When cranberries ripen to ruby red, that's the time for a pilgrimage to Cape Cod. The acres of red add vibrant hues to a landscape at its most glorious in fall, just when most tourists have gone home. The annual harvest is celebrated with fairs and festivities.
Cranberries became part of our traditional Thanksgiving feast because the Mayflower Pilgrims happened to come to rest near the heart of the continent's cranberry-growing center. Those early berries were growing wild, of course. Today there are more than 4,000 acres of cultivated bogs in Southeastern Massachusetts, about 28 percent of the world's supply.
Wherever you go, you are likely to spy cranberry bogs in the distance. The soil, sand, and moderate climate of Cape Cod and neighboring Plymouth County provide everything the vines need to thrive. The berries flourished in the wild until 1816, when a Dennis farmer, Henry Hall, noticed that vines that had been covered by a layer of windblown sand produced more abundantly. He transplanted wild vines onto his property, "sanded" his plot, and an industry was born.
Modern techniques have greatly improved on Hall's methods. Growers flood their bogs, then gently stir the berries with a contraption resembling a giant eggbeater, which dislodges the berries. When they float to the surface, they are corralled and loaded into trucks via conveyor belts.
Some of the best places to spot bogs on Cape Cod are on Route 6 westbound just before Exit 9; on Yarmouth Road, off Buck Island Road, West Yarmouth; and on Station Avenue heading toward Route 6A in Yarmouthport.
You can also visit active farms and buy cranberries fresh from the harvest. The Georgetown Cranberry Co. in Harwich is a good bet, with its 55 acres that include bogs more than 100 years old.
Another good reason for a trip to the Cape in autumn: Many rates fall after Labor Day, making even luxury resorts more affordable. Golfing is especially appealing in the cool and color of the season. Brewster's Ocean Edge resort, for example, offers a scenic 18-hole golf course, 11 tennis courts (five are clay), two indoor pools, saunas, hot tubs, and a 700-foot private beach on Cape Cod Bay, all at special fall rates.
The wide, dune-backed ocean shore of the outer Cape is also at its best in the fall. Days are generally bright and sunny, ideal for beach walks and exploring the marshes and meadows of the Cape Cod National Seashore, now delightfully free of crowds. A guided dunes tour from Provincetown via four-wheel-drive vehicle is a good way to appreciate the rare beauty of a shoreline where the dunes stretch for mile after splendid mile. Dark red beach plums add a touch of autumn color.
Whale-watching cruises out of Provincetown are another popular fall activity.
The prize autumn drive is along leafy Route 6A, the Old Kings Highway, canopied with golds and rusts. It is the country's largest historic district, winding for 40 miles past shingled saltbox cottages and stately sea captains' homes in some of the oldest Colonial settlements.
Many of the lovely old homes in towns such as Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, and Brewster house shops for antiques and fine crafts, making for intriguing stops along the way.
An excellent base for a fall visit is Sandwich, just off Route 6A. This New England classic is the oldest town on the Cape, founded in 1637, and boasts a village green on a pond with a working grist mill. White church spires set against the autumn leaves include the steeple of the First Church of Christ, which holds what is said to be the oldest church bell in America, dating to 1675.
Sandwich has two big sightseeing stops. Heritage Museums and Gardens is a unique 100-acre complex of gardens and four museums brimming with collections of Americana -- antique firearms, miniature soldiers, vintage automobiles, paintings, American folk art, Native American crafts, and Currier and Ives lithographs. A visit can easily fill a day.
The car collection is of special interest, running the gamut from an 1899 Winton Motor Carriage to a 1962 Corvette and boasting beauties such as Gary Cooper's 1930 Duesenberg and a 1909 White Steam Car Model M, one of the first official White House automobiles, owned by President Taft. The museum buildings themselves are unusual. The car collection is housed in a replica of a Shaker barn. The Military Museum is a reproduction of a Revolutionary period structure, built of hand-hewn timbers held together by oak pins and hand-wrought iron. The Art Museum, overlooking Upper Shawme Lake, features a charming 1912 carousel, still in perfect working order, where visitors can take a nostalgic ride.
The second attraction in town is the Sandwich Glass Museum, displaying a comprehensive collection of the renowned glassware. It was made here from 1825-88 in lacy designs that continue to influence patterns made today. The museum also offers glass-blowing demonstrations.
Many of the stops for art and crafts along Route 6A showcase artisans at work demonstrating their skills. The showroom of master goldsmith Ross Coppelman in East Dennis shows off his artistic designs in 22-karat gold and sterling silver, inspired by primitive and ancient motifs.
Sydensticker Galleries in Brewster invites visitors to watch the unusual way they fuse designs between layers of glass. Sydensticker dessert plates are used at the White House and several US embassies. You can see work in progress also at Scarbo Potters, off Route 6A in Dennis, where fanciful pottery castles and ornate wall fountains and plaques are trademarks.
Detour to Dennis for the recently expanded Cape Museum of Fine Art to admire some of the best work by local artists. The vibrant colors of the cranberry harvest on Cape Cod may even inspire you to try a canvas of your own.
Eleanor Berman is the author of six nonfiction books and 12 travel guides.