Cape Cod — Breathtaking beaches and classic seafood shacks. Quaint villages and postcard-perfect lighthouses. Whale watches and dune rides. Art galleries and summer theater. Cape Cod draws millions of tourists each year, including a sizable number of Connecticut residents, and there's no end to the area's charms.
But with all there is to do, it's tough to know where to start and what not to miss — even for seasoned visitors. Kim Grant, author of "Explorer's Guide Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket," and "Cape Cod Travel Essentials," the book's free accompanying app, says the things to do and places to see are so vast and varied that it's easy to get overwhelmed by the choices.
"It's hard to talk about the Cape without resorting to hyperbole, but there really is no place like it," says Grant. "If I had to narrow it down, I'd tell people to start with the classics like the Cape Cod National Seashore and the dunes; a drive on Route 6A past the clusters of iconic little cottages and a visit to Woods Hole, which is one of the most charming villages anywhere."
Some of the most beautiful dunes and beaches in New England are located around Provincetown at the Cape's outer tip, says Grant, and Art's Dune Tours has been offering narrated, off-road tours through them since 1946.
"Art's has been around for decades, yet there are still people who come to the Cape every summer who have never done one of their dune rides," says Grant.
Like Matt Poland, Hartford Public Library's CEO. In spite of the fact that the Hartford resident has been vacationing on the Cape since 1975 and owns a home in Provincetown, he took his first dune tour just this month, an experience he described as "spectacular."
"I have no idea why we waited so long to do this," says Poland. "Fabulous scenery and interesting history. It turned out to be one of our best Cape experiences yet."
Along with all its natural scenery, Cape Cod is also known for its art galleries, museums and theaters — and there's plenty of history in those venues as well. The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, declared by Actors' Equity Association to be the "Oldest Professional Summer Theatre" in America, opened in 1927 with a play starring Basil Rathbone. Bette Davis, a former Playhouse usher, made her acting debut here, 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, featuring individual black lacquer and tangerine suede arm chairs and a 6,400 square foot mural by American painter Rockwell Kent. A framed poster in the lobby notes that a 1939 premiere of "The Wizard of Oz" took place at the Cape Cinema before its New York showing.
"Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch in the movie, had appeared at the Cape Playhouse and used her influence to get the film shown here before its Radio City premiere," says Joseph Guglielmo, general manager. "Seeing a movie here is quintessential Cape Cod."
And there are plenty more of those uniquely Cape experiences available. You can bike the Shining Sea Bikeway, (named for a line in the song "America The Beautiful," written by Falmouth native Katharine Lee Bates) that hugs the coast from Falmouth to Woods Hole; or kayak around Pleasant Bay in Orleans.
Or stop by the Edward Gorey House, a museum in Yarmouth Port devoted to the quirky artist's eccentric, humorous works. Visit Chatham and watch the fishing boats come into the town dock or the skydivers at Chatham Municipal Airport. Play golf at Highland Links in Truro and you'll get a million dollar view of the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Light as well. Go to the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory in Hyannis and sample the area's namesake salty snacks. Take a ferry to Martha's Vineyard.
Whatever you choose, don't forget the food. Eat lobster, fried clams, chowder, ice cream and fudge almost anywhere from Bourne to P'Town — and do it outdoors, whenever possible. While everyone who has ever visited Cape Cod has their own favorites, Grant suggests a lobster roll at Chatham Bars Inn's Beach House Grill and Poland is a fan of PB Boulangerie & Bistro in South Wellfleet.
Other eateries that show up on "Best Of" lists include Sir Cricket Fish 'N Chips on Route 6A in Orleans, Spanky's Clam Shack and Seaside Saloon in Hyannis Port, Captain Frosty's in Dennis, The Lobster Pot, (which has been in business since around 1943), and Spititus Pizza, all in Provincetown. (Some restaurants operate seasonally and some only accept cash, so be sure to call ahead.)
"You really do need to make yourself a bucket list," says Grant. "Otherwise you're going to miss out on some really special things."
A Few Suggestions
>>Millions of visitors have climbed the 252 foot granite Pilgrim Monument, (built to commemorate the first landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims in Provincetown), since it opened more than 100 years ago. Information: www.pilgrim-monument.org or 508-487-1310.
>>The Cape Cod Potato Chip factory in Hyannis, is one of the area's top tourist destinations with more than 250,000 visitors each year. Information: 888-881-2447 or www.capecodchips.com.
>>Art's Dune Tours offers National Seashore dune tours, light house tours and other outings. Tours depart from a central location in Provincetown. Information: 508-487-1950 or www.artsdunetours.com.