The essence of a Cape Cod summer vacation isn't about how much money you spend on a place to sleep. It's about taking off your tight city shoes and going barefoot for a while. It doesn't matter whether you're paying $100 or $200 to pitch a tent for a week in a state park or private campground or shelling out $5,000, $10,000, or even $20,000 for a month in an elegant rented house. Just having a place to bunk is what counts, because "getting it" about the Cape is understanding that its real value is found in its environment. Lose yourself in its natural beauty, and you just may discover you've found yourself.
Attitude adjustment is open to one and all. It's free. The Big Idea is to slow down, let go, and live by the natural rhythms of sun, moon, tides, and weather.
There are hundreds of miles of walking and hiking trails on thousands of acres of public conservation lands across the Cape's 15 towns. Use is free. Many such properties were bought by local taxpayers after town meeting votes, others preserved by local nonprofit groups and their coordinating agency, the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts. Cape Cod Pathways, an ongoing project of Barnstable County's Cape Cod Commission, is linking such open spaces via trails.
SOME FAVORITE WALKS: Peterson Farm and Beebe Woods, encompassing nearly 500 acres of grassland, woodland, ponds, and marshes within half a mile of downtown Falmouth; West Barnstable Conservation Area, with three trailhead parking areas for 1,100 acres of pine and oak forest and 15 miles of trails, popular with mountain bikers; and Bell's Neck Road Conservation Area in Harwich, 250 acres of marshlands, tidal creeks, reservoirs, and exceptional bird-watching.
To find out about such places, go to the town hall wherever you are and seek out the conservation commission. Then stop by the recreation commission office to learn about athletic facilities, free and typically first-come, first-served -- tennis courts, softball fields, basketball hoops. For rollerblading, head for the 14 miles of paved paths flanking the Cape Cod Canal.
If you'd rather watch than do, the Cape Cod Baseball League is on everybody's list, but the amateur Cape Cod Soccer League, founded in 1971, is a home-grown option. It has eight teams, cool names like the Falmouth Tide, Chatham Fog, Orleans Storm, and (the side with the best home field) Bass Strikers, who play at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich, just off Route 6 at Exit 10. It's good soccer -- current college players, some alums, many of them local. Matches are Sunday and Wednesday evenings, mid-June to early August. Check the schedule via the Web: www.capecodsoccer.com.
Remember, it's all about attitude adjustment. You don't even have to buy a sticker or pay parking fees to go to ocean beaches -- they are required only during sun-bunny hours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Who needs to spend money to increase the risk of skin cancer? There are 18 safer and cheaper hours to go to the beach. It's tough to beat a day that begins with sunrise on the ocean side of the Cape and ends with sunset by the bay.
Kids reluctant to get up at the crack of dawn? Remind them that surfer dudes and pirates follow the tides, not the sun. When it's low tide in the early morning, that's the time to be at the beach looking for treasure or shore break. Tide charts are free at many town halls, visitors' centers, boatyards, and tackle shops.
IF YOU DON'T MIND SOME BIKING OR WALKING, you can enjoy great beaches for free even if you insist on an old-fashioned midday bake. Ocean-facing South Beach in Chatham, for example, stretching for 3 miles south of Chatham Light, is a 20-minute stroll from the free parking lots off nearby Main Street. Wing Island Trail, at Cape Cod Museum of Natural History on Route 6-A in Brewster, is a 1.3-mile walk that takes you from the museum parking lot through pine and oak woods and across a salt marsh on a boardwalk, ending at the flats of Cape Cod Bay.
FREE MAPS, GUIDES, AND OTHER visitor resources are bountiful. Don't overlook the obvious. At the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, for example, just off Route 6 at Exit 6, you get more than brochures and good advice. Decorative artist Lindsay Hopkins of Osterville has used the floor as canvas for a 30-foot mural-map of Cape Cod, complete with evocative symbols for its most appealing features. It's a good orientation to Cape geography and the deceptive scale of Cape roadways.
Visitors with bicycles can avoid crowded roads altogether. There's good news about the state's 25-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail from Dennis to Wellfleet. Last year, construction was completed on a new bike and pedestrian overpass spanning Route 6 near Orleans center. It eliminates navigating the somewhat scary Rock Harbor detour along narrow, car-filled roads.
The sedentary can easily find delightful free stuff to do, too. There's much less light pollution than in metropolitan areas, so try stargazing. July has two full moons this year, on the 2d and the 31st. Some astronomy buffs think the annual Perseids meteor showers, a few days before and after the August 12 peak, could be very good in 2004.
If it rains, go to one of the Cape's great libraries. Snow Library in Orleans is ranked in the top 10 in the United States among communities its size, and most other libraries in the Cape's CLAMS network also earn high marks. Many have story hours for toddlers.
THE CAPE'S RADIO DIAL is fun to explore. WOMR-FM (92.1) is a community-based public station, an eclectic, grass-roots gem out in Provincetown that reaches most of the Cape. Red Sox games are broadcast over WXTK-FM (95.1), out of West Yarmouth.
The Cape Cod National Seashore is the heart and soul of the vacation experience for many. Don't be alarmed at the sight of the big building at the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham. It is closed for renovations, with reopening expected this summer, perhaps in July. The facility is temporarily housed in double-wide trailers, where you can still pick up free maps and ask rangers about free programs.
At the upper end of the Cape is another government-funded resource that is less well known than the seashore but just as welcoming and perhaps even more fascinating for the environmentally conscious. The Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve on Route 28 in Falmouth ("Webner," for short) is a federal, state, and local partnership that covers some 2,500 acres in Falmouth and Mashpee, including South Cape Beach State Park along Nantucket Sound. It is a center for cutting-edge research on estuaries, spawning grounds, and nurseries for all sorts of animal and plant species. Estuaries are where fresh water meets salt, usually in an embayment, and they are among the most beautiful but environmentally threatened natural resources on Cape Cod.
Of the many Cape-based information sites on the Web, a standout is www.insidecapecod.com. It's produced by Cape naturalist and kayaker Dick Hilmer, author of the 555-page Insiders' Guide to Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. For salty stuff with a boatload of links, go to the site maintained by Tom Leach, harbormaster for the Town of Harwich. It's at www.town.harwich.ma.us/harbor. Not itself the Mother of All Maritime Links, but it will get you there.