Rotaries. Lobstah rolls. Beaches. Widows’ walks.
Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are the popular kids of summer.
The Obamas last month stayed two weeks on trendy Martha’s Vineyard. This summer’s best-selling beach book, “Rumors,” is set in tony Nantucket. Cape Cod is so coveted that vacationers spend hours inching along in miles of traffic just to get there.
Filled with New Englanders and New Yorkers, the Cape and islands can make a regular person from, say, Michigan, feel like an outsider (“Why does WBZ radio keep telling the weather for the Cayman Islands?” I ask, prompting my husband, normally a nice guy but who, after all, is from Massachusetts, to laugh hysterically at my Midwest dimwit ears that can’t hear “Cape and islands,” which is what this area is collectively called).
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There is, however, one thing that makes it worthwhile to join the teeming throngs spreading to Falmouth and Edgartown and Oak Bluffs and Chatham and Nantucket and Hyannis. Beauty. Sheer beauty.
That, and the feeling that you stepped into a novel, where everything is more vivid than in your plain old dull life back home.
Where’s the ferry?
The first problem people who are not from the East have is figuring out where the heck these places are. Is the Cape an island? How far is Martha’s Vineyard, and is that a city or what? Where does Nantucket fit into the picture?
A basic geography lesson. All of them are in Massachusetts. The Cape is part of the mainland, south of Boston and Plymouth. It is an hourlong fast ferry trip from Cape Cod to the islands of Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard.
The Cape is 339 square miles, and the Vineyard is 87, and Nantucket is 105. All of them have cars and traffic jams. In winter, lots of people still live on the Cape, but the islands empty of vacationers.
Wealth-wise, Nantucket is the most exclusive, followed by the Vineyard, then the Cape. History-wise, all of these places are significant: settled by native people for a thousand years and by Westerners since the 1600s.
Everyone on the Cape and islands thinks they are special. Maybe they are.
The real star, however, is the climate. Temperate and mild in summer and winter, it always smells good here, with a bracing salt tang and the scent of scrub pines. The light is gentle, with vivid riots of daisies and effervescent blue hydrangeas. The houses are a soothing gray. Down Cape, on the far eastern edge, the Atlantic sweeps in hard on the shore, but the rest of the beaches are delightful and somewhat protected.
Where can a beginner start? I’d recommend visiting Cape Cod in the fall – September and October – and taking day trips to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Cape Cod: More than other destinations, you will feel the whispers and ghostly presence of generations of vacationers who have been here before you. It is big, so don’t try to see it all. First-timers should try to get out to see the Cape Cod National Seashore, a windswept and rather forbidding swath of natural beauty. For fun, shop in downtown Falmouth, wander the art shacks by the harbor in Hyannis, eat cantaloupe ice cream at the famous Four Seas in Centerville; take a whale watch tour. The Kennedy legacy is big on the Cape; the Kennedy Museum in Hyannis is moderately interesting. You will find excellent beaches all along the southern Cape and warm water through September. Fall is a great festival time, with the Scallop Festival (Sept. 18-20) and the Wellfleet Oysterfest (Oct. 17-18). By the time you leave, you’ll be feeling like a local as you head “off Cape” and “over the bridge” back to the real world.
Nantucket: A carefully managed island so pleasing to stroll that it looks like a movie set. Thick cobblestone streets, soothing gray cedar shake homes, old mansions of brick, pale yellow and white. The stores are something to marvel at: cashmere shops, a store with giant spherical clocks, a store with $2,000 handmade Nantucket baskets and a dandy department store called Murray’s Toggery Shop. Do not miss the wonderful whaling museum here, which illuminates the island’s past. Nantucket Restaurant Week starts in late September (Sept. 28-Oct. 4 this year) and the Nantucket Arts Festival is Oct. 2-12. Best deal on the island? Shuttle buses that charge only $1 for a ride to the beach or elsewhere. A nickname for Nantucket is the “Gray Lady,” but don’t call it that in casual conversation or people will look at you funny.
Martha’s Vineyard: A joyful island full of lively restaurants and nightlife, celebrities, conspicuous consumption and “Jaws” tourism. Known by locals as “the Vineyard,” it features notable architecture such as a string of “gingerbread” cottages in Oak Bluffs and the classic white town hall in Edgartown. Interesting beaches include the Oak Bluffs Town Beach (Inkwell) and State Beach, where part of “Jaws” was filmed. This island also has great African American heritage sites. The Food and Wine Festival is in October (15th-18th this year). You will fit in even more if you shop at the super-preppy Vineyard Vines clothing store and wear that getup around the island.
Every restaurant on the Cape and islands has its claws into lobster rolls. With lobster in season, lobster rolls (either plain, or more authentically, mixed with mayonnaise or other secret ingredients) are on every menu. While they may be plentiful, they are not cheap. A lobster roll meal with fries and coleslaw at the classic waterfront restaurant Baxter’s in Hyannis is $23, while their chicken salad roll is $8.99.
Still. The best lobster rolls, with buns, a bit of lettuce and the lobster piled high in the fold, are a delight for those who live far from the lobster’s realm. Ranging from about $18 to $25, the sandwich feels light. And it’s tasty.
One other note? Massachusetts folks are extremely particular about clam chowder. While tourists might like big chunky potatoes in their chowder, locals prefer a more authentic, quite thin, almost gritty, white soup with plenty of clams.
It may sound like a lot of regulations and rules, I know. How thin the soup. What texture the lobster. What flowers to grow. What ferries to take. What nicknames are allowed. But the Cape and the islands promise you, it’s worth it.
Heading to the Cape
Getting there: Getting to Cape Cod, frankly, can be exhausting. It is 60 miles south of Boston Logan airport, but travel time can be hours if you try to cross over on a Friday afternoon or weekend, when bridge traffic backs up for miles. Once on the Cape, ferries take you to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard. There also is air service from Boston, New York City and other cities to Cape Cod and both islands.
Lodging: Try for a house rental through Airbnb or VRBO; also check out hotels and bed and breakfasts. Rentals are not cheap, especially on Nantucket. But there is a place for you. For more good lodging links and information see www.nantucketchamber.org; www.capecodchamber.org; www.mvy.com.