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Weekend Planner

Everybody's favorite escape

Cape Cod offers visitors solitude amid the throngs

Email|Print| Text size + By Ron Driscoll
Globe Staff / June 7, 2006

EASTHAM -- Yogi Berra once said of a popular restaurant, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

He could have been talking about Cape Cod, or at least a common perception of it. What good is a vacation spent either in traffic or struggling to stake out a tiny patch of beach?

Imagine our delight then, on Friday of last Labor Day weekend, to find ourselves completely alone on a bluff above a beautiful ocean beach, then strolling a boardwalk through a cedar swamp in solitude.

Perhaps nobody does go there anymore. More likely, as the distant drone of traffic on Route 6 that day attested, they're still going -- they're just too busy fighting for that precious patch of sand to seek out true peace and quiet.

On a recent May weekend, the Lower Cape and Outer Cape provided the perfect balance for a weekend getaway. It started with our home base, the Whalewalk Inn in Eastham. The bed-and-breakfast compound is tucked away on a quiet lane, yet only a couple of minutes from the Orleans Rotary. Likewise, the inn's breakfast room and late-afternoon social hour provided opportunity to make acquaintances and discuss dinner plans, but our guesthouse suite allowed ample space for alone time.

Henry David Thoreau called Cape Cod ``the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts ," and the Outer Cape towns of Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown that make up the forearm, the wrist, and the clenched fist are entwined with Cape Cod National Seashore . The seashore and its roughly 44,000 acres gradually encompass more of each town's land as you head north, from one-third of Eastham to half of Wellfleet to about 70 percent of Truro to more than 80 percent of Provincetown.

To get a sense of the stewardship President Kennedy exhibited when he signed legislation creating the seashore in 1961 , stop at the Salt Pond visitors center just off Route 6 in Eastham. A $3 million, three-year rehabilitation of the center will be capped by a new audiovisual system in the fall, but it is fully open for business and is the source for maps, exhibits, short films, and books. It is also the starting point for two popular trails, one of which (the Buttonbush ) is accessible to handicapped visitors, including a guide rope and signs in Braille .

Seeing the pond, the bay, and the marsh beyond might whet one's appetite for seeing the seashore from the water, and guided canoe trips are available by reservation. The trips cost $20 for adults and $12 for those 16 and under and take about two hours. Daily departure times vary. Call 508-255-3421 for specifics.

A little farther up Route 6, take a right turn at Brackett Road and head for Nauset Light Beach , where you are likely to encounter a crowded parking lot in summer and wet-suited surfers even in the shoulder seasons.

To escape the crunch, slip away to the lighthouse, which in 1996 was moved inland from a perilous spot near the cliff's edge. It wasn't the first move for the 90-ton light -- it was a twin beacon to Chatham Light before being moved up the coast in 1923 to replace one of the Three Sisters Lighthouses .

That trio of smaller lights is now ensconced in a park, about a quarter-mile walk from Nauset Light on Cable Road. You could easily miss them, because there is just a tiny sign marking their ``retirement home."

The Three Sisters of Nauset sat in a row on the bluff starting in 1892 as replacements for the original set of triplets that was placed in 1838. By 1911, the cliff had eroded to within eight feet of one of the towers, and the Bureau of Lighthouses decided to cut back to a single light. The remaining beacon was moved back and given a white light flashing three times each 10 seconds, in tribute to the Three Sisters.

According to a history by the Nauset Light Preservation Society , the Three Sisters were bought in 1918 for $3.50 by the Cummings family of Attleboro and incorporated into a summer cottage. By 1975 the National Park Service had purchased them, and they now stand reunited in their original configuration.

After its move back from the cliff, Nauset Light was relighted and operates as a private aid to navigation.

There are regularly scheduled tours of both sites, of the Three Sisters by the park service , of Nauset Light by the preservation society .

To see how a wealthy whaling captain's family lived with almost unheard-of comforts for its time, visit the Captain Edward Penniman House in the Fort Hill area of Eastham, on the right before you reach the Salt Pond center. The French Second Empire -style house was built in 1868 with the profits from four whaling voyages and included every possible amenity of the day.

The historical significance of the house prompted the Park Service to purchase the property in 1963 from Irma Penniman Broun , the captain's youngest granddaughter. The price was $28,000 for 12 acres of land, the house, and its barn. The house is open for viewing from 1-4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, and guided tours are conducted twice weekly (11 a.m. Monday and Saturday) by reservation only.

Just down from the Penniman House is the Fort Hill Trail , with striking views of Nauset Marsh and the ocean beyond. The trail highlights a visit by French explorer Samuel de Champlain around 1605, well before the Pilgrims first came ashore at Eastham's First Encounter Beach on Cape Cod Bay. The trail also loops into the Red Maple Swamp Trail , and both provide that welcome sense of isolation, though you may scare up an occasional rabbit.

About two miles after you cross the town line into Wellfleet, turn right and head for the Marconi Station area, the site from which in 1903 inventor Guglielmo Marconi successfully completed the first transatlantic wireless communication between the United States and England.

You can still see foundations of some of the original structures, plus a scale model of the transmission station. The cliff rises 85 feet above the beach here, and from the nearby overlook platform you get a full ocean-to-bay view across the Cape, which is about 3 miles wide here.

The Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail begins here. The 1 1/2-mile trail descends gradually on a boardwalk into the swampy environment that hosts Atlantic white cedar and red maple trees. It offers a cool, quiet respite from the hot sun and the cars zipping past to . . . who knows where, so long as they leave us to explore in peace.

To paraphrase Yogi again, ``If people don't want to come, you can't stop them."

Ron Driscoll can be reached at rdriscoll@globe.com.

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