Alex Benasuli makes the 90-minute crossing from Boston to explore the uniquely colourful seaside hamlet of Provincetown, a quirky American beach resort favoured by artists, the LGBTQ community, heterosexual families and eccentrics on the run, nestled amongst miles of peaceful dunes and seashore yet seemingly at the end of the earth.
The North East of the United States is blessed with over a thousand miles of coastline encompassing wide, open sandy beaches, craggy coves and sheltered bays. Historic villages and atmospheric fishing ports are home to the fabled summer hideaways of the rich and famous.
Each area has its own unique personality. For New Yorkers, the Hamptons on the Eastern tip of Long Island – famous the world over for its elite set of hamlets and endless beaches – is their go-to summer stomping ground. Further north, in Rhode Island, Newport, with its turn-of-the-last-century summer mansions (quaintly referred to as “cottages”) evokes a bygone era of American aristocracy. Close by, the coastal islands of the Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are more summer playgrounds with distinctive characters. And then there is Cape Cod.
The Cape extends 65 miles into the Atlantic Ocean from the southeastern corner of the American state of Massachusetts. It then veers to the north for another 50 odd miles, giving it a distinctive arm-shaped outline. Boasting more than 400 miles of coastline – bordering protected Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay as well as the wilder Atlantic – Cape Cod is a major summer destination for Bostonians, New Englanders and those from further away.
The Cape hosts a diverse set of towns – some elite, others verging on working class. Perhaps the most famous residents of the Cape are the Kennedy’s, whose seaside compound at Hyannis is one of the most storied private residences in the States. But what sets the Cape apart from other American summer destinations is its year-round population, which adds authenticity, calm and balance. And whilst there are traditional picture postcard-perfect towns in the Cape, there are also equally beautiful fishing villages, shellfish marinas and small farms.
At the very end of the Cape, as east and then as north as one can travel, lies Provincetown. Approaching Ptown (as it is affectionately known) on the 90-minute ferry crossing from Boston, the town in many ways looks like a quintessential New England coastal community. Period grey, brown and red shingle historic homes line the beachhead. Small sailing and fishing boats bob and up and down in the harbour, rising and falling with the tide. Piers and wharves of varying lengths jut out into the bay. And there is a distinct remoteness to the place – a calm sense of being at the end of the earth.
Provincetown is a speck of civilisation surrounded by water, pine forests and sand dunes. A lone lighthouse at the end of a promontory, framed on both sides by water, is the first distinctive landmark one sees upon alighting the ferry. It was right here, at Long Point, that the Mayflower delivered the Pilgrims to America almost four hundred years ago.
Whilst New England is a part of the States dotted with quaint country towns and historic monuments, few places can claim such bona fide credentials as Provincetown, much of which dates back to the 19th century and early 1900s when it grew wealthier on the back of fishing and whaling.
Postage stamp-sized shingled cottages fronted by white picket fences and immaculately landscaped gardens are a common sight. Imposing churches and grand civic buildings are dotted about. Around every corner are stunning water views. Aesthetically, this combination of harbour vistas and classic Cape Cod architecture is somewhat otherworldly.
From dawn through dusk, on cloudy and sunny days and across all four seasons, the light in Provincetown is pure magic. Combined with a unique sense of freedom that comes from being at land’s end, this led to Provincetown becoming the country’s first summer artists’ colony at the turn of the last century, an inherent part of the community which is still evident today.
Max Ernst, Jackson Pollack, Helen Frankenthaler and many more all honed their craft in Provincetown, which is also considered to be one of the birthplaces of modern American theatre. Eugene O’Neill staged his first play here in 1906. Tennessee Williams wrote “The Glass Menagerie” in a rustic Ptown cottage overlooking the water.
The same reasons that artists and writers originally flocked to Provincetown are why it remains such a popular summer destination to this day. The seamless co-existence of small town friendliness and an eclectic cultural scene is second to none. Summers in Cape Cod are about long days spent on the beach and relaxing. Provincetown is no different. The beaches in Ptown may be smaller but they are plentiful. Easy access to the harbour and waterfront occurs at almost every space between buildings. Find a quiet spot, roll out your beach towel and watch the world go by as the tides ebb and flow.
Harbourside beaches are perfect for water sports, whilst during low tide, as the waters recede, is the time to get your feet wet in the bay’s cool wet sand and look for shells. The public has access to every dockside in Provincetown making them excellent sunbathing and swimming platforms.
The beaches and scenery become more wild a little outside the town centre, especially in Cape National Seashore Park which begins at the tip of Provincetown’s West End. An area of outstanding natural beauty, the park is made up of wetlands, pine forests, sandy hills and mile upon mile of bays and ocean beaches. It’s a must for nature lovers.
Closer to town but within the boundaries of the park, Herring Cove is particularly popular with locals for its warmer waters and easy parking. Meanwhile Race Point offers wider and longer beaches. For those unfamiliar with swimming in Cape Cod it’s worth mentioning that the experience can be refreshing if not bracing!
Traversing the cycle and foot paths that connect Ptown to its beaches and crisscross Cape National Seashore Park is pure bliss. Taking in the sand dunes, ocean views and the more-shady parts of woody Beech Forest – while coasting up and down undulating hills and around gentle curves – is a highlight not to be missed. A full circuit from town out to Race Point and returning via Herring Cove, with a few water and vista breaks, takes less than an hour. Be sure to ask for a map of the trails when renting your bicycle from Ptown Bikes (www.ptwonbikes.com)
Those seeking more privacy frequent the beaches that surround Long Point, which are a walk of several miles from town. Be careful to time your walk to avoid high tide in order to be able to traverse the causeway that connects it to the mainland. The payoff is seal encounters, abundant bird life and a real sense of leaving it all behind. Alternatively take the Long Point Shuttle and get there over water in a fraction of the time (www.flyersboats.com). There is something very special about being in the middle of the ocean at the very tip of Cape Cod, at the exact spot where the Pilgrims first landed. If you plan to make a day of it, get a picnic from Angel Foods (www.angelfoods.com) or Relish (www.ptwonrelish.com) before you leave town.
In some summer resorts there is little to do apart from relaxing by the pool or beach. This is not the case in Provincetown. For a relatively small place, the cultural, shopping and dining possibilities bordering the town’s three-mile main drag, Commercial Street, are superb.
The center of town is busiest with the highest concentration of bars, restaurants and shops. At its heart is MacMillan pier, from which the ferries to and from Boston arrive and depart as well as the many fishing and whale-watching charters. As you leave the center, towards Ptown’s east and west districts, the crowds quickly thin out and everything quietens down.
Whilst weekends and national holidays (like Independence Day and Labor Day) are noticeably busier, and mid-August’s carnival is also a popular time, one of the real joys of visiting in Ptown is its small scale and innate village feel. And there’s no need for a car, since end to end is roughly an hour on foot or twenty minutes on a bicycle.
Provincetown’s East End is the traditional hub of its artist colony and where at least two dozen galleries are located. Rice Polak specialises in mixed medium contemporary art (ricepolakgallery.com) and Egeli Gallery which focusses on Cape Cod-inspired impressionist paintings (www.egeligallery.com) are just two of the many outstanding galleries in town. The East End is also home to Provincetown Art Association and Museum which was established in 1914 by a number of prominent artists. One of the best small modern art museums in the country, PAAM is a fixture in the town’s cultural life, free to visit on Friday nights and features exhibitions year-round (www.paam.org).
Shopping in Provincetown is a delight with something to suit almost every budget and taste that run from salt of the earth to kitschy, trendy and discerning. For well-curated contemporary and casual mens fashions, head to Pauline Fisher’s much-celebrated MAP at 220 Commercial Street. Nearby Henry & Company offers colourful twists on classic casual clothing (www.henryptwon.com) while Yates & Kennedy showcases a range of quirky yet eminently tasteful home accessories and small gifts (173 Commercial Street).
In Ptown daytime flows seamlessly into night and spending time at the beach leads into sunset drinks at one of many waterfront bars and lounges. Dining options are equally plentiful, with pretty much everywhere in Cape Cod excelling at seafood.
Eastern oysters from nearby Wellfleet, world famous New England lobster and Cape Cod clam chowder, as well as a large variety of fresh locally-caught fish, can all be found across the town. Baie in the East End offers a refined gastronomic experience in an intimate setting complete with bay views (www.baiebar.com), whilst The Lobster Pot in the center of town has been around for generations and serves classic New England fare and Portuguese seafood specials in an unpretentious waterfront setting, but be prepared to wait in the summer months (www.ptownlobsterpot.com). For uncomplicated but delicious fare from morning ‘til night, order at Canteen’s counter and wait for your food to be delivered to your table on a sandy plot facing the harbour, festooned with surf boards and fishing nets. Canteen’s brussel sprouts and lobster rolls are not to be missed (www.thecanteenptwon.com). After dinner, piano bars, cabaret clubs and variety shows beckon, although a 1am closing time (for all venues) ensures that despite Provincetown’s colourful nightlife, nothing gets too out of hand.
Lodging options are generally small and charming bed and breakfast properties. You won’t find a hotel chain in Ptown. Welcoming guests since 1915 and with just eight keys, The Red Inn is arguably one of the best. Overlooking Provincetown Harbour and Cape Cod Bay, every guest room offers spectacular views and a waterfront balcony (theredinn.com). On the other side of town in the East End, award-winning White Porch Inn has nine bedrooms which combine modern luxury in a restored historic house with seductive views over the horizon towards the bay. Eben House (www.ebenhouse.com) and Salt House Inn (www.salthouseinn.com) are two newer boutique properties that offer more modern interpretations of the traditional bed and breakfast concept. Almost all run close to full during the summer months so booking well in advance is essential.
On paper Provincetown has it all. Its breathtaking natural setting surrounded by water on three sides, a national park and beaches combine with the charming qualities of a historic New England coastal village and a cultural scene that would be the envy of many small cities to create an utterly unique and colourful seaside hamlet. Yet in reality it is all this and much more, and it takes mere minutes after landing in Ptown to realise that “We are not in Kansas anymore”. Families with young children share the streets with all manner of street performers, artists with their easels recording the scene, transvestites in full diva drag and greeters in period Pilgrim costume ringing bells and giving out free tourist advice. Provincetown is a carefree enclave where everyone is welcome and encouraged to be themselves. There is truly is no place in the world like it.