PROVINCETOWN -- The two guys pull up in their white convertible -- top down, natch -- and leave it running as they flip-flop into the coffee shop, leading a little cocker spaniel by the leash.
It was a rare March day that hit the 60s, and they hadn't wasted any time pulling out the square-cut tank tops and sandals. ''Nice hair," the barista making their iced lattes says to one of them, pointing to his platinum spikes.
Walking around Provincetown in the spring is akin to scanning your otherwise-barren garden for crocuses. Before this town gets all summered up, with the 2 a.m. crowds blocking Commercial Street at Spiritus Pizza, a preseason visit offers the chance to see it start to come to life, slowly. Everybody in town, it seems, is painting, pruning, sweeping, or looking for a summer job.
It's not the same as a sleepy midwinter vacation to the tip of the Cape. You still get good room rates, and it's easy to find availability at a place like Crowne Pointe Inn, whose Shui Spa and reputation for decent dining drew my attention. By this so-called shoulder season enough businesses are starting to open to keep a visitor occupied, while the town still offers the kind of peace that escapes by ferry right around Memorial Day.
Crowne Pointe is as good a perch as any, especially given its position on a bluff right near the town center. I stayed in one of the carriage houses that surround the original mansion, which was built for a sea captain in the late 1800s. The whole complex was renovated, beautifully, in 1999. My room, just off a little courtyard with a fountain, was done up subtly, in forest green walls with ivory trim, deep moldings, pine floors, floral curtains, and a four-poster bed. Vintage magazine ads decorated the walls, and a large gas fireplace tucked into a beautiful corner mantel begged to be turned on.
I obliged, changed into a stretchy cotton robe (comfortable but not exactly plush), popped a CD into the player, and ran water in the huge soaking tub, part of a sunny, big bathroom. I had no plans to spend the entire weekend in the tub, though, especially since more pampering awaited at the Shui Spa. But by the time I called for a massage appointment on Saturday morning, the spa, even before high season, was fully booked that day. My plans to crawl up to dinner after a rubdown were dashed; I'd have to wait until Sunday.
The experience at the hotel's restaurant might have been easier to swallow had my critical faculties been dulled by the ministrations of a good masseur. As it happened, dinner with a couple of friends was the biggest disappointment of the stay, and the problem wasn't the company. The Manhattan was watery, the duck was flaccid-skinned, the wilted spinach salad was overcooked, and the waiter seemed more interested in being sassy than efficient. (When I asked for salt, he said, ''We don't have any," with a deadpan look. Then he smiled and said, ''Just joking." Then he forgot to bring it.)
Thankfully a clam chowder delivered on its promise of voluptuousness; if only I had made that my meal. When the party of 12 seated near us asked to see the chef and broke out into applause when he appeared, we wondered: What did they have?
Breakfast, on the other hand, was pretty close to perfect, the only exception being the weak coffee. Besides a collection of pastries, cereals, fruit, yogurt, and the like, cooks were offering made-to-order egg dishes, including a nicely done Benedict. As I ate, I sat in the sunroom, whose windows were decorated, not so tastefully, with green shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day.
After a beach walk, I headed back to the inn and through the maze of courtyards to a boardwalk leading over a goldfish pond and past Buddhist statues to the Shui Spa. Inside was the sassy waiter from the night before, who showed me around the coed area to the mineral soaking tub, steam room, sauna, and lounging chairs. He pointed out little cups of sea salt on one table, said they were for rubbing into your skin while you steamed, and then he raised one hand. ''Feel my arm," he said. I didn't really want to, but I did, and OK, it was soft. ''Exfoliation," he said.
The steam was so intensely hot that after I changed into a towel and made my way over, a man and two women were staggering out trying to fiddle with the controls. Wimps, I thought. That's what breaks are for. I went in, and could hear them outside talking about their friend with an eating disorder, oblivious to the sign that says, ''Treatments in progress, whispers please."
I rinsed off in a two-headed shower and waited for Barbara, my masseuse, a large woman with a deft, firm touch. It wasn't the deepest massage I've ever had, and pretty pricey at $110 for an hour, but it was a welcome mix of relaxing and therapeutic.
It wasn't how I wanted to end the trip, since my smoothed-out state of mind might be dashed on the highway. I needn't have worried, of course. In March, a Sunday drive, even on the Cape, is just a Sunday drive.
Contact Joe Yonan at email@example.com.