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Cape Cod and the Islands Summer Travel Attractions Fun

Nauset Beach, Cape Cod
Nauset Beach, Orleans. Photo, courtesy of MassVacation at

by Eric Hurwitz. Updated 12/02/16.

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  There are probably a million fun things to do during a Cape Cod vacation but for bandwidth purposes and your limited vacation time and budget, we'll focus on a chosen few.

Let's make this very clear right from the beginning: there is no better feeling than spending a vacation on Cape Cod. One of the United States' truly great travel destinations, this famed coastal Massachusetts tourist destination (that is shaped like a bent arm) offers something for everyone. Saturated with refreshing salt air and a sweet breeze, the 70-mile stretch of Cape Cod is full of expansive, scenic family-oriented beaches, wonderful seafood restaurants, old-fashioned, tree-lined villages with captain's homes and charming bed and breakfasts and inns, and a commercial (and sometimes charmingly cheesy) element to please shopping, nightlife and miniature golf fanatics.

This Sandwich is a Very Tasty Cape Cod Travel Destination
Sandwich is located virtually at the gateway to Cape Cod, which is good news for those who don't want to travel too far up the Cape. This charming, sleepy historical Cape Cod town has everything a visitor could ever want -- the great Scusset Beach for swimming and camping, a pretty harbor, a bike and walking trail along the Cape Cod Canal, fine inns and restaurants including the renowned Daniel Webster Inn and restaurant, golf (the 18-hole Sandwich Hollows is open to the public), boating opportunities and gift shops. A one-of-a-kind attraction is the Sandwich Glass Museum (129 Main St., Tel. 508-888-0251) with displays of more than 5,000 glass pieces created by the different glass companies in Sandwich during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Sandwich is a great starting point, as you have the choice to spend a classic Cape Cod vacation here, or as wonderful stop along the way to eventually tour all the other great Cape Cod communities.  Either way, Sandwich is a worthy choice as a nice Cape Cod vacation destination with an ideal location. For more info in Sandwich, log onto the Sandwich Chamber of Commerce.

Take a Scenic Ride on Route 6A, and Into the "Old Cape Cod"
All we can say is "Oh, my gosh" -- this scenic ride will tug at your heart, bringing you back to another time and place. The salt-air, tree-lined Route 6A (known as the Old King's Highway) hugging the ocean with its well-preserved stunning captain's homes and charming bed and breakfasts and inns bring us back to the Cape Cod we remember -- not the overly commercial destinations that threaten this beloved New England vacation destination. Scenic Route 6A spans 34-miles through endless scenes of salt marshes, harbors and open lands in beautiful New England communities like Bourne, Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Brewster and Orleans. Here, you're sure "to fall in love with Old Cape Cod!"
But Then Again, There is a Certain Charm to the More Commercial Side of Cape Cod...
Hyannis, as Cape Cod's primary commercial center, offers just about every type of lodging as well as a busy downtown that seems to go on forever -- complete with gift shops and dining. The congestion of Route 28 outside the also congested downtown can seem overwhelming, but the chance to have a wonderful Cape Cod vacation is undeniable in Hyannis with 11 area beaches, 18-hole golf at the public Hyannis Golf Course (1840 Iyannough Rd.), miniature golf (love the Hyannis Main St. Mini Golf at 531 Main St.!), plenty of soft serve ice cream, summer musical entertainment at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, motels and resorts with indoor pools (the Cape Codder is excellent with its indoor water park!), local Cape Cod Baseball League games (free!) and plenty of fishing and boating opportunities. Off the beaten track, you'll find scenery as good as any on Cape Cod -- check out the beaches first, especially the family-friendly Craigville Beach (the largest beach on the Cape at 1050 Craigville Beach Rd., Centerville)). Famous as the home of the Kennedy family, Hyannis features the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum (397 Main St., Tel 508-790-3077) that highlights his life through myriad exhibits. For potato chip fans, check out the the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory Tour -- it's fun and tasty! Also close by is the Zooquarium at 674 Route 28 in South Yarmouth (about a five to 10 minute ride from Hyannis, depending upon the traffic). This zoo for children features native wildlife, a petting zoo, tidal touch pool, discovery center, and daily animal presentations.

The Ultimate Informal Cape Cod Family-Style Seafood Restaurants
Grumpy's on Route 6A in East Dennis is actually very friendly. This welcoming, family-style breakfast and lunch restaurant serves up delicious soups, salads, sandwiches and daily specials including chowder, seafood platters, scallop rolls and broiled seafood. Everything here is homemade; you'll feel right at home at this breezy, sunny, roadside gem.

The Lobster Claw (Route 6A, Tel. 508-255-1800) in Orleans has been in business, seemingly, forever, and that's a good thing. A wildly popular family favorite, the Lobster Claw features a nice, informal atmosphere and the lobster is as good as it gets in New England. The overwhelming presence of French fries and cole slaw reminds us of a more traditional, family-style dining era. The broiled fisherman's platter is huge, full of fish, scallops, shrimp and cherry stones. More seafood nirvana can be experienced with the clambake that includes a pound and a quarter lobster, steamed clams, corn on the cob, potato and, yes, cole slaw. Love this place!
Not exactly Gilligan's Island...
Martha's Vineyard attracts visitors from all over the world, and with good reason: it's simply beautiful, what many would expect Cape Cod to look like. A 45-minute ferry ride from Falmouth brings you to this impossibly scenic Cape Cod destination. With five lighthouses and 11 glorious beaches including Moshup Beach, East Beach, and Lighthouse Beach, this is the "classic" Cape Cod that people expect the area to look like before embarking on the journey.

Comprised of towns Aquinnah, Chilmark, West Tisbury, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven (also known as Tisbury), Martha's Vineyard is ideal for beach goers, bird-watching, and shoppers (lots of boutiques and galleries in Edgartown and Oaks Bluffs). With a postcard-perfect coastal downtown, Edgartown has a little something for everyone -- beaches (Edgartown Beach on Seaview Ave. is simply marvelous!), a wonderful harbor and waterfront area with shops, lodging and restaurants, as well as amazing architecture in the form of Greek Revival sea captain's homes. You can still get a taste of this former whaling port's history, strolling this Cape Cod step-back-in-time. Be sure to check out the Edgartown Lighthouse, (off North Water St.), too -- a classic Cape Cod lighthouse built in 1828 and replicated in 1938. For dining, the Black Dog Tavern in Vineyard Haven is a must-visit destination. Perhaps most famous for its t-shirt that everyone seems to have, the Black Dog Tavern avoids tourist trap hell by serving up some really good New England fresh local fish and some delicious baked goods.

Oak Bluffs is also charming with its stretch of classic Cape Cod gingerbread cottages. Also check out the fun, beautiful Flying Horse Carousel ride (33 Oak Bluffs Rd., Tel. 508- 693-9481), the nation's oldest operating platform carousel and a National Historic Landmark. It is open from from Easter Saturday through Columbus Day. Additionally, be sure not to miss the Aquinnah Cliffs on Lighthouse Rd., where you can experience the breathtaking, glacially formed, multicolored cliffs.

Oak Bluffs has a wonderful 19th century look, seemingly far removed your typical cookie cutter vacation destination. With ocean beaches, seafood dining and charming lodging options virtually at your doorstep, consider Oak Bluffs a great starting point for your Martha's Vineyard vacation!
The stunningly beautiful island of Nantucket is located 30 miles south of Cape Cod, and represents the best of coastal New England scenery with its wide-open expanses of beaches (seek out Jetties Beach, Children's Beach, and Cisco Beach for the best experiences) and a quaint, quintessential New England feel -- historic buildings, seaside cottages and old-fashioned street lamps. Nantucket's welcoming mix of restaurants, shops (boutiques, galleries, gift stores, etc.), restaurants and fabulous lodging will surely accommodate your Cape Cod vacation dreams, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of Nantucket is its dedication to conservation land in the form of almost 50 percent undeveloped areas. Here, you can enjoy some fabulous bike riding and abundant plant life, bird watching, and salt-sea-air strolls, as if you have made you own special discovery.

Although expensive, you can also find ways to travel Nantucket on a budget.

Some more Nantucket attractions:
The Nantucket Whaling Museum (13 Broad St., Tel. 508-228-1894) for preserving and interpreting the history of Nantucket Island and fostering an appreciation of its historic significance.
Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum dedicated to preserving Nantucket’s rich history of basket making as an art form.

Editor's note: A great way to arrive at Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket is through the Woods Hole (main land)/Martha's Vineyard/Nantucket Steamship Authority with its long-time stellar reputation (in business since 1818!), U.S. Coast Guard certified crews, high speed ferries and reasonable rates.
Provincetown: Well Worth the Drive
We believe that the journey is as exciting as the final destination, but, honestly, sometimes the distance can become quite annoying. Don't fret when it comes to the driving distances traveled to Provincetown, located at the end -- or the tip -- of the Cape.  Provincetown is a popular gay summer vacation destination, but is also just fine for every walk of life looking for a Cape Cod vacation. The downtown is colorful, full of seafood restaurants and little shops, as well as a thriving, arts, theater and entertainment scene. One of our readers, the lovely Terry, of Brockton, MA, (OK, she's my sister-in-law and a great one!) highly recommends Fanizzi's By The Sea (539 Commercial St., Tel. 508-487-1964), within walking distance of the downtown), featuring spectacular views of Cape Cod Bay and "awesome seafood!" Of course, the Provincetown beaches are simply beautiful with Cove Beach and Race Point Beach providing scenic summertime coastal bliss with plenty of sand and relatively warm ocean water (remember, though, this is New England, not Florida!). Provincetown is located by the government-operated Cape Cod National Seashore Park, a 40-mile stretch of expansive beaches and myriad dunes along the way to the quaint Cape Cod community of Chatham. Nearby are charming, more quiet small towns like Eastham, Truro and Welfleet -- wonderful places to stroll the country roads, amazing dunes, and Cape Cod National Seashore Park beaches.

Incredible Cape Cod Beaches

Cape Cod Beach: Bass River Beach, also known as Smugglers Beach
Smugglers Beach, South Yarmouth

The 10-mile long Nauset Beach, at 18 Bay Ridge Lane in Orleans, is one of the Atlantic's Coast's great stretches of beach, Part of the Cape Cod National Seashore Park, the panoramic ocean views are amazing and the sand is soft, making it the quintessential Cape Cod beach experience. The under toe can be a bit strong, the shoreline rocky in spots and the water many times a bit cold, but the unspoiled, stunning surroundings and gentle Cape Cod summer breezes make Nauset Beach a must-visit New England beach.

Coast Guard Beach, Eastham -- One of the best swimming beaches within the Cape Cod National Seashore’s spectacular 43,604 acres, Coast Guard Beach possesses that one-of-a-kind breezy, carefree, scenic Cape Cod summer beach vibe perhaps better than any other area beach — and with dunes included for your viewing pleasure. No matter how crowded expansive Coast Guard Beach gets here in the summer — and it does — you feel like you have your own space to fully unwind and relax.

Bass River Beach (also known as Smugglers Beach), South Yarmouth -- Bass River Beach differs greatly from Coast Guard Beach as the Route 28 area’s higher concentration of commercial and residential elements simply bring more people to the beach. Yes, it can get crowded here, but you’ll still be able to find you’re own spot to the tune of generally more gentle waters — and some marvelous sandy beach to soak up the sun. Bass River Beach offers convenience, too, with changing rooms and restrooms as well as snacks vendors, a really nice fishing deck and volleyball areas. More on Bass River Beach

Herring Cove Beach, Provincetown -- Sun, sand, scenery and sunsets all add up to a superb Outer Cape Cod beach experience. As an added bonus, the water at Herring Cove is warmer than many other Cape Cod beaches. Plus, you are close to downtown Provincetown, a lively eclectic, interesting tourist destination filled with seafood restaurants and shops.

Scusset Beach State Park Reservation, Sandwich -- A great aspect about Scusset Beach is you don’t have to drive too far up the Cape to enjoy one of its nicest beaches. Scusset is virtually next to where the Sagamore Bridge connects Cape Cod and the Massachusetts mainland!  Scusset also has many other elements that  visitors want in a Cape Cod beach — fewer crowds, soft sand in the summer (photo was taken in November), a breakwater, relatively warm waters with a slow drop, a campground within the state park and plenty of parking. An added bonus is that the Cape Cod Canal Bike Trail is virtually around the corner, featuring seven miles of paved path. The scenery might not be up to the caliber of Coast Guard or Nauset Beach, but it’s still so pleasant here and with that convenient location to save you on gas money.

Biking Cape Cod
The 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail will bring you through the pictureresque Cape Cod towns of towns of Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham and Wellfleet. In many areas, you're close to a beach so we recommend leaving the trail to find your own special spot.
Free parking for trail users is available at:
• The trailhead at Route 134 in South Dennis
• Headwaters Drive in Harwich
• Route 137 in Brewster
• Nickerson State Park in Brewster
• Orleans Center
• Cape Cod National Seashore at the Salt Pond Visitors Center in Eastham, one-half mile from the Locust Road intersection with the trail
• National Seashore at Marconi Area
• The trailhead at LeCount Hollow Road in South Wellfleet

Also recommended is the Shining Sea Bikeway in Falmouth (Locust Rd., off Route 28) -- one of Cape Cod's most developed but still charming towns with lots of beaches, shopping, dining and lodging opportunities (check out Old Silver Beach on Quaker Rd., it's beautiful!). This 3.3 miles bike path spans along the Vineyard Sound shoreline, ending in the charming community of Woods Hole. The ride is pretty much level, making it ideal for the casual bike rider. By the way, the Shining Sea Bike way is named after the famous line in the song, "America the Beautiful." The song was written by Falmouth native Katharine Lee Bates and published in 1910!

The Ultimate Cape Cod Town
Welfleet is amazing! This unspoiled, quintessential Cape Cod town is located 75 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, with 61 percent of the area being part of the Cape Cod National Seashore Park.  So, that means plenty of open beach space for you to enjoy! The Central Village area represents quaint Cape Cod at its finest with a nice variety of shopping and dining opportunities -- it is a great place to stroll. Welfleet also features fresh water ponds and is home to the Welfleet Drive-In Theater, one of its kind in New England.

If you're not into the commercial side of Cape Cod, Welfleet is the antidote!

A "Rail" Good Time
Named one of the top ten scenic train rides in the country by USA Today, Cape Cod Railway Central offers a two-hour scenic train ride between Hyannis and Buzzards Bay. On this beautiful ride, you'll be able to view cranberry bogs, natural woodlands, lush marshes and other Cape Cod natural delights. Brunch, lunch dinner, and family suppers as well as narrated tours are available as part of the ride. All aboard!

Off the Beaten Path Cape Cod...
Just 10 minutes over the Bourne Bridge, Pocassett is the Cape Cod that people envision -- with less crowded ocean swimming, places to take a peaceful walks in the salt-air, and charming seaside Cape homes with families having cookouts. Pocasset has very little to do with the honky-tonk, hectic, busy Cape Cod that is becoming increasingly apparent. It's also an advantage that you don't have to drive too far into Cape Cod to get the region's true flavor. Drive around and enjoy the Cape Cod feel!

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Cape Cod is one of the most famous summer vacation destinations in the world and with good reason.  The 70-mile stretch of Cape Cod is full of expansive, scenic family-oriented beaches, wonderful seafood restaurants, old-fashioned, tree-lined villages with captain's homes and charming bed and breakfasts and inns, and a commercial (and sometimes charmingly cheesy) element to please shopping, nightlife and miniature golf fanatics.

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