Cruising Cape Cod

Explore an East Coast playground with a fascinating past


Cape Cod might be the ultimate American holiday destination, the coastal inspiration for many coming-of-age books and dramas. But this stretch of the US East Coast boasts a strong religious history that people of faith worldwide can relate to.

Back in the 17th century, America represented a new home, a promised land, for those escaping religious persecution in England: in this fight or flight period, the English Separatists, a group that had broken away from the official religion of Charles I, fled aboard the Mayflower.

A total of 102 passengers set sail on 16 September 1620, bound for Virginia before unexpectedly arriving in Cape Cod that winter.

And the first stop for any Cape Cod visitors today should be Plymouth’s immersive Plimoth Patuxet museums.

Here visitors explore America’s founding story, stepping aboard a replica Mayflower vessel, and wandering around a 17th century English Settlers’ Village, where role-players portray residents of the Plymouth colony. Tourists are enrolled to join the local militia, receiving orders barked from a very convincing sergeant.

Stepping inside settlers’ homes, and discussing how the people lived and worked is fascinating, and especially engaging for children.

An indigenous people’s village is part of the experience too, allowing visitors to learn about the Wampanoag people who lived in Cape Cod for thousands of years before the religious emigrants arrived.

From Plymouth, continue on to the very tip of the Cape and its capital of Provincetown where the Mayflower docked four centuries ago: the lively, colourful streets feel modern and inclusive today.

America’s largest granite building, the Pilgrim’s Monument, commemorates the early settlers and if you ascend to the top, you’ll be rewarded by fantastic views over the town and out to sea.

Then step inside the adjacent Provincetown museum to discover more about the Mayflower’s journey, and other local legends, from the town’s rich theatrical and literary history, to whaling and Arctic exploration.

In central Provincetown, grab some salt water taffy from local candy stores, or savour a taste of local fish at the restaurants which line the streets.

Refuelled and refreshed, stroll the Bob Gasoi Memorial Art Alley, a unique creative hotspot. Initially these pieces were created to “brighten up” the winter ritual of boarding up the shop windows in Provincetown, but not all the community was ready for the erotic depictions Gasoi came up with, with sexual references thrown in for good measure among the Biblical depictions, Greek mythology and Alice in Wonderland vibes.

Besides the unusual artworks, Provincetown is renowned for its landscapes, tucked on a sliver of land surrounded by sand dunes and the ocean. Today, these dunes are part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, established in 1961 to protect the area’s natural beauty.

The best way to experience the views is by joining an official tour, such as Art’s Dune Tours, established in 1946 by Portuguese immigrant Arthur Costa: this family business, now run by Art’s son Rob, drives visitors into the sandy heartlands.

The tour highlights local wildlife, pointing out beach heather, cranberries and Piping Plover birds, as well as 19 curious isolated cabins dotted around the dunes.

Originally built as coastal lifesaving stations or rudimentary retreats, the huts became the haunt of playwrights and authors, from Jack Kerouac, Eugene O’Neill and Jackson Pollock to ee cummings, Norman Mailer and Tennessee Williams.

Over time, Provincetown became synonymous with theatre and the avant garde. It’s said that the eclectic mix of art and creativity fostered and nurtured an LGB community in Provincetown from the early 20th century, another example of Cape Cod creating a haven for people setting down new roots on their own terms.

Alongside artists and English Separatists, Cape Cod’s idyllic shores have welcomed Jewish talent too. Founder of the Bauhaus School, Walter Gropius, fled Germany when the Nazis came to power.

He became the professor of architecture at Harvard University and encouraged other Jewish refugees and kindred spirits to the region. Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Paul Weidlinger, Xanti Schawinski and Konrad Wachsmann, leading lights in modernism, architecture and design gathered in the Cape.

They built cutting-edge housing, abandoning the traditional Cape Cod wooden-framed shingles/clapboard style design, in favour of striking homes in a notably modernist style. Several key properties were saved and preserved by the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, and Weidlinger’s home can even be booked to stay in. But while this unique Jewish enclave is wonderfully unexpected, it’s not the only Jewish offering to consider.

Venture south and you’ll find a Jewish Center in the tempting tourist hotspot of Martha’s Vineyard: skip the traffic and set sail by fast ferry from the port of Hyannis to reach the charming island. The first definitively identified Jewish settler is said to have arrived in 1905 from Lithuania, before a second Jewish family settled on the island in 1913.

In 1937, when a community of Jewish households were permanently established, fundraising began to create the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, which flourishes to this day. The island also has six towns, plus a myriad of beaches and lighthouses to explore.

The neighbouring island of Nantucket is arguably more manageable as a day trip. Step off the ferry here to find a landscape seemingly frozen in time, combining an attractive mix of cobblestones and traditional architecture that harks back to its days as a whaling community.

Visitors can chill at the Children’s Beach or visit the Whaling Museum to learn more local history, wonder at the vast whale skeleton in Gosnell Hall, hear the harrowing tale of the Essex whaling ship (involving cannibalism and castaways), and admire the delicate Scrimshaw Collection.

To explore the island further, it’s relatively cheap and easy to hire a bike or jump aboard the regular Wave buses and head to Sconset on the west of the island.

Home to the Instagrammably eye-catching Sankaty Head lighthouse, this is also the starting point of the ‘Bluff Walk’ — a clifftop walk cutting through enviable real estate to soak up the seascapes.

In the 1800s, developer and summer resident William Flagg envisaged just how exclusive the area would become and to protect the walk for future generations he built a public right of way into the deeds of the house lots he was creating: a precious gift for locals and visitors alike.

But between island hopping and history lessons it’s worth stepping back and remembering that Cape Cod’s calling card is relaxation and fun. Highlights include strolling the Yarmouth Boardwalk over the marshes, slowly driving the scenic Old King’s Highway Route 6A, and hanging out at the numerous beaches along the cape.

The children’s highlight will always be Yarmouth’s Wicked Waves Water Park, cruising along the lazy river, hurling themselves down flumes and catching the surf in the epic wave machines as the sun beats down.

And ultimately, this is what still tempts most visitors to the Cape today: long childhood summers, beach houses and family memories.

Getting There

Cape Cod is around a 90-minute drive from Boston, or around five hours by car from New York’s JFK airport.

Return flights from Heathrow to Boston cost from around £380 with Virgin Atlantic, or flights from Manchester via Keflavik cost around £390 with Icelandair.

You can also fly from JFK to Hyannis airport with JetBlue.

For more information, visit

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