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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | MASSACHUSETTS

Cape Cod's World of Summer Delights

With Its Sand Dunes and Seashore, Its Clams and Cranberries, Its Clapboard Cottages and Early American History, the Peninsula Has Something for Every Taste

April 25, 1999|ALEXANDER THEROUX | Alexander Theroux is a poet, novelist and essayist. His latest novel, "Laura Warholic," will be published next year

A gull's view of Cape Cod, that famous sickle-shaped peninsula off eastern Massachusetts, shows it to be a patchwork quilt of marshes, beaches, heather, forests, salt ponds, bogs and sea. Small, tidy, without flash, it is only 70 miles in length and, at its widest point, a modest 20 miles. But it has about 560 miles of lovely shoreline.

With its clapboard houses, bobbing boats and eel ponds, Cape Cod has always been a popular resort. In summer, it holds a world of alternatives: dunes and seashore; cranberry bogs and cruises; and restaurants, none of them far from the buoyant smell of salt air. The diversity of the Cape encourages the photographer, the fisherman, the golfer, the beachcomber. And there is the happy family on holiday: husband, wife and kids all zooming down to the beach with their white putty-ball bodies, dropping in their excitement a trail of pails, towels, lotions and chocolate Yoo-Hoos.

This lure of the beach is, in fact, partly responsible for how I came to be here. When I was a child, my family often visited the Cape, where I would fall into the beach-pail-and-learning-to-swim routine. When I moved here years later, the place seemed a perfect corner to be near cities (New York and Boston), the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the sea, primarily the sea.

The Cape's year-round population of 200,000 swells to nearly 600,000 in the peak months of July and August. Locals call the tourists "sea gulls," and being born on the Cape counts for a lot. I have lived here 25 years and am still considered an outlander. Cape Codders, however, are among the kindest--if wariest--people on earth. They have time for anyone. It is the relatively recent citizens who are closed, taciturn and of the type who would consider me a "wash ashore." There is also among the natives an unbudging lack of interest in going anywhere else. "I have to go off-Cape next week," a local recently told me. I asked him where. His reply, sighing: "Seattle."

There are 15 separate villages on the Cape, but there is a marked difference--a style, if you will--between one small town and another. The southern end has such posh places as Osterville, Wianno, Cotuit and Hyannis, where the Kennedys play during summer and which has a hip, even wild, side. At the northern tip is Provincetown, the Cape's liveliest town, popular with the gay crowd.

I live "mid-Cape," in West Barnstable, still very much a village. Even it, alas, has suffered from recent spates of overbuilding, in which bulky and perfunctory new houses are slammed together in mere weeks. My house is an old Victorian with eight rooms, built in 1895, and is now worth at least three times what I paid for it.

Cape Cod was so named in 1602 by the adventurer Bartholomew Gosnold for its "great stoare of codfish" in the Atlantic waters. The historical significance of the Cape, though, has long been connected with the Pilgrims. They arrived at Provincetown in 1620, before landing at Plymouth. In this very place they ate their first seed corn, saw their first Native Americans and began whaling. Soon the area's square-riggers were carrying American products all over the world.

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Early Spring on Cape Cod can be rainy and cool, but around May, just as the quinces are turning red, the sun seems never more lovely and young women begin appearing, looking for jobs as waitresses. There is such a rich and general reverie of fresh sea air and wide blueberry skies that it takes your breath away.

Memorial Day officially opens the season. People from Boston drive down to air out their summer cottages. In local markets, it can be great sporting for tourists to hear Cape Codders asking for "steamers" (clams), "cawn" (corn), "slush" (sugared ices) and "tonic" (sodas).

Traffic jams on weekends on both sides of the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, the two main crossings onto the Cape, are legendary, and on Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day stopped cars can stretch for 12 miles. If bridge traffic leaves you hungry, stop at the Sagamore Inn in Bourne for unpretentious decor and superb seafood. The inn is busy in season, with long lines. Still, the 36-year-old restaurant, owned by the Pagliarani family, is my favorite on the Cape.

Cape Cod restaurants are famous for their seafood. Most serve scallops, East Coast clams called quahogs (pronounced "KO-hogs"), bluefish and scrod. Scrod is a euphemism for the catch of the day, and can be codfish or haddock. Old hotels came up with the catchall name to save having to reprint menus, and scrod is now laughably thought by many people to be an actual species of fish.

Fried clams like the ones served at the Sagamore Inn are a true Cape Cod specialty. The soft, chewy belly contains the essential taste of the shellfish, but many places outside the Cape trim the bellies and serve only the necks, which don't offer much flavor. There are plenty of clam shacks on the Cape, with a quart costing about $20.

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