Indulging in long, lazy beach days, outdoor adventures and mouthwatering meals IS all part of the classic seaside experience on Massachusetts’ 65-mile-long peninsula
We have barely unhitched the trailer at Atlantic Oaks Campground in Eastham, Massachusetts, and yet we are already climbing back into the truck. The sun is low in the sky, and the air smells like the sea. It’s time for our family to kick off summer vacation in the most American way possible, by taking in a Cape Cod Baseball League game at one of the 10 fields peppered throughout the iconic peninsula.
The wooden-bat league has been a summer staple on Cape Cod since 1885 and attracts top collegiate talent from around the country each season. People argue the merits of the different baseball fields, but our vote goes to Veterans Field, which has been hosting Chatham teams since 1923. Here we buy a cup of chowder, spread out a blanket and watch as our boys run around with their baseball gloves, hoping to catch a foul ball as a souvenir.
By the bottom of the ninth inning, we have settled into the spirit of the Cape Cod summer, and we know the days ahead will be filled with hiking, kayaking, swimming, biking, shopping and, of course, eating plenty of lobster rolls.
Our sticks-and-bricks home is not far from Cape Cod, yet it took us years to plan a trip here, having heard stories of exclusive enclaves and highways choked with traffic. When we finally visited for the first time, we instead discovered a magical RV destination, full of wonderful campgrounds and seemingly endless ways to while away the days of vacation.
Cape Cod holds a surprising variety of experiences and landscapes for a skinny spit of land extending 65 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can kayak in kettle ponds formed thousands of years ago by receding glaciers and climb 252 feet to the top of the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown. They can hike along marshy paths at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and bike along the 25-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail, stopping for an ice-cream cone at any of a dozen charming towns.
Eastham nestles in what is often referred to as the quiet side of Cape Cod, about 30 minutes northeast of the bustling port city of Hyannis and 30 minutes south of quirky Provincetown. Here we are close to uncrowded bay and ocean beaches, and often find ourselves picking a new one each day. First Encounter is our favorite bay beach, and we love to paddle around in kayaks while our kids play in the amazing pools created by the extreme tides of Cape Cod Bay. We visit Coast Guard Beach on the Atlantic Ocean side when we are in the mood for riding waves and spotting seals.
Cape Cod has quite a few options for campgrounds, but we have a personal favorite that calls us back again and again — Atlantic Oaks in Eastham. This Good Sam Park is comfortable and clean, but also quiet and simple, and we always meet guests who have returned here year after year, even decades in some cases. With full hookups and pull-throughs, Atlantic Oaks can accommodate all rig sizes, but it is the location that makes this an ideal base camp.
Atlantic Oaks offers direct access to the Cape Cod Rail Trail, and we adore departing directly from our campsite for daily bike rides, peddling south toward Cape Cod National Seashore or north for a cup of our favorite coffee at Beanstock roasters. We also use the Rail Trail for frequent visits to Arnold’s Lobster and Clam Bar, which serves the best hot lobster roll in all of New England.
Part of the magic of this section of the cape is the presence of the national seashore and the resulting conservation of the natural landscape. On our first visit, the Salt Pond Visitor Center helped us understand the unique geological forces that shaped this region and gave us an increased appreciation of the kettle ponds, salt marshes and dunes that we have enjoyed so much on our trips. We made sure to set aside time for the educational movies and a tour of the museum, which highlights the history of whaling in the surrounding area.
Our boys also love the Province Lands Visitor Center at the northern end of the national seashore, where they can climb up to the observation deck and take in a 360-degree view of the dunes and the Atlantic Ocean.
There are plenty of hikes in the national seashore, but we think the best one on Cape Cod is at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. The Boardwalk Trail leads through salt marshes, where we spot hawks, sea birds and hundreds of fiddler crabs. Taking the advice of locals, we time our hike to coincide with low tide, since the boardwalk gets covered with water when the tide rolls in. After the hike, we tour the nature center, where we learn about the research and conservation efforts at the sanctuary, see our first blue lobster and read aloud in the cozy children’s book nook.
A scenic 20-minute drive takes us from this quiet nature sanctuary to an urban outpost exploding with personality and energy. Provincetown, or Ptown for those in the know, is full of art galleries and off-beat tourist shops. It is also home to the amazing Provincetown Public Library, known for the half-scale model of the fishing schooner Rose Dorothea that resides in the middle of the children’s section. The library’s rotating art exhibits and annual book festival point to Provincetown’s literary tradition of hosting famous writers such as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill during the summer months.
We walk a couple of blocks from the library to arrive at the Pilgrim Monument, built in the early 20th century to commemorate the spot where the Pilgrims landed in 1620 before continuing to Plymouth. The view from the top is sweeping. Interior stones were donated by towns and organizations from around the country, so a scavenger hunt for familiar places is a fun way to pass the tower climb.
After the climb, it is finally time for a highlight of a Cape Cod vacation — a sunset ride through the dunes of the national seashore departing from Standish Street in downtown Province–town. Art’s Dune Tours was founded in 1946, when Art Costa would drive customers through the dunes in his 1936 Ford woodie. Now his son Rob is running the family business with a fleet of Suburbans that carry guests through the dunes where we see the shacks of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District. These shacks, built in the early 1900s to house members of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, have no electricity, running water or plumbing. Eighteen of the 19 shacks are now owned by the National Park Service, and people can enter a lottery for the chance to stay in one.
The dune tour ends at the beach, where our guide sets up chairs for us to enjoy the sunset. Our boys collect shells, while we snap pictures and enjoy some snacks and drinks we brought in a cooler. It is a one-of-a-kind experience in a one-of-a-kind destination.
The next morning we are up bright and early for another quintessential Cape Cod experience — whale watching. Cape Cod has been named one of the world’s top-10 places for whale watching largely because of its proximity to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary where humpback, finback and minke whales return every season to feed in the protected waters.
Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises, departing out of Barnstable, deliver a breathtaking wildlife-viewing experience, but we are most impressed with the emphasis the company places on education and conservation efforts. An intern teaches our boys about whales, allowing them to touch a baleen and bones, and the guide explains why no sonar or bait are used to attract animals to the boat. We don’t spend too much time in any one location so as not to disrupt the whales, and yet we are treated to fabulous demonstrations of breaching and blows.
The tide is right for us to stop in Rock Harbor on our way back north and watch the charter boats head out for an afternoon of fishing. The unique presence of pine trees as channel markers creates a visually stunning scene, and photographers will want to capture memorable images here.
After the boys play in the endless tidal flats, we stuff ourselves at Cap’t Cass Rock Harbor Seafood, which flies under the radar as far as lobster shacks are concerned. The food here tastes like the sea in the best way imaginable. From bowls of clam chowder to scallop po’-boys to lobster rolls, we order far too much food and polish off every morsel.
And then it is time to tour the Church of the Transfiguration, directly across the street from Cap’t Cass. This religious community, founded on the principles of the Benedictine monastic tradition, has been located on Cape Cod for more than 40 years. The church itself is a work of art, with limestone and tile murals designed to tell the story of Christianity. Tours are offered daily, except Wednesday, throughout the week, leaving from the gift shop, and there is an organ demonstration on Fridays after 3 p.m. The guide takes care to draw our children into the tour, and they are as spellbound by the architecture and art as the adults.
As we head back to the campground, it is impossible to resist planning a return trip. Time on Cape Cod offers the opportunity to combine lazy days spent in beach chairs with outdoor adventures and historical learning, activities that are seamlessly woven into the fabric of life on this Atlantic peninsula. Now we understand what all the fuss is about.
Camping on the Cape
From Plymouth to Provincetown, RV parks roll out the welcome mat. Here’s just a sample.
Bay View Campground
Shady Knoll Campground
Campers Haven RV Resort
Cape Cod Campresort and Cabins
Atlantic Oaks Campground
Cape Cod’s Maple Park Campground and RV Park
Sandy Pond Campground
Peters Pond RV Resort
Atlantic Oaks Campground in Eastham, Massachusetts.
For More Information
If you go, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Welcome Center in Centerville is a must-stop at the junction of U.S. Route 6 and State Route 132.