Neil Sowerby charts a laidback land of party bears and killer whales
IT’S the tail end of ‘Bear Week’ in Provincetown and after nine days of pink high jinks and endless bouts of cocktails and comedy the pool parties are winding down. Still there’s a raucous rendition of Mamma Mia from the super troupers in fishnets at the Crown and Anchor, while the Commercial Street main drag pulls in gays and straights alike with its trademark high season madness.
We took a short cut fast ferry from Boston to Provincetown with IPAs on the poop deck and Minke whales across the starboard bow.
To escape we take refuge in The Canteen, a fabulously laidback seafood snack and craft beer haven, recommended by a Boston acquaintance. Clam chowder, shrimp bahn-mi and the obligatory lobster rolls wolfed in a ramshackle garden terrace overlooking the ocean. What’s not to swoon over?
We’ve just headed back from exploring a very different world – Herring Cove and the tranquil outer reaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore – a 40 mile stretch of park preserving 44,000 acres of forest, marsh, bog, and ponds, lighthouses, windmills and dune shacks… from Chatham in the mid-Cape to the scorpion tail spit that slides into the Atlantic above Provincetown.
Back in 1961 it was created by President John Kennedy, no stranger to this neck of Massachusetts; we had kicked off our Cape Cod adventure at the other end of the peninsula in Hyannis, still the stomping ground of the Kennedy clan.
After landing at Boston Logan International Airport on the Thomas Cook Airlines direct service from Manchester it’s a long traffic-heavy drive right around the Cape to Provincetown – some three hours, but in high summer that could double. Thankfully, we took a short cut fast ferry from Boston with IPAs on the poop deck and Minke whales across the starboard bow. Just 90 scenic minutes one way.
It was back in the Sixties that Provincetown, a remote, predominantly Portuguese fishing hamlet first saw the influx of a substantial (and increasingly affluent) gay community that colours its vibe to this day. The summer population is over 60,000 taking advantage of its abundant, clap-boarded boutique lodgings; in winter it shrinks to just 3,000 and reverts to feeling like the end of the Earth.
Maybe that’s an exaggeration with today’s global communications, but imagine what the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower must have felt when they made their first landfall in the New World here in November 1620, prior to docking more famously at Plymouth down the coast. An understated park plaque marks the exact spot, but on High Pole Hill above Provincetown there’s a much larger tribute, the 252ft high Pilgrim Monument, hewn from solid granite. You can’t miss it.
Provincetown feels a place apart from the moment our ferry docks next to a colourful replica galleon at MacMillan Pier. Look across at the neighbouring Cabral's Pier, where an old fish-packing depot displays an outdoor art installation of five large portraits of local Portuguese-American women.
Maybe Provincetown’s immediate image is of a hedonistic party town, but it pays its dues to to its rich cultural heritage, most notably at the lovely Provincetown Art Association and Museum. It has been around over 100 years. In its early years Eugene O’Neill frequented its bar, along with many other mavericks (check out the Old Colony Tap). He premiered the play that won him the first of his four Pulitzers, Anna Christie, in 1916 at Provincetown Players’ East End theatre, converted from a Lewis Wharf fish shack. Arguably this was the wellspring of modern American drama.
At 577 Commercial Street you’ll find a round blue plaque that reads, “Eugene O’Neill 1888-1953 Dramatist Lived Here.” When the town got too hot for him he also dwelt for a time in a lifesaving station deep in the dunes.
Cut to 35 years later and another great dramatist, the young Tennessee Williams, spent four summer seasons in the town, falling in love and having his heart broken. He stayed at Captain Jack’s Wharf in the West End, where he wrote The Glass Menagerie on a borrowed typewriter. Amazingly at a theatre on that wharf he debuted A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski before the play appeared on Broadway.
Alas both these theatres are long gone, but Captain Jack’s Wharf remains, a colourful magnet, where you can rent out condominium cabins, and the town is hosting its annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival this September (27-30) across various venues.
Truth is that all the resident literary heroes who found congenial refuge in the town are now ghosts – the most recent Norman Mailer, who died in 2007 after spending 45 of his last 60 summers and writing most of his books there. He once called it “the last democratic town in America – everybody is absolutely equal here”.
Mailer’s large brick seafront house was sold recently to a film maker, who rents it out on Air BnB for $2,000 a night. Literary association doesn’t come cheap.
Real estate costs are even steeper on the island of Nantucket, another intensely romanticised place with a far more turbulent and industrious past than Provincetown.
It stands 30 miles out in the Atlantic, south of Hyannis, capital of the southern Cape, and come winter the ferry trip can be a stormy trial. Not so with our blissful July crossing. To quote Melville in Moby Dick: “It was a beautiful, bounteous, blue day; the spangled sea calm and cool, and flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater's skin hammered out to the extremest.”
The reality of most whaling days out at sea was very different – as vividly recalled at the centrepiece of the island’s tourist attractions, Nantucket Whaling Museum. Once it was a factory processing candles from whale oil – uniquely a vast extraction press is still in situ. A museum for nearly 90 years, a 2005 restoration has made the most of its glorious space, dominated by the 46ft skeleton of a sperm whale suspended from the ceiling.
We couldn’t have spent hours here among the boats, harpoons and records of the gruelling ordeals of the whalers – the most famous of which is the real life story upon which the novel Moby Dick is based. You can trace the journey of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale shortly after leaving Nantucket in 1820. The harrowing aftermath for the crew struggling to stay alive is vividly reconstructed in a recent book by contemporary Nantucket author Nathaniel Philbrick.
In stark contrast, there is so much beauty in the museum’s priceless collection of scrimshaws. These are elaborate engravings and scrollwork in whalebone. What started as a whaling man’s hobby to keep boredom at bay became a wondrous art form.
Go up a floor from the scrimshaws onto the rooftop terrace and you’ll find the whole of Nantucket town before you. It’s a great town to wander round, if not cheap to eat and drink in. We enjoyed beers and chowder in the old whaling bar, The Brotherhood of Thieves on Broad Street and there’s fine seafood at Straight Wharf on Harbor Square with cheaper options at its fish store deli.
Both places were within minutes walk of out charming B&B along cobbled North Water Street, the Brass Lantern Inn, whose excellent breakfast almost persuaded us to forego lunch. Lisa the innkeeper also provided us with lots of tips to enjoy the rest of the island.
Otherwise, we might never have taken the bracing clifftop walk at Sconsett, a 15 minute bus shuttle ride east of Nantucket Town. The full name of this picturesque hamlet, Siasconsett, comes from an Alqonquin native people term for “place of great bones” and indeed it was once home to a whaling station.
We ran out of time (distracted by taking pictures of the abundant cute rabbit population) to reach our goal, the lighthouse at Sankaty Head, but made up for it the next morning by walking to the more accessible and still functioning Brant Point Lighthouse on the brink of Nantucket Harbour.
From there we pebble-hopped along the coast to Jetties Beach, one of the best on the island for a chill-out oysters and tacos lunch at its Sandbar cafe. A mile inland from here is the Oldest House, built in 1686, otherwise known as the Jethro Coffin House (Coffin is a common surname on Nantucket). You can buy a $20 all-access pass from the Nantucket Historical Association that allows you access to many historic properties, including the Whaling Museum.
You don’t need to pay to visit the island’s cemeteries, of which there are many. As part of our Massachusetts literary pilgrimage and as fans of Robert Lowell’s monumental 1946 poem, A Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket, we paid our respects at the Burial Ground off Madaket Road upon which it was based. Barely a headstone there, just faint mounds, for the sect disapproved of any form of idolatry.
Idolatry surrounds the memory of JFK, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the president whose glamorous life and iconic slaughter back in 1963 still figures hugely in the American psyche. The extended Kennedy family still have a very private corner of Hyannis on the mainland as their base.
Our own base there was the Hyannis Harbor Hotel, chosen because it’s handily opposite the Nantucket Ferry Quay, but we loved its expansive comfort and playful nautical theme inside and out. It also has ample, complimentary parking, where we could leave our Alamo rental car while exploring the town and Nantucket across the water.
It’s a 10 minute walk from the hotel to the town’s one must-see attraction, the JFK Hyannis Museum up on Main Street.
It consists of a collection of photographs and a video relating to the Kennedys and the times they spent vacationing on the Hyannis Port.
Current exhibition’ Creating Camelot’ features intimate, behind-the-scenes images of Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline and their children, Caroline and John, taken by the President’s personal photographer, Jacques Lowe. The iconic images helped create the legend of the Kennedy presidency that later became known as Camelot.
His original negatives of more than 40,000 Kennedy photos were stored in a World Trade Center bank vault and lost during 9/11. The 70 on display here have been digitally restored to museum quality from contact sheets.
Running concurrently is ‘RFK: Ripple of Hope’, to commemorate the life and legacy of his brother Robert. The theme ‘Ripple of Hope’ comes from his most famous speech delivered in Cape Town. It ties in with his close-up of examination of the poverty that infected both urban areas and the rural environs of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, Native American reservations, and migrant work camps.
One particularly poignant strand highlights an impromptu speech he gave before a large group of distraught onlookers the night Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in April 1968 just weeks after Kennedy announced his own doomed bid for the presidency.
The world’s eyes will never quite be on Hyannis again as in those Camelot Years, but it is a lively place to hang out. Chowdered out, we looked beyond the seafood joints along Ocean Street – best of which is the Black Cat Harbor Shack, though we were tempted by Spanky’s Clam Shack opposite, if only to get the tee-shirt.
Instead we checked out the Peruvian Italian restaurant Tumi Ceviche, hidden away off Main Street. Family run and super friendly, it offers Italian standards but don’t look beyond the ceviches, fresh raw fish dishes cured in citrus juices. I’d recommend the ‘Pulpo’ – octopus, cucumber, fresh lime juice, romesco pepper and onions, served with cancha, choclo, sweet potato, leche de tigre, and cilantro. There are Peruvian wines, but simple Italian wines are reasonably priced and maybe more reliable.
Just around the corner is Hyannis’s best craft beer bar, the Tap City Grille, offering the best that Massachusetts has to offer. The food is good here, too, notably the seared scallops with pomegranate molasses, truffle oil and wild rice.
It wasn’t going to get much better than this on Cape Cod, we thought… until we went exploring the Hyannis hinterland, the charming seaside town of Falmouth, along Surf Drive to Nobska Lighthouse and Woods Hole, southernmost point of the Cape.
Winding our way north we finally made it to the Lobster Trap near Bourne and discovered Crustacean Nirvana/Valhalla/Paradiso rolled into one. We got lost on the way but never abandoned our quest, fuelled by the influential US website Thrillist naming it one of the 21 best seafood shacks in the country. Good call. They’d even lost our reservation but found us a terrace table overlooking the Back River.
On a Thursday early evening the Trap, which started in 1969 as just a neighbourhood fish market, was heaving. In the mellow sunshine we sipped cans of the house IPA, Lobster Trap Crusher Claw, made for them by Plymouth’s Mayflower Brewery. You’d have to be a real Puritan not to love all this.
After an ample bowl of littleneck clams, it was a lobster apiece, mine so big and armour-plated I couldn’t crack it with my pliers and even our server had to take a kitchen hammer to it on our behalf. The sweet, abundant flesh was worth the wait.
Our three part Great Massachusetts Literary Trail was ultimately matched by the Great Massachusetts Lobster Trail. Let’s call it Poetry in Ocean!
Don’t miss Neil Sowerby’s further literary adventures in Massachusetts.
Neil Sowerby flew to Boston from Manchester with Thomas Cook Airlines.
Travel in June 2019 with Thomas Cook on a Massachusetts coastal break in Cape Cod and the Islands from £961pp. Price is based on 2 people sharing, includes car hire with Alamo Rent A Car, return transatlantic flights, 4 nights Hyannis and visitors can take a day trip to Nantucket. Holidays operated by Thomas Cook Tour Operations Ltd ATOL 1179, ABTA V6896. To book call 08448716650 or visit www.thomascook.com.
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Neil stayed at the hugely comfortable (and convenient for the Nantucket Ferry) Hyannis Harbor Hotel, 213 Ocean St, Hyannis, MA 02601 and at the Brass Lantern Inn, North Water Street, Nantucket, MA 508-228-4064 with its 17 immaculately renovated rooms.
From Hyannis he took the Hy-Line Cruises return Grey Lady High Speed service to Nantucket from the dock opposite the Hyannis Harbor Hotel and from Boston he took a 90 minute each way return trip to Provincetown with the Bay State Cruise Company, 200 Seaport Boulevard, Boston MA 02210.
For full tourism information on Massachusetts visit http://www.massholiday.co.uk and for specific tips on how to enjoy Cape Cod go to https://www.capecodchamber.org. Nantucket tourist info from https://www.nantucketchamber.o... and Provincetown: https://provincetowntourismoffice.org