Best Places to Stay: Cape Cod, Nantucket, and More

A courtyard on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Tim Grafft/MOTT Tim Grafft/MOTT
By Hillary Richard McNamara

The mere mention of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, or Nantucket evokes classic images of Americana -- lighthouses, beach grass, sailboats, and charming inns.

With more than 500 miles of coastline, it's no surprise that this area's main attractions are its beaches and the sea. Whether you stay on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, or Nantucket, here's what you need to know about choosing the right section -- or the best island -- for your vacation.

Photo Caption: A courtyard on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Courtesy Tim Grafft/MOTT
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A boardwalk in Sandwich, on the Upper Cape. Photo courtesy of Tim Grafft/MOTT Tim Grafft/MOTT
What: As one of the most popular beach destinations in the Northeast, Cape Cod sees an estimated 5 million visitors a year. But don't let that number deter you. If you know where to stay, it's still possible to uncover some quieter areas on the Cape.

Cape Cod's 399 square miles are completely surrounded by water, thanks in part to the man-made Cape Cod Canal. The Upper Cape is the start of Cape Cod and the closest section to mainland Massachusetts. In addition to its beautiful Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay beaches, this area offers visitors some great educational and architectural sites, including the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges. The world-renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute charted the ocean floor and explored the Titanic shipwreck. Sandwich, the oldest town in the Cape, has some amazing period architecture. Take a scenic drive; the villages around the four major towns are full of stone walls, historical structures, and antique shops.

Where:
The main areas in the Upper Cape are Bourne, Falmouth, Sandwich, and Mashpee.

How To Get There:
From the Bourne Bridge, Bourne is about 1 mile on Sandwich Road; Falmouth is about 15 miles on MA-28 South; Sandwich is about 7 miles along Sandwich Road and MA-6A; Mashpee is about 15 miles along Sandwich Road, US-6 and MA-130.

From the Sagamore Bridge, Bourne is about 5 miles on Sandwich Road; Falmouth is 19 miles on MA-28 South; Sandwich is 4 miles along Sandwich Road and MA-6A; Mashpee is 12 miles on US-6 and MA-130.

Don't Miss: The Shining Sea Bikeway is an 11-mile-long paved bike path from Falmouth to Woods Hole that tours the shoreline and traces ancient Wampanoag trails. This scenic path is named in honor of Falmouth native Katherine Lee Bates' poem, America the Beautiful.

More Info: Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce
(www.capecodchamber.org)

Photo Caption: A boardwalk in Sandwich, on the Upper Cape. Courtesy Tim Grafft/MOTT
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Scargo Tower in Dennis on the Middle Cape, dating back to 1901. Photo by Christopher Seufert Chris Seufert
What: Contrary to how it sounds, the Middle Cape isn't landlocked at all -- Cape Cod Bay's beaches are to the north and Nantucket Sound's beaches are to the south. Since this area is the most populated and most visited area of Cape Cod, the Middle Cape also has some of the most commercial spots. Each town here has a split personality -- one side is charming, the other functional. The Middle Cape is a great area for families and for travelers who like to explore.

Where:
The main areas of the Middle Cape are Barnstable (Cape Cod's largest town that also encompasses the village of Hyannis), Yarmouth, and Dennis.

How to Get There: From the Bourne Bridge, Barnstable is about 17 miles on Sandwich Road and US-6; Yarmouth is about 23 miles on Sandwich Road, US-6 and MA-6A; Dennis is about 27 miles along Sandwich Road, US-6, and MA-6A.

From the Sagamore Bridge, Barnstable is 13 miles on US-6; Yarmouth is 20 miles on US-6 and MA-6A; Dennis is about 24 miles on US-6 and MA-6A.

Don't Miss: The Cape Cod Rail Trail starts in South Dennis and runs 22 miles to Wellfleet. The trail is paved and relatively flat. There are numerous beach access points and snack stops along the way.

Where to Stay:
The namesake of the Anchor In (www.anchorin.com) a century-old anchor weighing over a ton -- was salvaged from Cape Cod Bay in the 1950s. It now sits outside this affordable waterfront hotel in Hyannis

More Info: Department of Conservation and Recreation - Cape Cod Rail Trail (www.mass.gov/dcr/parks>; Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce (www.capecodchamber.org)

Photo Caption: Scargo Tower in Dennis on the Middle Cape, dating back to 1901. Photo by Christopher Seufert
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Stage Harbor Lighthouse and Skiff in Chatham. Photo courtesy of Christopher Seufert Chris Seufert
What: The Lower Cape is often referred to as the start of "Olde Cape Cod." This area defines what many people consider to be the classic Cape: bustling main streets in quaint towns, miles of sandy beaches, local cafés, relaxed atmosphere, and very little commercialism. The Lower Cape's wealth is also evident in its old mansions, fine art galleries, charming towns, and historical churches.

Being in the "elbow" of Cape Cod means the Lower Cape has both Atlantic and Bay beaches. The water in Cape Cod Bay is calmer and warmer -- although keep in mind that in New England, "warm" is a relative term.

Where: The main areas of the Lower Cape are Harwich, Brewster, Chatham, Orleans, and Eastham.

How to Get There: From the Bourne Bridge, Harwich is about 32 miles on Sandwich Road, US-6 and MA-124 South; Brewster is about 35 miles on Sandwich Road, US-6 and MA-124 North; Chatham is about 38 miles on Sandwich Road, US-6, MA-137 and Old Queen Anne Road; Orleans is about 39 miles on Sandwich Road and US-6; Eastham is 42 miles on Sandwich Road and US-6.

From the Sagamore Bridge, Harwich is about 29 miles on US-6 and MA-124 South; Brewster is about 32 miles on US-6 and MA-124 North; Chatham is about 35 miles on US-6, MA-137 and Old Queen Anne Road; Orleans is about 35 miles on US-6; Eastham is about 39 miles on US-6.

Don't Miss: The iconic and historical Brewster General Store carries a variety of quirky gifts, unique memorabilia, and old-fashioned treats.

Where to Stay:
Despite its relatively large size, Ocean Edge Resort and Golf Club (www.oceanedge.com) maintains its classic charm. Its turn-of-the-century mansion and carriage house, pools, tennis courts, bike paths, and a Nicklaus golf course ensure that there's something for everyone.

More Info: Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce (www.capecodchamber.org)

Photo Caption: Stage Harbor Lighthouse and Skiff in Chatham. Courtesy Christopher Seufert
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Commercial Street dock in Provincetown. Photo courtesy of Tim Grafft/MOTT Tim Grafft/MOTT
What: The biggest draw to the Outer Cape has to be its pristine beaches and nature walks. The Cape Cod National Seashore has 43,500 acres of protected land, 40 miles of which are beach. It would take more than a week to see everything the Outer Cape has to offer. The area offers fantastic sunrises and sunsets, sleepy towns and bustling nightlife, mansions and a working class suburb, plus general stores and designer boutiques. At the end of the hook, flamboyant Provincetown is a three-mile stretch of fine art galleries, quirky shops, and restaurants.

Where: The main areas of the Outer Cape are Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown.

How to Get There: From the Bourne Bridge, Wellfleet is about 52 miles along Sandwich Road and off US-6; Truro is about 56 miles along Sandwich Road and US-6; Provincetown is about 64 miles on Sandwich Road, US-6, and MA-6A.

From the Sagamore Bridge, Wellfleet is about 48 miles along US-6; Truro is about 52 miles on US-6; Provincetown is about 61 miles on US-6 and MA-6A.

Don't Miss: The Wellfleet Drive-In (www.wellfleetdrivein.com) movie theater opened in 1957 and remains an Outer Cape institution to this day. It's often described as "so bad, it's good" by its local fans. On the weekends, the drive-in doubles as an eclectic flea market.

Where to Stay: Fort Hill Bed and Breakfast
(www.forthillbedandbreakfast.com) is set on three acres of gardens within Cape Cod National Seashore.

More Info: Cape Cod National Seashore (www.nps.gov/caco), Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce (www.capecodchamber.org)

Photo Caption: Commercial Street dock in Provincetown. Courtesy Tim Grafft/MOTT
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Beach cliffs in Aquinnah, Martha's Vineyard. Photo courtesy of William DeSousa-Mauk William DeSousa-Mauk
What: Almost everywhere you look on Martha's Vineyard, hydrangea bushes and picket fences surround colorful houses; green marshes and colorful sand cliffs give way to ocean inlets. Expect a mix of eclectic locals, old money compounds, historic landmarks, and quirky artistry. It's little wonder that this island has attracted a number of high profile people -- from politicians (such as the Kennedys) to musicians (such as Carly Simon) to authors (such as Shel Silverstein) -- looking to unwind and experience a sense of island community. Part of the charm of Martha's Vineyard is its intentionally low-key attitude.

Martha's Vineyard is also a great place for nature lovers. With 125 miles of coastline, five lighthouses, 44 miles of bike paths, and 13 public beaches, most of the island's main attractions are outdoors.

Where: This 100-square-mile island is about seven miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod. Martha's Vineyard is made up of six primary towns: Tisbury (also known as Vineyard Haven), Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah.

How to Get There: The Steamship Authority (www.steamshipauthority.com) operates a year-round ferry from Woods Hole to Martha's Vineyard. A parking lot is available on the Woods Hole side. If you want to bring your car, you'll need to book an automobile reservation in advance.

Don't Miss:
More than 350 gingerbread cottages fill Oak Bluff's Wesleyan Grove (also called The Campgrounds). These colorful, decorative houses are part of a National Historic Landmark District.

Where to Stay: The 14-acre Menemsha Inn (www.menemshainn.com) offers numerous cottage-style accommodations with spectacular views.

More Info: Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce (www.mvy.com)

Photo Caption: Beach cliffs in Aquinnah, Martha's Vineyard. Courtesy William DeSousa-Mauk
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Great Point Lighthouse in Nantucket. Photo courtesy of Christopher Seufert Christopher Seufert
What: Nantucket may be only 30 miles off the coast, but it feels much more removed than that. It's smaller, quieter, and calmer than Martha's Vineyard and the Cape. There is only one main town with not a stoplight to be seen, and the entire island is listed as a historic district.

Nantucket may seem unassuming, but there's no denying it has spirit. Of course, most people visit Nantucket for the seashore. All of the beaches along the island's 110 miles of coastline are public and easy to access.

This 105-square-mile island once claimed the title of Whaling Capital of the World. To this day, its whaling history remains one of its largest tourist attractions.

Where: Nantucket is 30 miles south of Cape Cod. There is one main town, called Nantucket Town, with several outlying hamlets.

How to Get There: The Steamship Authority (www.steamshipauthority.com) runs car and passenger ferries to Nantucket year-round. Hy-Line Cruises (www.hylinecruises.com) runs passenger ferries from May to October and a high-speed catamaran year-round. Both companies depart from Hyannis.

Don't Miss:
The Whaling Museum has the full, in-tact skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale that washed ashore in 1998.

Where to Stay:
The Jared Coffin House (www.jaredcoffinhouse.com), originally built in 1845, is one of Nantucket's oldest inns.

More Info: Nantucket Chamber of Commerce (www.nantucketchamber.org)

Photo Caption: Great Point Lighthouse in Nantucket. Courtesy Christopher Seufert
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