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Cape Cod Rhapsody

August 18, 2011

Cape Cod National Seashore

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Coincidentally, it is the year I became eligible for my Lifetime Senior Pass, entitling me to free entry to this or any other national park (“Good for as long as you are,” said the smiling young park ranger who issued it).

And this year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of my first journey to Cape Cod. This narrow arm of land flexing eastward of Boston has become a very special place to me. Visits here are now an annual affair anxiously anticipated as the summer grows near. I may have grown old, but traveling to this wonderful place has not.

It all began in the summer of 1961 when our boy scout troop leader decided to institute a camping trip that went above and beyond our normal monthly ones to the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania areas. This was to be our Great Adventure Trip, and our first destination would be Cape Cod.

Mr. Harriman, a robust former Navy man, carried this excursion off like a mission. We bussed it up to our center of operations, a campground in Nicholson State Park, by itself a fantastic taste of the Cape. From there, we participated in all manner of activities. Of course there were the usual cooking out and hiking and fishing, but the Cape had special twists to offer. I was not a beach kid even though I was born and bred in New Jersey, so fun in the sun, sand, and surf was extra special in the natural environment of the National Seashore, unsullied by honky-tonk boardwalk interferences. Mr. Harriman had a connection at the Coast Guard station in Chatham, and my memories are still vivid of our ride on an amphibious vehicle called a Duck to a beach where I had my first exposure to the prehistoric-looking and fascinating horseshoe crab. Between the natural beauty of the park, dunes, beach, and my new, exciting experience of the ocean, I was sold. This is a place I wanted to come back to.

And come back I have, countless times over the ensuing years. People sometimes ask why I spend five hours in the car to drive to Cape Cod when the Jersey shore is close at hand. After all, a beach is a beach, isn’t it? Well, no. The Atlantic Ocean meets the sandy coast in both places, but there the similarity ends. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Jersey shore, which has its own unique flavor, including some personal favorite spots. It’s that their character is entirely different, and it is the character of the Cape that draws me back. The character of which I speak is a combination of laid-back New England charm, a variety of attractions and activities in close proximity, and natural vistas dominated by the influences of the sea. It seems to me that there is something here for everyone.

By no means am I a shopper, but I actually enjoy my wife’s stops at the many flea markets, antique shops, and thrift stores on the Cape. Meandering amongst the treasures and junk reveals a rich source of assorted oddities of Americana, both humorous and historic. People-watching at places such as the Wellfleet Flea Market is well worth the $2.00 admission.

lobster roll, Sesuit Harbor Cafe

The Cape is also a gastronomic delight, especially if you like seafood. Everyone develops their own personal favorites after a few visits; clam chowder and fried clams at Arnold’s, a lobster dinner at the Lobster Claw, specialty fish dishes at the Brewster Fish House, and lobster rolls at the Sesuit Harbor Cafe happen to be mine. Some ice cream from Cobies, and the evening is complete.

Exercise comes easily here and in many enjoyable forms. There is kayaking in the tranquil ponds or the calm estuaries along the coast. Bike riding is safe and pleasurable along the picturesque miles of bike paths. Hiking on nature trails or simply strolling along quiet byways or the wide expanse of tidal flats at low tide on the bay shore fills many a contented hour. For the more adventurous, surfing and sailing opportunities abound.

One isn’t limited to lying on a beach blanket, for there is no shortage of things to do here. Small museums of all sorts are to be found virtually anywhere, as are places of historical interest such as the site of the first encounter between the Pilgrims and Indians, Marconi’s first transAtlantic wireless transmission station, or the Kennedy family compound. Depending on one’s interest, there are all manner of small diversions and discoveries. Book stores, the real kind, thrive, from The Yellow Umbrella in Chatham to Herridge Books in Wellfleet to Provincetown Bookstore to the grandaddy of them all, the sprawling barn-like Parnassus Book Service in Yarmouthport. Visit the offbeat Edward Gorey House. Stop at the Atlantic Spice Company in Truro, if even just to inhale the myriad aromas of all the spices of the world. Picnic in the shade of the trees and taste some local wine at the Truro Vineyard. Take a boat ride to Monomoy Island to see the hundreds of grey seals basking on the beach or frolicking in the surf. Bird watch in the salt marshes or along the dunes. Photograph lighthouses of all sizes, shapes, and colors from the majestic Highland Light to the squat Three Sisters. Day trip to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket by ferry. Drive up to Provincetown for a walk amidst Portuguese bakeries, street performers of all stripes, and flamboyant cross-dressers; book a whale watching expedition to see the leviathan in its habitat; steep in the burgeoning art or poetry scene.

But most of all, behold the majestic beauty in the places where salt water meets sand: the miles of dune-lined beaches of the National Seashore, each different in its own way with pounding surf and passing seal heads bobbing up to curiously watch the beachgoers and “talking rocks” rattling in the changing tides, or the gentle bay beaches, perfect for small children to splash about or chase scuttling sand crabs or build sand castles. At the end of the day, witness the glorious celebration of this oceanside existence, the sunset, with favorite beaches to which travelers and locals alike return — Skaket, First Encounter, Rock Harbor. And as the sun goes down in a changing kaleidoscope of yellows, oranges, and reds against the darkening blue sky and dusk turns to night, my thought is always the same.

This is a place I want to come back to.

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