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A 60-mile-long landmark? Is it possible? Cape Cod - or simply "The Cape" to those who know and visit it - is the stuff of glamour, myth... and childhood, adult and movie memories. It is one of the most prominent geographic features of the United States, if not the world, an unmistakeable arm-like peninsula extending out into the Atlantic Ocean. For many residents of New England, New York, DC and beyond, it is the place of their second address, be it for a short stay, a week taken annually at the same time at the same resort, or the permanent second address that they will carry to their obituary (e.g., "...of Boston and Hyannisport"). The Cape (and one assumes this includes "The Islands", Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket) is the playground of people of all walks of life. To some, it's "too much growth", as in the center of towns whose infrastructure has grown to keep up - or not - with the influx that descends on the area in the summertime. To others, it is synonymous with "remote", as in the remote towns of Orleans and Truro. To some, it's a place to see and be seen, as in Provincetown (P-Town!!!) and Hyannis. And to some, it's a place to hide from the paparazzi or just the hassles of the rest of the world. Visitors go there either to slow down, or to get sandy or wet.
In general, The Cape is accessed by two bridges and then, further on, by three highways. "The fast way" - Route 6 down the middle - is a relatively boring ride, but it is efficient. Boston-Provincetown takes about four hours in freely flowing traffic. The route along the north shore, Route 6A, has much more personality with many quaint towns of clapboard "Capes" and stores. Route 28, along the south shore, is considered by many to be more interesting yet, with many water views, plus all that the other routes have. They all merge near Orleans, just above Chatham, at the "elbow" of The Cape, and continue as Route 6 on up to Provincetown. (For first-time Route 6 travelers, let's clear up one myth before you go: The water cannot be seen from every point on The Cape!)
There are faster ways to Provincetown: The three-hour regular ferry, and the 1.5-hour fast ferry. These run from mid-May to mid-October.
While it is characterized by low rolling hills, not much altitude, pines, and all styles of home inland, and long, long sand dunes covered by the signature Cape grass and "Cape roses" at the shore, The Cape is hardly monotonous. There are towns and neighborhoods that could be found anywhere in New England, such as traditional Falmouth and Chatham (and Hyannis's mall). There are those establishments (lobster on the dock), neighborhoods (Osterville) and towns (Truro, Orleans) that could only grow near the beach. And there are those that are uniquely Cape Cod (South Yarmouth, Dennis, P-Town). Emblematic of the high end is the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport. At the low-end, the many motels that cater to one- and two-night visitors. All thrive in the summertime. In fact, employment - e.g., need for help - is such an issue that it's common to hear the Irish lilt in the voice of many summer workers at Cape restaurants and hotels.
Cape Cod has a definite timetable, though less so than years ago. First, the seasonal one: Memorial Day to Labor Day, the most facilities are open and thriving. Think rings-around-bottlenecks, baseballs-and-metal-bottles, stuffed animals, walk-up ice cream stands and many walk-up fried seafood places, often one and the same. Beyond this "heart of summer", many lodgings open during May and stay open through September. Fewer stay open through October. And just a few hotels and restaurants are open year-round. This is not unusual for the entire New England coast.
Now, the weekly timetable(!!!) from about the first spring "play outside weather" until October: From Thursday evening until Saturday mid-day (excluding the late night), "going down" - and Sunday, all day, "going back up" - traffic on the main roads and bridges "onto" and "off" The Cape is horrible. It often takes hours during those periods to cover an area that would take minutes in freely-flowing traffic. There is simply no way around it, save flying into Hyannis, the Vineyard and Nantucket (there are commercial flights), or taking the ferry to P-town... or going at a more sane time. (For the record, once you clear your bridge, and any other time, it's all a breeze.) In the legendary traffic jams, people have been known to get out, visit, change drivers, trade cars with one another (with friends), and to picnic on their trailored boats. This is primarily because many people rent their annual week from weekend to weekend, and because they want to get the most out of their time there.
Contradictory? Not at all. Why? Because The Cape is worth it. It's worth it both in the event, as well as for the effect it has on the rest of life and for the rest of the year. Amazing how long some people will wait to clean the sand from the floor of their car.....
Then there are The Islands -- hardly a footnote, nor an asterisk. About them, there really is just one question: How do you want to feel about the rest of the world? If you want it to feel far away, Martha's Vineyard is right. If you want it to feel very far away, then Nantucket is right. Whether you arrive by slow or fast ferry, or by plane, you will feel ...apart... a difficult concept to fully feel until you're .....there.
NOTE: Regarding "The Cape Bottleneck", help has arrived. In fact, construction is finished at the Sagamore Bridge to turn the ancient traffic circles into overpasses, "flyovers" as they are called in much of the world. Those who live on The Cape, and many who visit, were worried about the effect on quality of life. But at some point in the last five years, the scale tipped, and the political will developed to make this huge change. Summer 2007 was the debut. For better, or for worse? Or worst: All for naught? All that matters is what you think.