville, Minn., have been making annual treks to Cape Cod for years, and each time they come, they explore new areas, but make time for old favorite activities as well.
"We explore, try new restaurants, go to new beaches and find new shops," says Christy Revsbeck. "But we love the atmosphere and community in Provincetown, and we always come back here for the whale watches and the dune tours."
That's no surprise. Some of the most beautiful dunes and beaches in New England are around Provincetown, and Art's Dune Tours, (artsdunetours.com) has been offering off-road tours through them since 1946.
One of the Cape's most iconic experiences are its whale watches. Dolphin Fleet boats (whalewatch.com) depart from Provincetown's MacMillan Pier and head out to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary area. Along the way, naturalists provide info on whales, birds, fish and other marine life.
Millions of Provincetown visitors have climbed the 252-foot granite Pilgrim Monument (one of the tallest all-granite monuments in the world), built to commemorate the first landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims in Provincetown. Information: pilgrim-monument.org or 508-487-1310.
Tourists also head to Marine Specialties for off-beat shopping — tables of shells, snow globes and plastic lobsters in the front and army-navy gear, clamming supplies and vintage diving equipment in the back. Information: 508-487-1730.
Estimates are that the Portuguese Bakery on Commercial Street has been around for more than 100 years. The shop features traditional Portuguese pastries; rabanadas, a popular breakfast item known as "golden toast"; and "bolinhos de bacalhau," (salted codfish cakes.) The Lobster Pot, (ptownlobsterpot.com), in business since around 1943, is another don't-miss eatery.
If you visit Provincetown, don't leave without driving out to Race Point beach. TripAdvisor named it one of the top 25 beaches in the United States.
(Some restaurants operate seasonally, and some accept only cash, so check before you go.)
If You Go
Find more Cape Cod information at capecodchamber.org. Information on Cape Cod National Seashore beaches is available at the National Park Service website: nps.gov/caco. And artscapecod.org features a calendar of arts and cultural events and a free ArtsApp for your mobile device.