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Want to treat your kids to an old-fashioned Cape Cod vacation? You know, the kind you loved as a kid? Lazy days at the beach, sloppy lobster dinners, evening band concerts, and trips to "penny" candy shops don't have to be a misty memory.
Just keep driving past those overcrowded Mid-Cape towns and head straight to Harwich, Chatham, and Brewster on the Lower Cape. These salty, seaside villages still have an "Old Cape Cod" feel and are far from the maddening crowds. It'll add 20-40 minutes to the drive, but there's a payoff -- quieter beaches, fewer cars, and hardly a strip mall in sight.
Once there, pick a beach that's close to your hotel. Our favorites for families include:
To make sure your Cape Cod beach days go smoothly, it pays to know the local logistics. Here's a crash course for the uninitiated:
The Lower Cape is about 20 minutes from the Cape Cod National Seashore, a 40-mile stretch of nationally protected coastline from Chatham to Provincetown. This area includes 43,000 acres of swimming beaches, nature trails, bike trails, scenic overlooks, picnic/camp areas, and historic sites.
At Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham, you can pick up maps for nature walks (the quarter-mile Buttonbush and one-mile Nauset Marsh trails are ideal for families) and bike hikes (try the 1.6-mile Nauset Trail to Coast Guard Beach). Or sign up for lessons on canoeing, clam digging, and surfcasting. Occasionally, rangers will lead early-evening lighthouse tours and campfires on the beach.
For more bike adventure, try the Cape Cod Rail Trail. This 25-mile, paved path runs through six Cape Cod towns from Dennis (Mid-Cape) to Wellfleet (Outer Cape). Start at Nickerson State Park in Brewster, with its ample parking and bike rental concession. We suggest riding the trail north toward Harwich (5.7 miles) and Dennis (11.6 miles); it's bike path the whole way. Heading south towards Cape Cod National Seashore, you'll be riding on the road in some parts...scary for youngsters and stressful for parents.
Your Cape Cod vacation isn't complete without baseball, band concerts, and browsing around town. The Cape Cod Baseball League's 10 teams are fertile training ground for college all-stars headed for the major leagues. In fact, Nomar Garciaparra (Red Sox), Mo Vaughn (Angels), and Jeff Bagwell (Astros) all played summer ball on the Cape. Here's where you can watch the local action from mid-June through mid-August:
Band concerts on the village green are another summer tradition. Chatham's Friday night concerts are the most renowned. Concert-goers stake out blanket space at Kate Gould Park on Main Street early in the day, and return in the evening with pizzas from Carmine's (595 Main Street, 508-945-5300). Town bands also play Sunday nights at Drummer Boy Park in West Brewster and Tuesday nights at Brooks Park in Harwich.
Evenings are also good for checking out souvenir shops, eating ice cream, buying "penny" candy and hand-dipped chocolates. All three Lower Cape towns have quaint Main Streets; Chatham's is the most walkable. Favorite places include:
Lower Cape Cod vacation also means mini-golf, bowling, and a double feature at one of the last drive-in theaters in New England. Put the family's putting skills to the test in West Harwich at Harbor Glen Golf or in nearby Orleans at Cape Escape Golf.
After that, take aim at the Orleans Bowling Center, where candlepins rule. Drive a little further south and you'll be in Wellfleet, home of the Cape's only drive-in theater, featuring first-run double features and stereo sound (or mono original speakers, for a real old-fashioned feel).
If you hit a rainy spell, you may have to brave the crowds and head for Hyannis. There, you can take a self-guided tour of the Cape Cod Potato Chip Company, ride to the Cape Cod Canal on the Cape Cod Central Railroad and, if the kids are really, really good, visit the Record Town Arcade at the Cape Cod Mall.
Type of trip: Beach, sports, sightseeing
Best ages: 4 and up
Ideal trip length: 5-7 days
Distance: Boston (80-90 miles), Providence (90-100 miles), Hartford (145-155 miles), New York City (255-265 miles)
Best time to go: Summer
Weather: Hot and sunny most summer days but mornings can start off hazy. In the evenings, ocean breeze cools things down. 71/56 degrees in June; 78/63 in July; 76/61 in August.
Lodging: The Lower Cape has lots of hotels, motels, and B&Bs. You can also rent private homes, cottages, condos, and timeshares through real estate brokers.
Squirm factor: None
Salt Pond Visitor Center at the Cape Cod National Seashore Route 6, Eastham Phone: 508-255-3421
Nickerson State Park and Cape Cod Rail Trail Route 6A, Brewster Phone: 508-896-3491
Cape Cod Baseball League Phone: 508-432-6909 Note: Donations welcome when the hat is passed.
Chatham Candy Manor 484 Main St., Chatham Phone: 508-945-0825
The Brewster Store 1935 Main St. (at Routes 124 and 6A), Brewster Phone: 508-896-3744
Sundae School 606 Main St. (Route 28), Harwich Port Phone: 508-430-2444
Cape Escape Mini Golf 14 Canal Rd., Orleans Phone: 508-240-1791
Orleans Bowling Center 195 Route 6A, Orleans Phone: 508-255-0636
Wellfleet Drive-in Theatre Route 6 (on the Eastham-Wellfleet town line) Phone: 508-349-7176
Cape Cod Potato Chip Company Breed's Hill Rd. (Off Route 132), Hyannis Phone: 508-775-7253
Cape Cod Central Railroad 252 Main St., Hyannis Phone: 508-771-3800
Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center Phone: 888-332-2732 or 508-862-0700
Brewster Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center Phone: 508-896-3500
Chatham Chamber of Commerce Phone: 508-945-5199
Harwich Chamber of Commerce Phone: 508-432-1600
Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism Phone: 800-227-6277
Favorite local spot: Cobie's 3260 Route 6A (off the Cape Cod Rail Trail near Nickerson State Park), Brewster Phone: 508-896-7021 Note: This beloved clam shack is known for its great fried seafood, lobster rolls, and kid-pleasing hot dogs and hamburgers. Open-air seating with a roof protects diners from sun and rain.
Local foods: Boiled lobster, fried clams, clam chowder, Cape Cod Potato Chips, cranberry muffins, saltwater taffy.
Best souvenir: A bucket of hand-collected seashells and starfish that washed up on the beach; bright-red stuffed lobsters sold everywhere in assorted sizes.
Annual events: (Unless otherwise noted, call individual town's Visitor Information Centers or Chambers of Commerce for further details.)
Traffic alert: To get to the Cape, you must cross either the Bourne or Sagamore Bridge. The Sagamore Bridge to Route 6 is the most direct route to the Lower Cape, but if you're traveling to Brewster, you can also take Route 6A. Expect traffic backups of 15-45 minutes crossing the bridge. Try to plan your vacation Thursday through Monday or Tuesday. If you must travel on Friday or Saturday, start early and be over the bridge before 8 a.m. It's near impossible to outsmart Sunday traffic back home. So, do something enjoyable on your last day at the Cape and be prepared for some slowdowns. Pack those GameBoys and personal stereo systems for the kids!
If you can tear your family from the beach for a day, take the 1.5-hour boat ride to Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard. Upon arrival, grab a ride on the Flying Horses Carousel, the oldest operating merry-go-round in the country and a National Historic Landmark.
Afterwards, you must visit the Trinity Park Tabernacle, an enchanting enclave of more than 300 brightly-painted gingerbread-style cottages built in the late 19th century.
Once everyone has picked out their favorite gingerbread house, hop a bus to picturesque Edgartown. Poke around the shops, lunch by the sea, tour a sea captain's house, and treat the kids to ice cream at Mad Martha's, a Vineyard favorite. If you have time, rent bikes and ride the island's bike paths before catching the boat back to Hyannis.