Provincetown Winter Getaway

Prologue

If the streets of New England had still been iced over on January 8th, we probably wouldn’t have taken the drive to Cape Cod for our anniversary. Instead we’d have taken the train into Boston for a nice dinner. And that would have been a shame.

Since Provincetown lies at the far northern tip of the Cape, the trip gave us the opportunity to see a lot of beach and some famous beach towns along the way. After a lifetime of hearing about it by way of books, art, film and Kennedy family lore, Cape Cod is almost a mythic shore. You can be sure though, that my getaway to the Cape did not resemble that of a Kennedy.

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Travelogue

Our first sight of the Atlantic that day was at the Cape Cod Light just north of Truro. It was a cold afternoon, with a strong wind coming from the west. From above, we saw the crests of the waves being blown off by that wind, making it look like the waves were going away from shore, that looked quite strange.

I’m not sure what route we took into Provincetown itself – let me just call it the back way. The sun was going down and we followed it, thinking the sunset was going to be pretty nice. We ended up at a long, curving beach that was just turning pink. We later learned it was Herring Cove. Tom patiently took lots of great sunset shots. I concentrated on New Englandy images of beach fences and lichen edged trails.

At Harbor Hotel – the only hotel open in our price range – I asked for suggestions on where to eat. There were four to choose from: expensive waterfront Italian, expensive waterfront bistro, expensive off waterfront eclectic or dive bar that served pizza and subs. A fifth possibility was a bag of peanuts from the gas station.

When they say off season on Cape Cod, they mean off season. If our anniversary had fallen on a weekend rather than a Tuesday we’d have been in slightly more luck, many places are open from Thursday to Sunday. As it was, the dearth of options challenged our celebratory bliss.

By the time we’d surveyed all the restos Tom just needed food. He can get a tad snarly when hungry and it hits quick. Meanwhile, I was hoping our dinner arrangements might include sitting at a table.

After taking a pound of flesh off each other, we tossed aside the idea of eating cheaply and opted for the off waterfront place. Luckily they offered some specials that took some of the sting out of the final bill.

The next morning things were much more lively in town. Coffee at Joe’s was nice, even if it does lean toward the Starbuckian. Local coffee houses in quaint towns are getting very generic, damn it. Joe’s baked goods are far better than those at the big S though. I recommend the almond croissant and the brownie.

Carrying our coffee cups, we walked out the fishing pier. I took pictures of boats, of which Ptown has quite a rusty collection. One, Terra Nova, was listing and looked hard used. At least in the winter this is definitely a working waterfront.

While Tom was focusing on some sea birds the camera cover unsnapped from the strap (all by itself, I’m sure) and fell down the slot between the pier and the piling. It’s made of neoprene, so it settled, upright, on the surface of the water. What are the chances that after meandering over hill and dale, beach and town, the thing would come off while being held above a four inch wide slot over the water? I was just glad he hadn’t dropped the camera.

We watched the case bob along with the slight breeze. There was no way we could get it, though its trajectory was such that I figured in a couple of hours it should fetch up, two miles away, on the beach right in front of our hotel. We said, se la vie, and headed for the hill to climb to the Pilgrim Monument and get a view of the town from above.

Plan that for summer. The tower is closed in winter. And though it sits right on the edge of the hill overlooking the town, you cannot get to that side to enjoy the view. The entire top of the hill is fenced off – with barbed wire mind you – only a parking lot for all those wretched tour buses is open. The visitor’s center is unappealing, institutional, shoddily built. The whole thing looked like a prison, instead of a commemoration of the place where a group of intrepid, albeit somewhat batty, people landed. Quite a different tone from that at Plymouth.

And while we’re on comparisons, I couldn’t help remembering the tower I climbed at St. Michael’s Hill, Montacute, Somerset in England. To get to the top you follow a permissive path leading through a farmer’s field, you hop over a stile or two, might have to contend with a cow, then walk a wooded path that spirals up to an open, flat spot on top of the hill – not a bus or parking lot in sight. The tower was built in the 1700’s for an actual purpose. Which purpose – looking out across the plains – was still possible from it, for free. By comparison the pilgrim monument, so focused on getting tourists to pay rather than interested people to discover, was a huge disappointment.

It was time to find lunch. We now knew that starting early on the search for food was a very good idea. Not far from the base of the hill we ran across a natural foods market from which good smells were emanating. If this had been open the night before I’d have happily dined in the grocery store. I’d noticed a sandwich shop a little farther on, so I suggested we check it out before making our choice.

Far Land, which was also a grocery store, had a big deli counter and a more comfortable seating area. The sandwiches were all named for local geography. We shared one called the Ballston – rosemary ham, provolone and apples with honey dijon on ciabatta. I loved the mix of flavors – the rosemary and the apple in particular.

After lunch we meandered a little more, heading generally toward the car. Our aim was to drive out to the breakwater and walk across it to the spit for another dose of beach time before heading home.

As we came down to Commercial, the narrow one way street that runs the entire length of town, Tom said, “Let’s see if we can walk back along the beach.” There was a public access straight ahead and we found we could walk back to the fishing pier and the parking lot that way. After looking around for a moment he said, “I wonder where the camera case is.”

He was carrying the binoculars, for the view from the hill. So I suggested he put them to use and see if he could spot the case. I scanned the beach and the clusters of birds with my naked eyes, looking for one small, black thing that didn’t move like a bird. There were two possibilities, one on the beach. The other, smaller, in the water and just floating past a distant gull. Bingo.

I started down the beach toward a sand bar that would lead pretty close to it, while Tom verified that the floating black speck was the case and sprinted across the mud flats to a dry spot. I think he was hoping to run so quickly over the frigid water that his feet wouldn’t get wet. We’d brought boots, but hadn’t needed to put them on for a walk through town. There was a momentary debate about someone going to get a pair. But then he just went ahead and got wet, knowing he could change when we got back to the car. He’s always been willing to chance hypothermia for a good cause.

While I wrung out the case, Tom changed to dry pants and boots. Then we headed for the breakwater. It was late in the day. We’d get to the beach in time for sunset again, though the day was cloudy so there wouldn’t be a sunset to photograph. As I walked the granite boulders, I wondered what the purpose of the breakwater could be. It didn’t protect the harbor from wind or high seas, it also appeared to be silting up at the west end and might not serve whatever purpose it was built for much longer.

Tom put his boots to good use, climbing off the breakwater and hiking out through the marshy area behind it for a while. Three quarters of the way across, as the sky was getting darker and the Wood End Light was beginning to flash, we crossed a low spot in the breakwater. Barnacles and seaweed showed that the water comes within inches of topping the stones there on a regular basis. Then I knew that we had a deadline. We must make it back across that gap before the tide came in or walk miles in the dark. As it had already turned, I mentally shortened our beach visit.

By the time we made the beach the light was failing anyway, the lighthouse beacon was now a solid flash in the dusk. If we stayed much longer on the beach we’d be walking those gray stones in the dark.

For most of the way back the light was fine, and the tide was nowhere near when we crossed the low spot. We would have been quite safe staying on the beach for another hour. But about ¾ of the way across it got dark enough that depth perception became difficult. A few times I misjudged how far down a stone was and stumbled slightly, on one slanted stone I slipped and barked my shin. Luckily, I was wearing thick, wooly winter socks and the bash didn’t incapacitate me.

We headed out of Ptown bound for Wellfleet, just to take a look at that town and perhaps find affordable food. At the Lighthouse Tom had cod and chips and I had their very good clam chowder to honor the historic staples of the Cape. And then we called it a night and headed back to our cozy, floating home

Epilogue

The next day, still curious, I went to Google and found that, as with many waterfront and marine structures, controversy surrounds the West End Breakwater. Built in 1911 to protect the harbor from sand deposition in the case of a breach of the Long Point spit, the breakwater now concerns scientists who say it could be depriving the salt marsh of the natural flow of seawater and disrupting fish habitat – especially access to and from wetlands that are vital to hatchlings.

On the flip side, the breakwater is popular with hikers like Tom and I. It would also be quite expensive to remove. A Corps of Engineers study is looking at ways to modify the structure to keep the access for people open while restoring access for fish and other marine organisms.

Among other things I learned while looking up the breakwater was that there’s another interesting wall somewhere in town. This one dates from the time of the viking exploration of the continent. Historians think Leif Ericson’s brother Thorwald repaired his keel here. Being a ruin-o-phile, I momentarily considered a return visit to Ptown to see that wall. Then I read on and learned that in the 1850’s the wall was discovered and theorized about, but not preserved. A builder covered it with a house called, in true real estate developer fashion, after the thing it supplanted, Norse Wall House.

All in all we enjoyed our Provincetown winter getaway and recommend the quiet of a midweek visit.

But pack a sandwich.

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