SANDWICH -- Many are the Bostonians who rejoice in the pleasures of the Outer Cape in winter: deserted beaches and empty highways. But chances are they own vacation homes, because down on the skinny end of Cape Cod, restaurants, bars, and inns are as apt to be shuttered as the changing rooms at Herring Cove Beach.
For a Cape getaway that mingles summertime conveniences with the joys of an unpopulated beach, Sandwich is the place. Thoreau, who traveled to the Cape several times between 1849 and 1855, viewed this long-settled community with a misanthropic squint. ''Ours was but half a Sandwich at most, and that must have fallen on the buttered side some time," he sniffed. ''I only saw that it was a closely-built town for a small one, with glass-works to improve its sand, and narrow streets in which we turned round and round till we could not tell which way we were going, and the rain came in, first on this side, and then on that, and I saw that they in the houses were more comfortable than we in the coach."
But Thoreau lived long before travelers had to contend with Cape traffic, and from that perspective alone, Sandwich is endearingly located just two exits from the Sagamore Bridge. By today's standards, this is an almost painless journey: usually no more than an hour and a quarter at this time of year. It also has the same quaintly shingled houses that towns farther east possess, except that here, more people tend to live in their homes year round.
True, workaday retail options -- doughnut shops, supermarkets, hardware stores -- outnumber tourista-ville boutiques; but even visitors sometimes need a can of soup, a roll of duct tape, or a coffee to go. And who wouldn't mind being able to see a big new movie while spending a weekend out of town, without standing in line?
Those who have driven through on Route 6A en route to someplace else may think they have seen the whole shebang, but Sandwich's historical and scenic center lies hidden on Main Street/Route 130, just a few blocks south of 6A. This is not only the oldest town on the Cape (founded 1639), but one of the oldest in the country, and that lengthy past is quietly on display in the central district. Residents line up to fill jugs with spring water near the site of the 18th-century Dexter Grist Mill at the head of Shawme Pond at Main and Grove Streets, in the shadow of the impressively pillared Town Hall, built in the 1830s. Though 19th-century architecture dominates, several houses in this little nexus date to the 1700s, as does the evocative Old Burying Ground on Grove Street.
In summer, the town boasts four principal museums and several supporting ones. At this time of year, the main attraction is Heritage Museums and Gardens (formerly Heritage Plantation) on Grove Street, open five days a week. Though Heritage displays Americana of all kinds, it's most famous for the collection of antique cars housed in a round stone barn (a replica of the one at Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield). The Sandwich Glass Museum, with its glass-blowing demonstrations and exhibits, is open through December, but closes for the month of January.
Two inns, both with good restaurants, also lie in this distinguished neighborhood: the Dan'l Webster Inn on Main Street, and the Belfry Inne and Bistro, a block away on Jarves Street. The Dan'l Webster stands on the site of the Fessenden Tavern, which opened for business in the mid-1700s. Daniel Webster kept a standing reservation from 1815 to 1851. The inn bearing his name today has grown as expansive as Webster's own oratory, with 54 guest rooms and two restaurants touting contemporary American cuisine.
The Belfry Inne now occupies three intriguing historic buildings. The most exotic is a former brick church, the Abbey, with an elegant rose window facing the street. Inside, the Bistro serves contemporary international cooking and overnight guests stay on the charming gallery level above. Next door, the high-Victorian Drew House operates as a luxury inn, and the nearby Federal-style Village House offers B&B accommodations.
For more casual dining, the Marshland Restaurant on 6A, Cafe 6A, and the Beehive in East Sandwich are all open year round. Several other B&Bs remain open as well, along with some interesting gifts, antiques, and crafts shops along 6A.
For those willing to forsake the fireside, there's a lot to do outdoors. Town Neck Beach, a not-so-attractive name for a pleasant peninsula of pebbles and sand on Cape Cod Bay, lies less than a quarter-mile from 6A. A locally beloved boardwalk straddles a marsh from the parking lot to the beach. Aside from a few devoted joggers and walkers, the beach is all but empty on most days, and it's a great place to watch a storm or comb the pebbles for moon snails. The Cape Cod Canal Recreation Area, more simply known as the canal bike path, is another great place to take in wonderful views of water and ships -- tankers, ocean liners, and fishing boats -- and perhaps a splash of freezing salt spray. The paved bikeway, which runs for about six miles and passes beneath the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, is a favorite with walkers, joggers, and cross-country skiers when snow is on the ground.
Fans of the children's author Thornton Burgess, whose hometown this is, will find his house museum on Main Street closed for the season. But just a few miles down 6A in East Sandwich, the affiliated Green Briar Nature Center is a great place to explore woodland trails on a 57-acre preserve. Visitors with kids will be delighted to find that the center offers natural-history programs year round, including guided walks and workshops.
Burgess, like Thoreau, was a passionate nature worshiper, but there the comparison ends. Burgesss world was filled with happy creatures, while Thoreau's rapture ruptured when he left the woods. He closed his coach-bound musings on Sandwich by quoting another writer's observations: '' 'The inhabitants of Sandwich generally manifest a fond and steady adherence to the manners, employments, and modes of living which characterized their fathers'; which made me think that they were, after all, very much like all the rest of the world . . ."
Perhaps, but in this long cold spell between fall and spring, they will be very happy to see us, and we them.
Jane Roy Brown is a freelance writer in western Massachusetts.