Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket

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Destination Information

Cape Cod is a 65-mile-long peninsula that extends east from the Massachusetts mainland and then curls north, cat-tail like, to form Cape Cod Bay. The islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket are situated off the Cape's southern coast, in Nantucket Sound. 

The craggy, lighthouse-dotted coasts of the Cape and the islands are etched by wind and sea and saturated with history, from the Mayflower's landing at Plymouth Rock to the Kennedys' photogenic vacations at Hyannis. The area blossoms between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when tables at taverns, stately summer homes and colonial inns overflow with fresh shellfish; local churches hold chowder suppers; and the Cape Cod Baseball League entertains families enjoying sun and ice cream. 

This is old American whaling territory (many of the picturesque villages on Cape Cod retain the character that Melville described in Moby-Dick), and the sea is still the center of industry and, more prominently, of recreation. Fishing, sailing and yachting abound, and whale-watching excursions run from May to October. In the spring, the annual Cape Cod Maritime Days event celebrates the area's rich nautical history with art exhibits, lectures and kayak excursions.

The Cape Cod National Seashore, under the auspices of the National Park Service, comprises 40 miles of beaches, marshes and ponds accented by lighthouses and cranberry bogs. At the southeastern "elbow" of the Cape, the historic village of Chatham is a picturesque jumping-off point for coastal recreation.

Martha's Vineyard lies about seven miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod and adjoins the smaller island of Chappaquiddick. "The Vineyard" has attracted presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Bill Clinton, and in centuries past, it was a haven for Boston sea captains and merchants. Despite its high-profile visitors, Martha's Vineyard has retained a cozy, low-key New England charm. Stone fences and sheep farms thread through gently rolling hills; lobstermen sell their catches fresh from the boats; old churches and schoolhouses overlook picture-book harbors; and the country's oldest continuously operating carousel turns handcarved horses as it has for nearly a century and a half.

Once a tranquil refuge for those in search of a nostalgic family seaside vacation, Nantucket is now a chic summer playground for the rich and famous. Trophy mansions rise up where simple cottages once stood; Nantucket Town’s delightful cobbled streets are choked with summer traffic; and local residents even grumble that popular Surfside Beach has been ruined by the incessant whine of private jets taking off from the nearby airport. During the hectic months of July and August, visitors often outnumber the 10,000 or so natives by a ratio that exceeds 5- to-1, and high-season prices for just about everything have escalated from the merely breathtaking to the downright absurd.

That said, Nantucket remains a very special place, and the ongoing metamorphosis has resulted in the opening of hotels, restaurants, shops and galleries that meet the demands of a discriminating clientele. Each season has its enduring moments, with our favorite Nantucket time being midweek between Labor Day and mid-October. Without the major summer crowds, things start quieting down and the island reclaims its authentic character and natural rhythms. Daytime temperatures average in the mid- to upper 60s; relatively empty beaches beckon for leisurely walks; and even the Gulf Stream sea is still warm enough for a swim. Hotels and cottage rentals are also less outrageously priced; the leading restaurants are no longer fully booked; and the bluefish/striped bass season is at its height.

Editor Tips

Celebrate the Heritage of Martha’s Vineyard

One highlight of the summer is the annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Livestock Show and Fair (35 Panhandle Road), scheduled for August 15-18, 2019. Set in West Tisbury, the fair is a celebration of the island’s agricultural heritage. Inside the post-and-beam barn hall, you’ll find displays of produce, flowers and the handiwork of Vineyard artisans, including eye-catching quilts. A full midway of rides keeps children diverted.

A Festival of Artisanal Goods

Drawn by the light and the peace of the island, artists and artisans have long made the Vineyard their home. There is no shortage of shops and galleries on the island, but I have found some of my happiest purchases at The Vineyard Artisans Festivals (1067 State Road) at Grange Hall in West Tisbury. During the summertime, on Thursday and Sunday starting at 10 a.m., both the hall and the surrounding graveled field abound with an array of prints, ceramics, artwork, glass pieces and more.

Books About Cape Cod

Published in 1928, “The Outermost House,” by Henry Beston, chronicles the writer’s year in a two-room cottage in a remote part of the dunes, during which he witnessed the great battle between the forces of land and sea. Recently joining the ranks of fine books about the Cape, “The Outer Beach” brings together 50 years’ worth of essays by Robert Finch, a keen observer of the natural life and history of the area. Finch, like Beston, sees the life of the Cape played out as a struggle for dominance between powerful natural forces — he predicts a victorious sea, with the Cape vanishing in 6,000 years — but is also full of appreciative, wonder-filled ruminations. Other books worth considering are “The House on Nauset Marsh,” by Wyman Richardson, and “The Great Beach,” by John Hay. And then there is Thoreau’s “Cape Cod,” to which I regularly return. 

Marion's Pie Shop

If my friends who live on the Cape are disinclined to cook or eat out, they often purchase dinner at Marion’s Pie Shop ([508] 432-9439) on Main Street in Chatham. The seafood pie and the clam pie are equally delicious.