Named for the abundance of cod off its shores, Cape Cod -- or "the Cape," as locals refer to it -- has been a travel destination for nearly 400 years. The Pilgrims’ first stop in the New World was not Plymouth but rather Provincetown Harbor at the tip of Cape Cod in November 1620.
Cape Cod’s earliest industries were fishing and whaling, and many picturesque lighthouses remain from this time. With the discovery of petroleum in the 19th century and the subsequent decline in the market for whale blubber, the Cape turned to tourism, taking advantage of its long stretch of beaches, beautiful vistas and charming village centers.
Here are 7 ideas for making the most of your visit to Cape Cod.
The waters around Cape Cod are home to numerous species of whales and dolphins, making a whale watching excursion an experience you will never forget. All ages marvel as the humpback whales slap their tails or when they “breach” -- shooting up almost vertically and turning in mid air, landing on their side or back with a huge splash. Dolphins leap and play and seem to enjoy having an audience. Whale watches leave from Hyannis or Provincetown, rain or shine. Plan around 4 hours for the entire trip.
When you think of Cape Cod, you think beaches -- long, beautiful stretches of beach backed by high dunes. The National Seashore, created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and administered by the National Park Service, stretches nearly 40 miles along the Atlantic-ocean side of Cape Cod, from Chatham all the way to Provincetown. The 6 beaches within the National Seashore offer natural as well as some cultural amenities; for example, Marconi Beach in Wellfleet was the site of the first transatlantic wireless communication between the US and England in 1903. The Cape Cod Rail Trail runs through the National Seashore -- rent bikes and make a day of it by biking all morning and taking in the surf in the afternoon.
Heads up baseball fans -- the Cape Cod League is the best amateur summer league in the country. Over 250 former Cape Leaguers currently play in the majors, such as former Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (Falmouth 2004). See the stars of the future up close and personal on any of the 10 franchise teams located in Bourne, Brewster, Chatham, Cotuit, Falmouth, Harwich, Hyannis, Orleans, Wareham and Yarmouth-Dennis. History buffs should check out the Cape League Hall of Fame exhibit at the JFK Hyannis Museum.
4. Brewster Natural History Museum
Cape Cod Museum of Natural History
While you might think of a museum as a rainy day activity, the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster is worth a stop, rain or shine. The museum offers preserved animal collections, live marine exhibits, educational programs for adults and children and off-site nature tours. Take a walk inside a 45-foot-long inflatable whale as a naturalist explains the anatomy and behavior of these giants of the sea, or join an interactive show of the Cape Cod Therapy Dogs as they play games such as “Star Wars Limbo” and “Doggie Noodle Crawl vs. Indoor Golf."
From late June through late August, Friday night is band night in Chatham. Concerts start at 8 p.m. and are free to the public. First established in 1927, the all-volunteer Chatham Concert Band is a group of musicians ranging in age from teens to 80+. They play music that all ages can enjoy at the outdoor bandstand in downtown Chatham. Singing and dancing along is strongly encouraged!
If you will be at the Cape for a week or more, consider one of the many nature-themed summer camps; kids can have fun while the adults get a break. Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary offers full or half day camps in Wellfleet and Chatham for kids ages 4-12. Campers explore the marsh, woodlands and freshwater ponds, while older campers travel off-site for special activities, such as kayaking, whale watching, and snorkeling and seal cruises. Camp on the Sea in Brewster offers sailing lessons, swimming, arts, archery and a variety of sports.
Incorporated in 1639, Sandwich is the oldest town on Cape Cod, and the location of the oldest home on Cape Cod, the Hoxie House. Any visit to Sandwich should include a stop on its renowned boardwalk, which was destroyed in 1991 by Hurricane Bob, and rebuilt, plank by plank, with support from local residents whose names and messages are inscribed on the planks. Subsequent storms are wearing away the inscriptions but the beautiful vista of dunes, marshes and the sea remains.