Our first stop on Cape Cod was the Clam Shack. The restaurant, tucked on the pier at the beginning of Falmouth Harbor, held a handful of spartan tables and benches. Old buoys and fishing nets dangled above. Here, we learned our first lesson about a Cape Cod vacation: Always bring cash. A few minutes after persuading the cashier to accept some old traveler’s checks, we were handed paper plates mounded with filet-sized chunks of fried fish and chips.
Cape Cod evokes images of yachts, lobster bakes and vacationing presidents in polo shirts. Yet, the area feels more old-fashioned than hoity-toity. Most towns have a quaint main street or square with shops, restaurants and historical buildings. A bevy of conservation groups have kept in check the development that overtakes so many tourist areas. Parks and preserves are plentiful.
Walking and biking are encouraged, both by ample trails and congested roads. And cellphone service, at least for me, was spotty, as if my phone was colluding in the effort to turn back time.
My family and I based ourselves in Falmouth, part of the Upper Cape, which counterintuitively is in the southern part of the peninsula. The drive from downtown Boston took less than 90 minutes, a big selling point. The Cape is about 65 miles long but has driving times that would flummox the average Texan. A 20-mile drive can easily take an hour, thanks to winding two-lane highways and a constant stream of summer visitors.
Falmouth has more going for it than its proximity to Boston. The ocean here, particularly along Buzzards Bay, is bathtub-like by New England standards, and the waves lap gently onto the beaches. We spent a day at Old Silver Beach, a place popular with young families because of its fine sand, shallow entryway, and clear water. The beach was enough to coax our cool-blooded daughter out of the car on a windy, 65-degree day to build a sand castle. During the high tourist season in July and August, parking at Old Silver Beach is $20, and the two parking areas often fill shortly after the 9 a.m. opening.
Falmouth has several beaches that are more easily accessible, including some within walking distance of the town’s inns and rental homes. Surf Drive Beach is less inviting for swimmers but provided a great spot for my kids to hunt seashells. I watched longingly as other adults arrived about an hour before sunset, parked beach chairs in the sand and dug books from their bags. Meanwhile, I chased my 1-year-old son; he chased the seagulls.
If my vacation wasn’t as relaxing as I might have hoped, I found ample ways to console myself at Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream. Smitty’s is another cash-only business, and we were prepared this time. Our scooper told us that coffee chip was the most popular flavor, though black raspberry and maple walnut won the popularity contest in our family. We made multiple visits to select our winners, of course.
Falmouth is an ideal base for trying out Martha’s Vineyard. Several companies offer ferries between Falmouth and the island. We chose the Island Queen (islandqueen.com) based on its price and frequent departures. Tickets (cash only, again) are $20 round-trip for adults and $10 for children ages 5 to 12. The ferry recommends that passengers arrive 45 minutes before departure to secure a spot because reservations are only accepted for large groups; during our off-season visit, 20 minutes would have sufficed.
The ride from Falmouth to the town of Oak Bluffs took 30 minutes. We found Anderson’s Bike Rentals (andersonsbikerentals.com) just across the street from the dock in Oak Bluffs. My husband and I rented bikes for $20 each for the day, and we rented a trailer to pull our kids.
We reveled in this small slice of Americana, setting out on the bike path that runs from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown. We had the ocean to our left, a series of ponds ringed in tall grass to our right. The morning’s heavy fog had started to dissipate but still hooded the gray, shingled mansions we passed. We rode out to Joseph Sylvia State Beach, a nesting area for the threatened piping plover, and then turned back toward Oak Bluffs.
In town, we pedaled toward the historical cottages of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. The 300 cottages were built between 1859 and 1880 to accommodate families who came for religious camp meetings during the summer. The homes resemble life-size dollhouses, with ornate Victorian details painted in lilac, teal or pink. The cottages sit in a loop, and each has a front porch that looks out toward the central lawn. Even a pair of leisurely bicyclists were too fast for this place. We hopped off and walked as the signs instructed.
For lunch, we stopped at Slice of Life, a cozy spot with wood floors and an enclosed front porch where we could watch tourists stroll the town’s main street. Our kids wiggled in their seats after spending the morning in the bike trailer, and a quick walk around the restaurant revealed a shelf full of children’s books. We dug in. Soon, we dug into our food as well. Both of my children were reaching for my bowl of gemelli pasta with caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes and smoky cheese sauce.
By the time we boarded the return ferry to Falmouth, the sun had emerged from the clouds. We sat on the upper deck, inhaling the ocean breeze and covering our ears when the captain blew the horn.
The next day, we set off to explore Highfield Hall and Gardens (highfieldhallandgardens.org) and the adjacent Beebe Woods. Highfield Hall, built in 1878, was one of the first summer mansions on Cape Cod. In the 1990s, the home had fallen into disrepair and was facing demolition, but local residents banded together to raise $8.5 million for the mansion’s restoration. Nevermind the Queen Anne-style mansion and meticulous sunken garden, though. The greatest attraction, by far, was a hill of lush grass that my children rolled down again and again.
Beebe Woods includes nearly 400 acres of conservation land woven with walking paths. We chose the path toward the Punch Bowl pond. Aside from the occasional flyover of a small plane, we heard only the rustle of leaves. We imagined life back when the Beebe family took carriage rides through the woods and cut ice from the winter ponds to store for summertime refrigeration. Our rustic idyll was soon interrupted by that old foe, the mosquito. We barely paused to admire the pond before scrambling and swatting back up the trail.
We prepared to leave the next morning, but not without a stop at Maison Villatte, a French bakery on Falmouth’s main street. Impeccable tarts and cakes lined the bakery case. We chose a chocolate eclair and a Napoleon to eat on the ride back to Boston. When I later tasted the vanilla bean-flecked custard of the Napoleon, I regretted buying only one. Surely all of that biking and walking would have excused a second.