Story and pictures by Allan Seiden
We arrived on a wintry day with powerful winds blowing in from the south. It was the last days of May, an iffy time weather-wise along this part of the East Coast: It could be sunny and in the 80s, or cold and blustery, temperatures dipping into the low 40s, which is how we came upon Provincetown, driving through mist-shrouded forest and fields as we made our way up the Cape to Provincetown.This was a family trip tied to my older daughter’s college graduation in nearby Connecticut. I’d imaged warms days with quality time beach-combing the miles and miles of coastal dunes and sheltered bays that give beauty to this 75-mile-long cape that defiantly juts into the Atlantic like the outstretched pincer of a crab. It’s an appropriate comparison since Cape Cod takes its name from the wealth of fish, clams, oysters, and lobster harvested from its waters.
Luckily we had a few days to spend, time for the weather to change dramatically several times. I’d chosen Provincetown, a hip summer resort with a decidedly gay reputation, that offered the best mix of things to see and do. It proved to be a good choice, with a great mix of shops and galleries and a cosmopolitan mix of locals, part-timers, and the visitors who swarm here in summer when ferry service puts Provincetown within 90 minutes of downtown Boston.
Straight. Gay. It doesn’t take long to discover that the most significant other in Provincetown is the dog. Dogs of all sizes, breeds and descriptions are Provincetowners’ true partner of choice.
In today’s Provincetown there are probably more artists and artisans than fishermen and lobstermen, with the Provincetown Art Association Museum providing an anchor to Provincetown’s arts community. Links to the past remain strong, however, old-timers from families settled here for generations and more recent arrivals are equally committed to preserving a legacy that goes back four centuries. This isn’t a place for McDonalds or Holiday Inn. Steering clear of brand names makes Provincetown far more appealing.
It says a lot that Provincetown holds on to in-the-present authenticity enhanced by the fact that the harbor is still home to a weathered fleet of fishing boats and lobster trappers, a remnant of the once much larger fleet that, over time, badly depleted these once-plentiful waters. Harvests today are small compared to those of a hundred years ago, and fewer young men seek out such physically demanding work.
Provincetown reminds me of Lahaina back in the ‘80s, but far more diverse and interesting, with individuality defined by hands-on shop owners and charm-enfused bed-and-breakfast inns, which successfully take aim at comfort and atmosphere. I enjoyed Provincetown’s compact, slightly weathered, character, and the civic involvement in maintaining Provincetown’s small- town scale and historic sense of place. The beautifully restored library is an example that commitment. It is a place that honors books and Provincetown’s past,
integrating a famed 19th-century sailing racer as a central part of the decor. Provincetown is a place where people walk or bicycle to work accompanied by sea breezes, the fragrant mix of lilacs in bloom and fresh mown grass, picket fences circling lawns large enough for towering trees that overhang centrury-old homes homes hung with wisteria vines.
Art galleries are found all along the half-mile-long stretch of Commercial Street that links the East End and West End of Provincetown, the folksy and traditional and the avant-garde comfortably rubbing shoulders. It’s the mix of New England and New Age that makes Provincetown work.
This northern tip of the Cape, with Provincetown facing west over the waters of Cape Cod Bay, is neighbor to the more than 43,500 protected acres of the Cape Cod National Seashore (www.nps.gov/caco/).
There are miles of trails to wander or bicycle (rentals are available in town), making their way through grassy beachfront dunes and groves of beech, fir and beach plum. This now open landscape was once heavily forested, but settlement that began in the 17th century, soon undid that, the forest replaced by today’s rolling dunes and grasslands interrupted by low-lying ponds and forested grove. It’s a place with many moods, with sunny skies suddenly lost to mist blown in from the grey-blue North Atlantic, the cold-water ocean of my childhood memories.
The morning of our departure I awoke early, my photographer’s eye waking me to the light streaming through a crack in the curtains. From the lanai, a luminous dawn was reflected in the calm mercury waters of Cape Cod Bay. The brightening sky drew gulls out to a breakfast at sea. I was out the door in minutes, heading (by car) to the dunes that yesterday had been veiled in mist.
Today it is a different place, alive with the rich color of early morning light. The trail winds its way through groves of beech, fir, and flowering beach plum, the fruit a local favorite. There are ducks that could pass for nene, songbirds that flit about the trees, and wild turkey, reintroduced after being hunted to extinction as settlers founded villages along the Cape’s shoreline. By 10 AM, after a delicious guesthouse breakfast, I was climbing the 116 steps leading to the top of the Pilgrim Monument, a memorial built of large cut granite rocks, many carved with the name of other 17th and 18th century Massachusetts’s townships.
Rising from a 100-foot high hill, at 252-feet, the Monument is the tallest all-granite building in the United States, built to honor the Mayflower Pilgrims first North American landfall, coming ashore in 1620 for a five-week stay at what would become Provincetown.
Completed in 1910 in an Italianate style, it’s visible from miles away, a symbol of civic pride and historic memory going back almost 400 years, with an Indian past that adds centuries to the Cape’s legacy.
A winding mix of stairs and ramps makes for an easy ascent past granite blocks identifying colonial era towns and their founding date. The summit lookout offers 360-degree views of town, the harbor, nearby beach, distant dunes, and a sunlit ocean. When it was dedicated, Provincetown was a bustling fishing port.It’s still homeport to a small fleet of lobstermen and fishermen, and in summer, sail boats and yachts, with the harbor accessed by a long pier that also serves ferries that come in from Boston and offer seasonal whale watch cruises. The pierside Whydah Museum displays the contents of a pirate ships that sank in these waters in 1717.
The Provincetown Museum is in rooms at the base of the monument presents a fascinating look back to times of Indian and Pilgrim settlement through the decades when fishing was king, presented in well-conceived displays that start with the formation of the cape by earth-scouring debris left behind by retreating glaciers that were up to one mile deep. Historically a peninsula sheltering the Massachusetts’s coastline, Cape Cod became an island when a canal was completed in 1914.
A LITTLE EXTRA
Cape Cod National Seashore
With roads that lead to hikes along the coast and into the pine and beech forested dunes, Provincetown is within a 10 minute drive of the 43,500 acres of ponds, forest, dune and beach preserved by President Kennedy in 1961. Motorized dune tours are offered in town. For those used to Hawaiian waters, these frigid waters may not invite a swim, but the network of trails and bike paths (rentals are available in town) open these windswept wilds to exploration. www.nps.gov/caco/ Dunes tours are offered at www.artsdunetours.com.
Cape Cod’s rough seas made lighthouses crucial to the many ships plying these waters, with more than 1,000 sunken hulls in the Cape’s offshore waters. The Highland Light is a short drive from Provincetown, with parking nearby and tours during the summer months. The Nauset, another scenic light near Provincetown, is at the end of a two-mile seashore walk. Google Cape Code Lighthouses for multi-source information.
When to Go
Summer’s prime time, with guesthouses, restaurants and shops crowded and prices at premium rates.
It’s also the time when nightlife kicks in, with movies, live theater, music, clubs, and more. The weather turns cool by early September, but autumn colors (typically mid-September into October) and spring’s time of rebirth (May into June) are worthy alternatives to summer sun and crowds.
Not all accommodations operate year-round, but many offer shoulder season rates (April/May, Sept,/Oct.) that are considerably cheaper. A tourist office on Commercial Street, by the historic town hall, provides brochures and advice.
Where to Stay
There are dozens of places with New England charm and welcoming hosts. We stayed at the Anchor Inn (anchor-inn.tripzen.com), well located near the center
of town with on-site parking, a room with an ocenaview lanai & fireplace, and a good breakfast buffet part of the daily rate. For other interesting options go to www.ptownchamber.com/member-directory/accommodations.
Driving is likeliest, with easy interstate access across the Cape Cod Canal to Provincetown at
the Cape’s northern end, a 70-mile drive past forest, field, and villages.Catamaran ferries (no cars) link Provincetown and Boston. Car rentals are available in Provincetown, but bicycle rentals are a great alternative. Ferry service (no cars) is available from Hyannis (along the central Cape) to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, quieter, more remote island outposts.
© Story and pictures, Allan Seiden, 2011