Merely mentioning “Cape Cod” evokes images of warm sand, hot sun, salt air, endless summer fun, and wonderful but more quiet Indian Summer fun in the fall. As one of the East Coast’s preeminent vacation destinations, Cape Cod offers something for everyone seeking to escape the rat race of modern-day life. Cape Cod is as much a state of mind as it is a place.
Cape Cod History
Cape Cod was originally inhabited by people of the Wampanoag and Nauset tribes of Native Americans. The original European discoverers of “the Cape” may have been Norse (Viking) voyagers sometime between 985 and 1025. It was next seen by Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524 and again by Esteban Gomez in 1525. Gomez gave the cape its first name – Cape St. James. It was in 1602 that Bartholomew Gosnold named it Cape Cod, the name that stands to this day and is one of the ten oldest original English place names in the United States.
The Pilgrims made their first landfall on Cape Cod, not at Plymouth Rock as many erroneously believe. On November 11, 1620 they landed at a point near modern-day Provincetown.
Cape Cod Today
For most of its modern day history, the Cape has segmented itself into three areas.
- Upper Cape: The area closest to the mainland comprising Bourne, Sandwich, Falmouth, and Mashpee.
- Mid-Cape: Barnstable, Yarmouth and Dennis. Barnstable is comprised of 7 villages – Barnstable Village, Centerville, Cotuit, Hyannis, Marstons Mills, Osterville, and West Barnstable – plus a number of hamlets.
- Lower Cape: Harwich, Brewster, Chatham, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown. Dennis Port, although a village of Dennis, is also considered to be part of the lower Cape.
The character of the Cape changes from one area to the next and one town to the next. Bustling communities along the main routes in the Upper and Mid-Cape lead to quiet towns in the Lower Cape. With all its diversity, travelers are assured of finding the vacation experience right for them. Quaint fishing villages, miles of spectacular beaches, vibrant nightlife, shopping destinations, art galleries, outdoor cafes and fine dining are all available.
Nowhere is Cape Cod’s diversity more apparent than in Provincetown, also known as P-Town. Well-known both as an artist colony and for its large gay community, the town is also family-friendly and maintains its Portuguese fishing village roots.
Cape Cod League Summer Amateur Baseball
Baseball lovers who visit from June through August can experience the thrill of watching future major league ball players before they begin their professional careers. Founded on the Fourth of July in 1885, the Cape Cod League is an American institution and the premier amateur baseball league in the country. Its alumni include one of every seven players now in major league baseball, and one of every three players who attended college. Games are free, and fans are welcome to join major league scouts in checking out the high level of talent among the 10 competing teams
Cape Cod Lighthouses
Fourteen lighthouses dot the Cape at key navigational hazards. Each lighthouse has its own story and special place in Cape history. The oldest lighthouse on the Cape was built in Truro in 1798. Highland Light, also called Cape Cod Light, stands 66 feet tall on a bluff over 130 feet high and is visible far and wide. Set in a particularly treacherous area, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “After almost every storm we read of one or more vessels wrecked here, and sometimes more than a dozen wrecks are visible from this point at one time.”
Construction on Chatham Light, the second oldest lighthouse on the Cape, began nine years after Highland Light. President Thomas Jefferson personally appointed the first keeper of Chatham Light. The lighthouse towers have been rebuilt several times due to erosion, and erosion continues to threaten. For now, Chatham light remains an active navigational aid, and the Coast Guard still operates out of the 1877 keeper’s house.
Cape Cod Beaches
The beaches that border Cape Cod Bay and face west feature relatively warm, tranquil waters. Some of the most spectacular beaches on the Cape are located on the nearly 40 miles of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which runs along the east side of the Cape from Chatham to Provincetown. While the fury of the Atlantic Ocean has eroded many of the bluffs, the views remain breathtaking. Surfing and boogey boarding are popular activities.
Race Point Beach at the very tip of Provincetown is named for its fierce rip tides. The beach faces north and is sunny all day, appealing for sunbathers. Tamer waters can be found at nearby Herring Cove. While not legal, nude sunbathing is practiced discreetly in the more remote sections of Herring Cove and Ballston Beach in Truro. Parking at many beaches, including Ballston, is limited to town residents and guests, and visitors are advised to check beforehand to see if parking stickers are required.
Interesting Cape Cod Facts
- Bourne boasts the oldest store in the United States. The Aptucxet Trading Post was founded by the Pilgrims in 1627.
- Built in the mid-1600s, Hoxie House in Sandwich is believed to be the oldest house on the Cape and one of the oldest in the country.
- Woods Hole in Falmouth is home to the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Woods Hole Research Center.
- The Wampanoags still worship at the Old Indian Meeting House in Mashpee, the oldest Native American church in the US.
- Hyannis, the largest village in Barnstable, is the commercial and transportation hub of the Cape and has been designated as an urban area.
- Known for shopping, Yarmouth was the site of the original Christmas Tree Shop.
- Bette Davis was discovered at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis while she was working as an usher.
- Shawn Fanning, the creator of Napster, an MP3 music downloading application, is a Harwich High School graduate.
- The largest pond on the Cape, Long Pond, is located in Brewster.
- Chatham is home to Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, which comprises over 7,000 acres.
- In 1898, a French company built a 3,200 mile-long transatlantic cable to Orleans. The French Cable Station is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
- First Encounter Beach in Eastham is the site of the Pilgrims’ earliest meeting with Native Americans, the Nauset tribe.
- Marconi built the first transatlantic radio transmitter station on a bluff in South Wellfeet. President Theodore Roosevelt sent a ceremonial telegram to King Edward VII in 1903 from the station, the first transmission from America to England.
- Truro Vineyards pioneered wine making on the Cape in 1992. Tours are offered in season.
- Provincetown, located at the tip of Cape Cod, features the Pilgrim Monument, the tallest all-granite structure built in the United States. The monument commemorates the signing of the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown Harbor.
Getting to Cape Cod
Located in the southeast corner of Massachusetts, Cape Cod, known simply as the Cape, is accessible from two major routes:
- Route 95 to Route 3 from the Boston area which leads into the Sagamore Bridge
- Route 495 to Route 25 which leads into the Bourne Bridge
Due to the creation of the Cape Cod Canal in the 1900s, all road traffic must cross the Cape at one of two points: the Sagamore Bridge or the Bourne Bridge. While efforts are made to ease the traffic jams that result on summer weekends, congestion is inevitable.
Bus service is available from Logan Airport and other sections of Boston as well as Providence, Rhode Island and New York City. Tourists can avoid summer traffic by flying into Barnstable or Provincetown municipal airports at either end of the Cape.
While getting to Cape Cod can be a bit of a trial, the Cape’s unique charm is a major draw and worth the effort. Popular recreational activities include swimming, boating, kayaking, whale watching and deep sea fishing. Cape Cod’s relatively flat terrain makes it ideal for cycling, and bicycle rental shops and trails are located all along the Cape.
Cape Cod Weather
Cooled by the ocean and sea breezes, Cape Cod can be a welcome reprieve during summer heat waves. Since most of the Cape is a mere six miles wide, all areas of Cape Cod tend to be cool. Temperatures average 70 degrees Fahrenheit during July, the warmest month. The ocean also helps to maintain the Cape’s relatively temperate climate even in the winter. The average temperature in the coldest month of January is 28 degrees Fahrenheit and snowfalls of any accumulation are unusual. The snow does not typically stay on the ground for long.
Photo credits: The picture of Provincetown is by John Phelan from the Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. The picture of the National Seashore is by Donna Benevides from Wikipedia. It s licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. The picture of First Encounter Beach is by T.S. Custadio from Wikipedia. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.