Cape Cod Without the Crowds

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In spring, fall, and winter, America's original vacationland can be enjoyed on a mere shoestring--and without the crowds that mar it in summer

Who says Massachusetts' renowned Cape Cod is worth visiting only in summer? When it can be overpriced, and traffic along the area's two-lane roads unbearable? When motels and B&Bs are often sold out months in advance, and the crowds basking on the Cape's expansive and usually pristine beaches can be maddening? When the very flavor that has made this region such a tourist draw is often lost in the shuffle? From Labor Day through Memorial Day weekend, things calm down and return to normal. Prices decline (room rates are 30-60 percent less than they are in peak season). Reservations are easier to come by. And - contrary to popular belief - once fall and winter set in, the Cape doesn't just shut down.

As the summer throngs slow to barely a trickle, and traffic becomes a non-issue, many discerning visitors believe the area's at its best. Because the Cape is surrounded by the Atlantic, temperatures tend to be milder and snow less of a concern - even in the dead of winter - than in other parts of New England (average high temperatures don't fall below 37[degrees]F in Hyannis). The only thing you give up, really, is baking on a hot beach (for which your dermatologist will thank you).

Provincetown & the Outer Cape

Imagine walking along a deserted beach, just you and someone special - and maybe a few terns and seagulls. You're bundled up against the crisp, fresh salt air, and the only human footprints on the beach are yours. As the sun sets in the Atlantic, the sky a palette of mauves, pinks, oranges, and violets, you contemplate a hearty dinner in a cozy dining spot next to a blazing fireplace, followed by some tavern hopping where you can rub shoulders with local fishermen, artists, and other townsfolk from all walks of life.

Sounds appealing? Then make Provincetown your off-season Cape base of operations. Although it's at the northern tip of the Cape, it can serve as a good focal point for your wanderings and day trips. And if you decide to stay put, there's plenty to keep you occupied in the area, especially if you love nature, great seafood, and peace and quiet.

Much of what's special about this artists' colony and fishing port is free of charge. The sunsets, for example: thanks to the curve of the Cape, this is one of the few places on the East Coast where you can watch the sun dissolve into the ocean. A good vantage point is Herring Cove Beach, where locals gather even in winter to watch the sky turn the most amazing colors.

Many motels and B&Bs in town stay open for all or part of the off-season. Year-round options include the six-room, two-apartment Windamar House (568 Commercial St., 508/487-0599; from $60), a well-kept B&B 15 minutes' walk from the town center; the five-room Three Peaks (210 Bradford St., 800/286-1715, from $60); the traditionally furnished, 13-room Captain Lysander Inn (96 Commercial St., 508/487-2253, from $65), in a former sea captain's house; or the admirable Inn at Cook Street (7 Cook St., 888/266-5655, from $65). For something slightly farther down-Cape, the recently renovated 65-room South Wellfleet Motel & Lodge in the also-charming town of Wellfleet (170 Route 6, 508/349-3535, from $60) offers modern conveniences and a coffee shop with cooked-to-order breakfasts. Provincetown Reservations Systems (800/648-0364) can suggest other possibilities.

Unfortunately, Provincetown's most visible landmark, the Pilgrim Monument, is closed from December to March. But its most impressive natural feature, the Cape Cod National Seashore, is open year-round and you'll probably have it all to yourself in the off-season. The terrain is truly stirring, perhaps unlike anything you've seen - picture towering sand dunes and twisted scrub pines with Atlantic whitecaps as backdrop. The seashore's 40 miles of bicycle trails can be explored by bike, foot, or in-line skates (the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce at 508/862-0700 or 888/33-332-2732 can provide a biking map and more information). Bird-watchers will enjoy the town's Beech Forest reservation (the entrance is located off Race Point Road, not far from Route 6). The many unique local shops and galleries offer rainy-day entertainment and - if you hit it right-some off-season bargains.

All that walking and salt air is sure to stir your appetite. Many of the more economical dining options close off-season, but an excellent bet remains the plain and homey Lobster Pot (321 Commercial St., 508/487-0842, entrees from $5.95), right on the waterfront. A good deal but a bit more of a splurge, Napi's (Freeman & Standish Streets, 508/487-1145), is a large and rustic eatery done in an arts-and-crafts style, with a huge, eclectic menu, a fireplace aglow in the cooler months, and early-bird specials such as asparagus ravioli for $10.95. Both serve lunch and dinner.

During the summer, Provincetown's nightlife can get a bit raucous. In the off-season, things are quieter, but there's still plenty to do when the sun sets, and you'll get a chance to meet the local year-rounders (some of whom display bumper stickers boasting as much) in their natural habitat. The Mews Caf, and Restaurant (429 Commercial St., 508/487-1500) features open-mike Mondays from November to May, with performances by local poets, vocalists, and bands, broadcast over radio station WOMR; there's other live entertainment on weekends. The Governor Bradford (312 Commercial St., 508/487-2781) is a local pub with entertainment most weekends, including karaoke if the spirit moves its patrons, or you can entertain yourself with chess and backgammon boards. For something completely different, try the Atlantic House (6 Masonic Pl., 508/487-3821), Provincetown's longest-running gay and lesbian bar (folks of all persuasions are more than welcome), housed just off Commercial Street in a building dating from 1798.

Among the many year-round Outer Cape attractions within a short drive from Provincetown: Highland Light in North Truro (508/487-1121, admission $3 to climb to the top), the Cape's oldest lighthouse; the Marconi Wireless Site (508/349-3785, admission free) in Wellfleet, where the first transatlantic wireless message was sent in 1903; the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (508/349-2615, $3 adults, $2 children), a thousand-acre nature preserve ideal for bird-watching or trekking; and the Salt Pond Visitor Center (Rte. 6, 508/255-3421, free) in Eastham, with its museum of local artifacts and nature exhibits and more information about the Marconi Site.

Mid-Cape meanderings

If the Outer Cape is just a bit too far out, another good base of operations might be West Yarmouth in the mid-Cape area. Although some of the region, especially Route 28, has been strip-malled to death, there are still stretches where fast-food joints and convenience stores have been kept at bay by careful town planning. Stick to Route 6A, a winding two-lane road, to get an idea of what the entire Cape - the one rhapsodized about in the Patti Page song "Old Cape Cod" - once looked like. Here you'll find the full range of Cape architecture, from imposing sea captains' manses (some of which have been turned into B&Bs) to authentic eighteenth-century "Cape Cods," along with eclectic antique and book shops, all lovingly preserved.

Among the attractions in the area are the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History (869 Main St./Rte. 6A, Brewster; 508/896-3867; $5 for adults and $2 for children age 5-12), which offers seal cruises (weekly, $25 per person for nonmembers, $22 for members) and 4 miles of scenic nature trails winding across a pristine salt marsh and woodlands.

Another popular pursuit is antiquing, without the summer crowds to compete against (Route 6A is teeming with dealers). Be sure to pop into Yarmouthport's Parnassus Book Service (220 Main St./Rte. 6A, 508/362-6420), boasting a large collection of rare, antique, and out-of-print books, shelved with no apparent logic.

Overnight possibilities include the clean and modern 100-room Mariner Motor Lodge (800/445-4050, from $38.50 with continental breakfast), with indoor pool, whirlpool, and sauna; the 116-room Cape Point (508/778-1500; from $35 midweek, $49 weekends), with a large indoor pool, budget restaurant, and above-average fitness center; or the 128-room Bayside Resort (800/243-1114; $50 midweek, $69 weekends, with breakfast) also with indoor pool, hot tub, and saunas. The Yarmouth Area Chamber of Commerce (508/778-1008 or 800/732-1008) can provide other suggestions as well as information about the area.

Because this is seafood country, you'll want to sample the ocean's harvest (and as any New Englander will tell you, the best lobster is caught in months with an "R" in them - yet another reason for avoiding the Cape from May to August). Jerry's Seafood & Ice Cream (654 Rte. 28, 508/775-9752, entrees from $4.25) is a casual hole-in-the-wall specializing in fried seafood platters and the like.

For large portions of locally caught fish in a slightly more upscale setting, try Clancy's (8 Upper County Rd., Dennisport; 508/394-6661; entrees from $5.95), which often features a pianist during dinner on weekends. For some local conviviality, try Michael Patrick's Publick House (435 Rte. 28, Dennisport), offering live entertainment on weekends and the chance to meet a local character or two.

The Upper Cape

With its classic New England town green and wide choice of B&Bs and other accommodations, Falmouth is the perfect place from which to explore the Upper Cape area. Budget lodging possibilities include the characterless but tidy, 98-room Admiralty Inn (800/341-5700; from $60 weekdays, $80 weekends); or the more old-Cape, 80-room ShoreWay Acres Resort Inn (800/352-7100, from $59), with its campus - like setting and family-style atmosphere. For a hearty meal, head to Falmouth's rustic, bustling Chapoquoit Grill (410 West Falmouth Highway/Rte. 28A; 508/540-7794), blissfully free of long waits in the off-season and with entrees starting at $6.95.

Local attractions include the Cahoon Museum of American Art (4676 Falmouth Road/Rte. 28., Cotuit; 508/428-7581; free; closed in February), located in a beautifully preserved 1775 Georgian Colonial farmhouse. Golfers will enjoy the town's four public courses, all open year-round, weather permitting (and, this being the Cape, it usually does), with greens fees starting at $35. The Falmouth Visitors Center (508/548-8500) can provide details and offer other lodging and sightseeing options.

From Falmouth, you can easily explore Sandwich, the Cape's oldest town (est. 1637). For a cheap lunch, try the Dunbar Tea Shop (1 Water St., 508/833-2485), a restful spot for home-cooked food (entrees from $7) with an English flair; save room for the bumbleberry pie if it's on offer. The Sandwich Glass Museum (129 Main St.; 508/888-0251; admission $3.50 for adults, $1 children age 6-16) is a popular year-round attraction. For some exercise, head out to the Sandwich Boardwalk, a plank walkway stretching 1,350 feet out into the Atlantic. After a day of sightseeing, grab a bite and a hot drink at Cap'n Kidd in nearby Woods Hole (77 Water St., 508/548-9206), frequented by a wide range of humanity - from local fishermen to research scientists from the famous Oceanographic Institution (which has an exhibit center that's open during the off-season; for hours, call 508/289-2522. Suggested adult donation is $2). Newcomb Hollow Beach Wellfleet, renowned for its oysters at fresh-off-the-boat prices.

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