When Bostonians can't get away for an extended vacation, they go - where else? - just down the road to Cape Cod for the weekend. But when it comes to planning that getaway, such a familiar destination can easily slip out of focus.
Don't spend half of your trip in traffic or looking for a place to eat: These trusty itineraries for one, two, and three days take away the guesswork. And if you can steal away in the middle of the week to beat the crowds, that's even better.
One Perfect Day on the Quiet Side
The villages dotting The Old King's Highway (Route 6A) as it winds along the southern end of Cape Cod Bay have always been a quiet corner of the peninsula, where square-rigger captains retired to calmer waters and reclusive authors found peace and relaxation. With just one day to get away, you'll want to drive, leaving home early enough to get to Barnstable by 10 a.m., when, on Saturdays, the Sturgis Library, with its ongoing used-book sale, opens. (On a summer weekend, it takes at least two hours to drive from Boston.) Launch your own contemplative Saturday in the circa-1645 Lothrop Room, where a whole bag of novels, mysteries, and biographies will set you back less than the price of a bottle of sunscreen.
For the other kind of sustenance - a picnic lunch - drive about 3 miles east along Route 6A to Hallet's Store in Yarmouth Port. Built as a drugstore in 1889, the shop long ago shifted its primary trade to a soda fountain and lunch counter, with sandwiches, salads, and its own birch beer, cream soda, sarsaparilla, and raspberry-lime rickeys, all available to go.
Your last stop before the beach is the 200-year-old Edward Gorey House, on the village green. Now a museum celebrating the macabre whimsy of the illustrator and designer, the stone dwelling is where Gorey - known for his New Yorker cartoons and the animated title sequence that still introduces Mystery! on PBS - spent his last years.
With your books, lunch, and brand-new attitude, follow Centre Street north to the free parking lot at Gray's Beach. Watch for red-winged blackbirds as you cross what seems like a sea of swaying marsh grass on the elevated boardwalk. Shallow, calm waters get deep enough for swimming at high tide but are really best for ankle-deep wading between chapters.
When it starts getting too dark outside to read, you'll know it's time to head home. Make one last stop back in Barnstable at Mattakeese Wharf Restaurant on Barnstable Harbor. Settle into a chair at one of the deck tables for the catch of the day and a glass of wine. And speaking of day, how did this one get away so quickly?
A Weekend at the Edge
Provincetown sits on the outskirts of Cape geology, sociology, and sensibility, where the asphalt meets the ocean and the diffuse light turns painters and photographers giddy. For a two-day trip, save yourself the hours you'd spend in traffic and instead book seats on one of three daily ferries from Boston's World Trade Center. For an extra few bucks, reserve a space for your bicycle, too.
Upon arrival, park your bags at the tranquil, convenient Best Western Chateau Motor Inn. Head first to the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, where rotating exhibitions are drawn from a permanent collection of work by artists associated with the Outer Cape, then take a walk around the East End. If you're there on a Friday night, you'll be instantly immersed in the very social local art scene; galleries stay open late serving nibbles and drinks from big blocks of cheese and cases of cheap wine. If you're in the mood for seafood, walk over to Pepe's Wharf, a restaurant just east of the main town docks that is open until 10:30 p.m.
On Saturday, pedal your bike (or a rental from a shop like Ptown Bikes) along the Province Lands Trail, an exotic inland landscape and just over 5-mile ride that's part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Great heaps of undulating sand are barely held in place by the tenacious roots of scrub pines and bayberry. From the visitor center's observation deck, survey the rim of beach girdling the knobby end of Cape Cod. With luck, you may spot humpback or finback whales surfacing; between April and November, they feed right where the shore suddenly drops off into deep water at Race Point.
Grit your teeth and ride toward Truro on a short stretch of busy Route 6, then turn seaward (left) onto High Head Road just after Pilgrim Lake. At the end of the road, turn right onto the National Seashore bike trail, which crosses the scenic cliffs of Pilgrim Heights and leads to Head of the Meadow Beach, where there's a paved road back to Route 6. Continue a few hundred yards and take the Highland Light Road turnoff (seaward again). At the end of Highland Road, jog right onto Coast Guard Road, then left to the historic Cape Cod Highland Light. Take the tour, and orient yourself with views from atop the 100-foot cliff. To get to the beach below, pedal back up Coast Guard Road, past the turn for Highland, to a dead-end parking area. Lock your bikes and walk the mile back to the cliff beneath the light. A seam of clay seeps from its base; it's a federal crime to dig it out, but you're welcome to any of the blue goop the sea has ripped free. Beauty seekers slather themselves, bake dry in the sun, and rush into the bracing surf to wash it off.
Back in P-town, there's one more stop before night falls. Some of the great names in American arts and letters did battle with their muses in shanties tucked into the dunes between Race Point and High Head Beach. Take a guided sunset tour - you'll have to book early in the day - from Art's Dune Tours. In the evening, Provincetown's restaurant and bar scene beckons with a come-hither finger. Just remember to check the time on your Sunday ferry tickets. If you were lucky enough to get on an afternoon boat, have breakfast at the hotel, then watch the town wake up. Drinking coffee and strolling in the sunshine on Commercial Street or along MacMillan Wharf should be just about the right amount of exertion.
Take Friday Off and Head To the Elbow
Cape Cod is richest where it rounds the corner. Eastham, Orleans, and Chatham - the cluster of towns where the Cape's "arm" bends all claim a piece of the peninsula's most fertile habitat for birds, fish, and seals. Human beings also like the islands, bluffs, marshes, and sandbars here, so start your summer weekend early by leaving on Friday morning.
Covered with rambling Damascus roses, Chatham is the civic heart of elbow country. Hang your hat at the centrally located Chatham Wayside Inn and linger, if you like, in its lobby - the town's old-fashioned civic center. Then spend a few hours traipsing around the "first stop of the east wind," as some have described the town. The moniker is more poetic than meteorological; of the Cape's many geographical knobs, Chatham simply sticks farther out into the ocean. Trace its history browsing the aerial photography at Kelsey-Kennard Photographers, a gallery showing work that documents a half-century of shifting shores. At Blue Water Fish Rubbings, artist-entrepreneur Jenny Bovey uses a Japanese technique to imprint the likeness of ink-rubbed fish and shellfish onto hats, shirts, and aprons. Many of her specimens come ashore at Chatham Fish Pier. There, at Nickerson's Fish & Lobsters, pick up a lunch of fish and chips or a clam basket, then watch fishermen unload their catch in the mid-to-late afternoon.
An ever-shifting system of sandbars and beaches extends south from Chatham to the Monomoy Islands, a protected wildlife refuge area. The town's own South Beach, below Chatham Light, is skimmed by riptides, making swimming dangerous. But the vast spit is a perfect place to sun, play volleyball, or contemplate the power of tides and storms. Hiking its length in loose sand is strenuous, but the effort is often repaid with sightings of shorebirds and basking seals.
Back in town, buy an early supper of sandwiches and salads from Chatham Cookware Cafe (it closes at 6 p.m.) and spread a blanket (the one in your car's trunk will do) at Kate Gould Park, next to the Chatham Wayside, for the Friday band concert. For dessert, get a bag of mixed creams from Chatham Candy Manor.
On Saturday mornings, hard-core beachniks commune with the rising sun - and can still find parking - at east-facing Nauset Beach up the road in Orleans, where the sea roars and growls, and big waves boom off the dune wall. But if quiet is more your style, explore nearby Nauset Marsh, a wildlife nursery that's protected by barrier beaches. You can rent a kayak from the Goose Hummock Shop in Orleans and explore on your own, or join one of several daily paddle tours. Bitterns, coots, rails, and grebes breed and raise their young among the sedge islands - spongy humps of thick vegetation that provide habitat - all summer. Thousands of minnows flitter through the shallows there, though you're more likely to notice the dining herons and egrets.
That afternoon, wrap up the day with a lobster clambake. If you didn't think to bring a steamer pot and grill with you, buy them at the Ben Franklin hardware store in downtown Chatham. Then stop at Chatham Fish & Lobster for fresh lobsters, steamers, and fish. You can set up your grill and enjoy the sunset - and your supper - on protected, public Harding Beach.
Save Sunday to see a very different side of the Cape, indeed: Take a visit via small speedboat to the islands of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. The barrier-island strip, extending south toward Nantucket, hosts about 350 species of birds throughout the year. Guide Keith Lincoln takes groups out in his Rip Ryder to see the teeming life all around the islands; trips start at the Monomoy visitors center. That vision of a peaceable marine kingdom should sustain you through the inevitable traffic jam on the way home.
Escapes To the Cape /// Details
One Perfect Day on the Quiet Side
STURGIS LIBRARY /// 3090 Main Street, Barnstable, 508-362-6636, home.capecod.net/~sturgis.
HALLET'S STORE /// 139 Main Street, Yarmouth Port, 508-362-3362, www.hallets.com; sandwiches and salads, $3.75 to $5.75, specialty sodas, $5 per four-pack.
EDWARD GOREY HOUSE /// 8 Strawberry Lane, Yarmouth Port, 508-362-3909, www.edwardgoreyhouse.org; $5 adult admission.
MATTAKEESE WHARF RESTAURANT /// Off Mill Way in Barnstable, on Barnstable Harbor, 508-362-4511; dinner for two with wine, $56 to $70.
A Weekend at the Edge
BAY STATE CRUISE CO. Reservations required for fast ferry to Provincetown; World Trade Center, 200 Seaport Boulevard, Boston, 617-748-1428, www.baystatecruisecompany.com; $59 round trip for adults, bicycle fee, $10.
BEST WESTERN CHATEAU MOTOR INN /// 105 Bradford Street, Provincetown, 508-487-1286, www.bwprovince-town.com; double occupancy, $229 per night.
PROVINCETOWN ART ASSOCIATION AND MUSEUM 460 Commercial Street, Provincetown, 508-487-1750, www.paam.org.
PEPE'S WHARF /// 371 Commercial Street, Provincetown, 508-487-8717; dinner for two with wine, $40 to $100.
PTOWN BIKES /// 42 Bradford Street, Provincetown, 508-487-8735, www.ptownbikes.com; rentals start at $9 for two hours.
PROVINCE LANDS VISITOR CENTER /// Cape Cod National Seashore, Race Point Road, Provincetown, 508-487-1256, www.nps.gov/caco.
CAPE COD HIGHLAND LIGHT /// 27 Highland Light Road, Truro, 508-487-1121, www.trurohistorical.org (to download a map); tours, $4; children must be at least 51 inches tall to climb the lighthouse stairs.
ART'S DUNE TOURS /// 4 Standish Street, Provincetown, 800-894-1951, 508-487-1950, www.artsdunetours.com; advance purchase required, $26 for sunset tour.
Take Friday Off and Head To the Elbow
CHATHAM WAYSIDE INN /// 512 Main Street, Chatham, 800-242-8426, 508-945-5550, www.waysideinn.com; double rooms, $165 to $315.
KELSEY-KENNARD PHOTOGRAPHERS /// 465 Main Street, Chatham, 508-945-1931, www.capecodphotos.com.
BLUE WATER FISH RUBBINGS /// 505 Main Street, Chatham, 508-945-7616, www.bluewaterfishrubbings.com.
NICKERSON'S FISH & LOBSTERS /// Chatham Fish Pier, Chatham, 508-945-0145; seafood rolls and baskets, $6 to $17.
CHATHAM COOKWARE CAFE /// 524 Main Street, Chatham, 508-945-1250; sandwiches and salads, $6 to $8, and lobster rolls at market rates.
CHATHAM CANDY MANOR /// 484 Main Street, Chatham, 508-945-0825, www.candymanor.com; chocolate-covered creams, $16 per pound.
GOOSE HUMMOCK SHOP /// Route 6A, Town Cove, Orleans, 508-255-2620, www.goose.com; kayak rentals, $45 per day, paddle tours, $45 to $65 per person; reservations suggested for tours.
BEN FRANKLIN /// 631 Main Street, Chatham, 508-945-0655, www.benfranklinchatham.com.
CHATHAM FISH & LOBSTER /// 1291 Main Street, West Chatham, 800-945-0545, 508-945-1178, www.chathamfishandlobster.com.
RIP RYDER /// Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, Chatham, 508-945-5450, www.monomoyislandferry.com; reservations recommended, charters and tours available; $15 per person.