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Family vacation touched by retro simplicity

Amanda and Cameron Quigley take a spin with their mother, Vicky (front), at Holiday Hill Inn. Amanda and Cameron Quigley take a spin with their mother, Vicky (front), at Holiday Hill Inn. (David Lyon for The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / June 5, 2011

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DENNIS PORT — When the Baroni family opened an ice cream and seafood restaurant in 1958 on a prime stretch of Main Street (Route 28), families would pile into the station wagon and swing by for a cone or sundae or maybe a box of fried clams. A year later, they could play on the new miniature golf course.

A decade later, when the Baronis built the first installment of the motel, families would pull up in their Volkswagen microbuses for an overnight. Now, they may come in their crossovers or minivans, but the experience is still the same. The Holiday Hill complex remains the quintessential Cape Cod motoring vacation — a kind of family getaway that never goes out of style.

It’s true that Route 28 is one of the Cape’s busiest roads, but once you have crept through the stop-and-go traffic to the motor inn, everything you will need is within a 2-mile stretch of the highway east of Route 134 or along a few perpendicular residential streets. If you are willing to walk or bicycle (bring your own), you won’t even need that minivan.

A week before Memorial Day weekend, Sue Hilbert, who runs Holiday Hill Motor Inn with her brothers Tom and Robert Baroni, was looking forward to her first summer on the Cape in 40 years. “I started working at the mini golf when I was 10,’’ she recalled, but grew up to move to Ithaca, N.Y., to work and raise her family. “There are only lakes there,’’ she sniffed dismissively. “I missed the smell of the ocean. When I first returned here, I walked a different beach every day.’’

But families, especially those with younger children, might barely want to leave Holiday Hill. The 57-room motel (plus a small cottage and four-bedroom Victorian house) attracts its share of senior citizens, a few honeymooners, and budget-minded European travelers, especially during shoulder seasons when school is in session. A young Jay Leno even stayed here (in Room 7) when he played comedy gigs nearby. But the place has always been set up with families in mind. Rooms all have large televisions, small refrigerators, and — in a nod to the 21st century — free Wi-Fi.

For a good part of the day, you can usually find parents and children alike around the spacious heated pool or playing a few rounds of miniature golf. It has an almost genteel Cape Cod theme, with its beached sloop, waterfall, covered bridge, gazebo, and lighthouse. When everyone gets hungry, they can head to the dairy bar where 30 flavors of Richardson’s ice cream can be scooped into an array of sundaes, floats, frappes, and freezes. The dairy bar even fashions an authentic ice cream soda with syrup, seltzer, and two scoops — one in the cup, one as a sidecar. Alas, the Baronis no longer serve seafood, but the dairy bar does offer hot dogs to mollify parents who insist, even on vacation, that their offspring eat something other than ice cream for lunch.

If the children grow restless, Dennis’s gentle Sea Street Beach, with its short stretches of sand separated by stone jetties, is just over a mile away. It’s not a bad walk, unless you have little children in tow, and it’s an easy cycle if you brought your bikes. And speaking of bikes, Holiday Hill is also close to the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Tom Baroni advises guests to start at the trailhead, about 1.5 miles from the motel on Route 134, where they can rent bikes. Those who bring their own can pedal east on Main Street for a mile, turn left onto Depot Road, and intersect the trail in less than a mile. The spot is easy to find: There is usually a vendor selling hot dogs from a small cart.

Head west on Main Street instead, and you will quickly come to Cape Cod Waterways, which rents canoes, kayaks, and electric paddleboats for exploring the Swan Pond River. A paddle downstream leads to Nantucket Sound, where boaters can ground their craft on the small town beach on the west bank to enjoy a swim. The more scenic trip goes upriver to Swan Pond itself, surrounded by conservation land and all aflutter with egrets and herons.

Come early evening, though, energy levels begin to ebb and the activity at Holiday Hill tends to switch to the family entertainment building, where the wee ones enjoy the mock aggression of bumper cars and the rest of the clan can play arcade games. Nostalgia depends on one’s age, of course, but Holiday Hill manages to keep vintage Ms. PacMan and Donkey Kong games alive. And for the old-timers, there’s even an old-fashioned skee ball — a maddening game no more complicated than rolling balls up an inclined plane.

Maybe the most retro game of all is the Claw Crane, a feature of the penny arcade since the days when bathing costumes came to one’s ankles. The object is simply to grab a prize and drop it into the chute. In keeping with the tradition of Cape Cod summer, the prizes are just as tacky as ever.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

Where to stay
Holiday Hill Motor Inn
352 Main St. (Route 28)
Dennis Port
508-394-5577, 800-333-2569
www.holidayhillmotorinn.com
Enlarged and renovated over the years, the property has 57 rooms with either two doubles or one king bed; many rooms also have a sleeper sofa. Doubles from $89. Ice cream $3.39-$6.89. Bumper cars $6, re-ride $4. Mini golf $8 for adults, $6 children.
What to do
Barbara’s Bike Shop
430 Route 134, South Dennis
508-760-4723
www.barbsbikeshop.com
Adult rentals from $12, child rentals from $10.
Cape Cod Waterways
16 Route 28, Dennis Port
508-398-0080
www.capecodwaterways.org
Kayak, canoe, and paddleboat rentals begin at $20, $32, and $32, respectively, for the first 90 minutes.
Where to eat
The Original Seafood Restaurant
527 Main St., Dennis Port
508-394-1123
Fresh local seafood fried to order. Groups often order “Seafood Frenzy’’ of scallops, whole clams, shrimp, haddock, fries, and onion rings ($48.99 for 3-4, $88.99 for 6-8). Main dishes $3.79-$17.25.