All photos/art by Alison Shaw
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MORE PHOTOS: Cape Cod Photos by Alison Shaw
It’s a light that glows from within, like driving into an Edward Hopper painting. Bright, buttery, demanding, it glances off the water and sinks into the sand and sea-weathered shingles. Paint me, notice me, it whispers–I’m spring for your eyes and soul.
We’re here at the gateway to the Outer Cape, a spit of land that coils around on itself like a nautilus shell, pressed between the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay. Glorious in any season, it’s perilously fresh in spring–clean, golden, uncrowded. Crisp breezes, a jumble of cottages and seagulls, whales and waking businesses.
No stranger to multiple personalities (sleepy Truro, artsy Wellfleet, hyper Provincetown), this part of the Cape reveals a whole other persona in early spring. In the gap between low season and high, it feels more hometown, less charged, but with an underlying sense of anticipation–like broken-in khakis and a slouchy sweater you can’t wait to pull on.
Frankly, we can’t wait. Right now it feels as though we’re driving toward summer, having left winter only a few stops ago. We survived a shattering ice storm, lifted the last shovelful of snow, burned the final log, and now we’re teetering on the brink of spring fever. At land’s end, where the dunes embrace the sea, the light is changing. One little nudge will push us over.
Mid-April, and an exceptionally warm weekend is predicted. We drive south, then east on Route 6, stopping at Orleans for the night. This bustling hub straddles the edges of the Outer Cape and offers our first glimpse of Cape Cod National Seashore, unfurling between here and Provincetown.
Our B&B, the Ship’s Knees Inn, is a pretty, dark-silver, shingled home from the 1820s, only a five-minute walk from the town’s Nauset Beach: nine miles of silky white sand and rowdy waves, and at this time of year almost deserted except for surfers, bobbing like seals.
Tonight we’re dining at ABBA. No relation to Swedish pop singers (the name means “father” in Aramaic), this beguilingly simple restaurant is the work of chef/owner Erez Pinhas, and his wife, Christina Bratberg. The menu is a warm, spicy blend of Thai and Mediterranean: wine from the Golan Heights; delicate grilled tuna; pan-seared striped bass with ginger-scallion sauce.
In the morning, we drive a few miles to Rock Harbor Beach, tucked away like a postcard from Old Cape Cod. It’s shallow and serene, and nearby there’s a crusty lobster shack, Cap’t Cass Rock Harbor Seafood, that looks as though it was dunked in the sea and came up dripping with buoys.
It’s all a stone’s throw from the Church of the Transfiguration, a modern-day basilica-in-progress, with artwork from around the world. If you’ve ever wondered what 2.5 million glass mosaic tiles in 200 colors look like, stop at the gift shop and ask to check out the apse and the Eastern Orthodox-style depiction of Christ.
In Eastham, we drift through seas of daffodils, forsythia in bloom, bits of the sun fallen to earth. We wake up our legs at the Salt Pond Visitor Center, official gateway to Cape Cod National Seashore, where bikes spring up like crocuses in the parking lot. We walk Nauset Marsh Trail, an easy, one-mile ramble along kettle ponds (basins formed by the retreating glacier) and across wooden bridges. On the horizon, a thin crust of land separates cobalt sky from crisp blue sea.
It’s an equally fine line between collectibles and kitsch, and that line is too tempting to pass up at Collector’s World, a roadside institution for almost 40 years–a one-stop shop for Yogi Berra catcher’s mitts ($70), battered ship’s helms ($160), and carved wooden birds (under $6). “I’m the original one-knight stand,” says the sign on a suit of armor from Spain ($1,500). The groans are free.
In North Truro we find Pilgrim Spring Trail. This 30-minute stroll offers memorable vistas–a grove of moody pines rising like slender flames, opening out into distant views of dunes and sea. Snakes and rabbits dart across the path, and a plaque set in stone commemorates the first fresh-water source on New England’s shores found by the Pilgrims on a distant November day in 1620.
And then we slide into Provincetown, that wildly expressive, Auntie Mame of a place, ringed by water and pressed against spectacular dunes. Ahead stretches Commercial Street, the main, three-mile-long, one-way street that’s impossible to drive in the summer.
But on the first beautiful weekend of the season, the streets are lively yet not jam-crammed. We’re sharing a fabulous secret, all of us. Kids with ice-cream cones, older couples, boys with boys, girls with girls, middle Americans, bikers, cyclists … and we’re all meandering along Commercial Street, basking in the laid-back vibe.
We park at MacMillan Pier, dotted with tiny shingle-encrusted shacks advertising whale watches and treasure hunts, where boats are reflected in the water like Siamese twins. “Did you see any whales?” we ask people getting off the late-afternoon Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch. “Lots of them!” they say. We pick up a brochure and make a reservation for Sunday.
Meanwhile, the natives are painting, planting, raking, shaking off the dust, opening up, airing out. By mid- to late April, most of the shops on Commercial Street are open (art galleries are hit-or-miss), and we dodge in and out of the eclectic mix of stores and cafes, unfettered by crowds. For those who buy their jackets by weight, Marine Specialties offers vintage European leather for $4 a pound, alongside starfish, soap logs, hats with hidden mosquito netting, rubber sharks, and genuine pea coats, too.
A few more stops, and then, with an eye to the time, we head out to Herring Cove, seeking the sunset. Whales are spouting everywhere, little fountains exploding across the horizon. Some guy plays “Under the Boardwalk” on his guitar, and his kids cavort on the sand while we watch a dazzling sunset. The day ends with a quiet, light meal of ahi tuna at our hotel, the beautiful Crowne Pointe Inn, which crests a hill overlooking Provincetown.
Early Saturday morning we bump into Napi Van Dereck of Napi’s Restaurant. A local favorite for 30 years, it sits smack in the middle of a funky, Key West-feeling part of town (Freeman Street), strung with vines. “I built the restaurant over the years, from scrap and salvage,” Napi says, and his wife Helen’s adjacent flower garden, with sculptures from local artists, is every bit as colorful as he is.
Napi convinces us to come back for lunch, and no kidding, it turns out to be one of the best-tasting sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life: a Thai veggie wrap with marinated Asian slaw, brown rice, warm tofu, shredded carrots, toasted sesame seeds, and Thai peanut sauce. The kale soup with Portuguese sausage is mighty tasty, too.
Fortunately, Art’s Dune Tours is going to do all the work for us. Art’s staff has been leading tours of the Province Lands–those wild, far-flung dunes extending from Mount Ararat west to Race Point–for more than 60 years. We hoist ourselves into a “sand buggy” the size of a whale and head off with Kenny, our 70-year-old driver, who yells out, “It’s gonna be very rough–watch out for your heads!” right before he shifts into a lower gear and we buck our way up a sand dune.
Gunning for the hills, we skid past cranberry bogs and lovely weathered dune shacks that once housed the likes of Eugene O’Neill and Jackson Pollack. Dunes rise and fall like great waves, and we’re bumping over a landscape that’s sensual and serene. It’s a stunning, otherworldly trip, worth every jaw-rattling bump and slide.
Having glimpsed Provincetown’s tower–Pilgrim Monument–from the dune hinterlands, we decide to coil our way up the town’s most famous symbol, P’town’s own version of Pisa’s Leaning Tower, built to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first landing (yes, before Plymouth). At the top we marvel, once again, at how blissfully uncrowded it is up here on the wraparound deck.
That night, windblown and mellow, we revive at The Mews, a hip-but-not-intimidating restaurant that’s hopping with locals and a few visitors. Our table looks out over darkening water, and on this moonless night, lights glitter from passing boats and around the curving bend of the harbor.
The next day, we leave on a high note. First, a walk on the Beech Forest Trail. From the moment we hit the boardwalk, it’s like entering an enchanted forest: birdsong so loud you’d swear it was recorded; fat, weaving bumblebees; jittery red and gray squirrels leaping overhead like superheroes. Buds, red and yellow, explode around us; a gorgeous, sandy path winds around shimmering kettle ponds. Chickadees dive everywhere, so I hold out my hand and one lands in my palm!
It almost can’t be topped. Almost. We slip onto the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch’s Dolphin VIII with our guide, Dr. Carole Carlson, who can identify these creatures in the water by name, like old friends. The boat pulls out of the harbor, past the breakwater, past Long Point Light, and out into the waters of Cape Cod Bay. The boat is comfortably only half full (another off-season perk), letting us scan the water side to side, alert to every wave and bubble. Nothing–just sun and water. It’s like a moment from Jaws, stiff with anticipation.
And then, suddenly, they rise, taking our breath away. Humpbacks surround us, two bobbing alongside the boat, diving under us and surfacing on the other side. Off in the distance, right whales (an endangered species) spout. Dr. Carlson is spotting whales all over the place, and we’re like schoolkids, running from one side of the boat to the other to catch sight of the flashing flukes.
It’s a glorious way to end the weekend. Like so many before us, we’ve come to celebrate wind and water, golden light on dunes, and dry grasses curving like waves over sand. But we’ve done it ahead of the summer crowd, when the Outer Cape is at its most tender, just emerging from a long winter’s sleep. Glory be, it feels as if we’ve thrown open the shutters, too, and let the sun come pouring in.