Two memorable views of the Chatham Lighthouse bookend our weeklong stay on Cape Cod.
Day 1: We arrive in this well-heeled village and head to the lighthouse because it's famous and picturesque. It is bright-sunny and we are told this is an unusual occurrence in an unusually wet spring. Someone even suggests it might be the best day of the entire year. We drive down Main Street, then take the big curve toward the harbor.
The air is pleasantly warm and the sky cornflower blue. Not a cloud anywhere. The white lighthouse is rather small with an attached keeper's quarters and offices, set off by red roofs. We park across the street and fully understand now that Chatham is a tourist town. The parking limit is 30 minutes. That's enough time to get out of the car, drop a quarter in a coin-operated telescope pointed at the sandbar and Atlantic Ocean beyond and run down to the beach and back. What is that perfume? The scent of wild fuchsia beach roses mingles with salty sea air.
Welcome to Cape Cod.
Day 6: We are 0-for-2 for Cape Cod League baseball games. Opening game for the famed college wooden bat league was rained out the night before and tonight we try our luck at the Chatham Anglers vs. Wareham Gatemen match-up. The rain that pelted the cape for three days has stopped, but a thick fog grows.
After half an inning, the game is called. The outfielders can't see fly balls and spectators can't see the outfield.
So we return to the lighthouse one last time. No one will bother us about staying longer than 30 minutes. Hardly anyone is there.
Our sunny welcome morphs into a moody night, fitting since we are saying "so long." The twirling light does its job, cutting through pea soup and telegraphing landform to mariners 25 miles out at sea. It is a bit spooky, but inspiring. We can see why Cape Cod lures writers and artists.
We thrust our hands deeper into our pockets for warmth and watch the light pivot.
Goodbye Cape Cod.
New England state of mind
Cape Cod has always been on my bucket list. Maybe the longing came from all those photos of tanned Kennedys at the Hyannis Port compound. Or from reading celebrity news about stars and their fancy homes on nearby Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Romance seems intertwined with Cape Cod. I imagine wearing cable-knit sweaters on long beach walks. Then more walks down wooded paths bursting with pompoms of hydrangeas. Gin and tonics while staring at the sea.
Nobody ever said anything about batting cages.
To say Cape Cod has a little something for everyone sounds overly boosterish, like maybe we've read too many chamber of commerce pamphlets. But the well-toned, bent arm extending from the southern Massachusetts coast has a long list of attributes to keep a family busy for a week. Ice cream shops, a historic drive-in at Wellfleet, free nightly baseball games (weather permitting), batting cages and driving ranges, fishing, lots of bike paths (plus bike rentals) and miles of seashore to explore. Couples can easily stoke the aforementioned romance, and singles will revel in peace for reading, writing, painting or just simple regeneration. And everybody will be seduced by sweet lobster. Bring your wallet, though; the legendary lobster roll isn't cheap.
You will find history, summer stock theater and shopping, especially if you are interested in landscape paintings and jewelry. The modern kitsch that has overrun many coastal destinations is kept at bay on the cape. Sure, the string of small towns has changed over the last few decades. The permanent population is now 250,000, thanks to retirees, many of whom head to Florida for the winter. There is aggravating traffic in high season and a bunch of Dunkin' Donuts, but the essence of Cape Cod is still here. No high rises dot the shore, and shops and restaurants are mostly independents.
At the northern tip of Cape Cod is Provincetown, or P-town as the locals call it. Go there for whale-watching trips and a taste of Key West-style nightlife. P-town has long welcomed gay residents and visitors. It's the most tacky-touristy town on Cape Cod with a tangled main street of T-shirt shops, but it is also the most lively.
Between Provincetown and Chatham, where we make our base, is the Cape Cod National Seashore. The surf is generally rougher here than the beaches on Nantucket Sound. Do not expect the wide, white sands of Clearwater Beach. It's more narrow and the water is freezing, at least for Southern souls. Dip your toes in the Atlantic here and you'll understand why Northern visitors see fit to swim in the Gulf of Mexico in January. On the day we visit, the only people in the water are surfers in wet suits and one very brave girl. There are many, many more folks sunning on the beach.
Some are lobster red.
Cottage near the rotary
We rent a small cottage in Chatham — the elbow of the arm — for a week and it is perfect. Actually, the photos on Weneedavacation.com don't do it justice. The two-bedroom, one-bath home is tucked down a crushed-shell lane behind a few larger houses. I picked it for its central location and lovely patio. The outdoor shower was also intriguing, though we didn't use it.
The online listing never said anything about wild nut-brown bunnies, which hop outside. Or skylights that flood the rooms with sunshine when there is some and amplify the fat raindrops that fall many mornings and evenings.
From the cottage, we walk to town, around the traffic circle (called a rotary here), and over to Sandi's Diner for breakfast and small talk. The lighthouse is a mile beyond the diner and affords a brisk and quiet walk before our teenager wakes up. The smell of wild roses and promise of the sea view spur us on. There are some hills.
Across our road is the Old Harbor Cafe, open only for breakfast and lunch. It is a local joint for sure and the morning we amble over for bacon and eggs, the conversation at the next table is entertaining. Three women discuss lilacs and poppies, Kennedys and rehab, the cost of health care and lobsters. Oh, yeah, and the Red Sox. They beat the Yankees again the night before. Everyone at the coffee shop buzzes about post-season possibilities; several wear Red Sox Nation T-shirts.
They like their baseball here and that's another reason I picked this cottage from the many rentals available. It is walking distance to Veteran's Field, home of the Chatham Anglers. They used to be called the A's when Evan Longoria played here in 2005, but a squabble with Major League Baseball forced a name change.
I envision walking over to watch "tomorrow's stars today," but the weather has other ideas. That's the thing about Cape Cod, you have to roll with the weather. Because some days, it rolls over you.
A seasonal place
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Cape Cod is open for business. Before or after that, many businesses close. We are here early in the season, the second week of June, and that is a good and bad thing.
School is still in session so the Cape is not overrun with vacationers, but that also means some attractions that appeal to kids are open only after 3 p.m. and on weekends. (Remember the batting cages?) Cape League baseball doesn't start until mid June and that's when several theater companies begin their summer seasons.
Fourth of July is the unofficial start of the high season. The free Friday night outdoor band concerts in Chatham begin then, as do very long waits for dinner and ice cream cones.
We have none of that, which is how it is after Labor Day, too, when the weather is still decent.
Even our whale-watching trip is barely a third full. We scurry from side to side, easily procuring a spot to see the humpback whales surface right next to the boat, then flip their massive tails. In the distance we spy a few full breaches as the behemoths propel their 35-plus-ton bodies completely out of the water.
After the whales, we eat dinner at the Lobster Pot in P-town. Cape Cod magazine says it's the best place to eat lobster on the cape. Not lobster roll, but plain lobster ripped from the shell and dipped in butter. (The magazine editors say the best lobster roll is at the Friendly Fisherman in Eastham, though we would campaign for the overflowing roll at the Chatham Pier Fish Market.)
Who are we to argue with lobster experts? We order the crustacean in various forms. It is delicious.
Eating lobster on Cape Cod. Scratch another wish off the bucket list. But now we've added something else.
After seeing the dramatic coast here, we vow to go back in winter and walk the dunes when it snows. Weather permitting, of course.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.