Where the wild things are – discovering the beautiful beaches and captivating coastal chic of Cape Cod
By Scott Manson
There’s a long-running debate about what the world’s greatest work of fiction is. Many point to the eternal appeal of Tolkien’s work, while others claim Shakespeare is unsurpassed but, for me, nothing comes close to airline schedules in August. They are quite staggeringly useless. As you might have guessed, my US trip got off to a rocky start, thanks to a three hour delay at London Heathrow airport. After arriving in muggy New York, so that my wife could do some shopping, like native New Yorkers we quickly got out of the city in search of cooler climes. For many of its more well-heeled citizens, that means heading to the Hamptons. But we felt the calling of a wilder coast – somewhere with an abundance of unspoilt beaches but also luxury comforts and great food. That place was Cape Cod, the long, hook-shaped arm of Massachusetts that stretches 65 miles out into the Atlantic.
The salt-kissed breeze whispered tales of adventure as I set foot off the ferry at Martha’s Vineyard, the first stop on our eastern US odyssey. This enchanting island feels untouched by the rampant commercialism that often dogs coastal resorts, with not a single chain restaurant or identikit hotel in sight. Grand houses with white picket fences and perfectly manicured lawns are the order of the day – with each property seemingly in competition with its neighbour to see who can grow the most extravagant display of hydrangeas.
I’d been canny enough to seek the advice of Bill DeSousa, who handles all of Cape Cod’s PR. Bill’s passion, knowledge and invaluable advice proved essential every step of the way. His first recommendation – Hob Knob hotel in Edgartown, arguably the island’s most upmarket spot – hit all the right buttons.
From the moment I set foot on its charming grounds, I felt transported to a bygone era, where every detail whispered tales of history and grace. Homely, yet grand, from its polished cherrywood floors snaking around a beautiful flower-filled veranda to its handsome, well-appointed rooms, the whole place is a haven of comfort and style. Every detail, from the plush linens to the carefully chosen artwork, showcased the hotel’s commitment to providing an exceptional experience for its guests.
Better still, each morning, the Hob Knob’s breakfast spread offered an incredible array of locally sourced delights. From freshly baked pastries to savoury dishes crafted with ingredients from nearby farms, the breakfast experience was a celebration of Martha’s Vineyard’s culinary heritage. Dining on that wraparound porch with the morning papers, surrounded by lush gardens and the scent of blooming flowers, it was easy to strike up conversations with fellow travellers, sharing stories and recommendations for the day’s adventures.
Just a short stroll away, the historic streets of Edgartown beckoned with their quaint boutiques, art galleries, and picturesque harbour. The hotel also provided complimentary bicycles, allowing me to traverse the island’s scenic trails and discover hidden coves and breath-taking vistas. Again, Bill’s brilliant advice saw me visiting wilder spots such as Katama beach, with its Atlantic breakers, as well as the famous State Beach – where a Jaws scene was filmed and locals and tourists take turns to jump off the famous “Jaws Bridge.” In the spirit of journalistic diligence, I did it. Twice.
Departing Martha’s Vineyard, we struck out for Provincetown – an artist and writer’s summer haven turned LGBTIQ+ hotspot situated at the very top of the Cape. Its clapboard Kennedy-style Americana architecture combines with great bars and restaurants, plus pristine beaches, to make P-town a place that every visitor to the region should put on their must-do list. Where else can you enjoy a hearty American breakfast while being serenaded by a drag queen with a glittering azure ocean as a backdrop?
Eager to explore the island’s hidden treasures, I joined Art’s Dune Tours. With the wind tousling my hair as we traversed up and over the sandy hills, I embarked on a thrilling 4×4 journey through the captivating dunes that inspired countless artists and writers. Our knowledgeable guide painted vivid portraits of the dunes’ history and ecological significance, allowing me to truly appreciate their beauty and fragility. As I stood atop one of their highest points, a panoramic view of the wild landscape unfolded before my eyes, forever etching itself into my memory.
No visit to Cape Cod would be complete without an encounter with the majestic giants of the sea. I embarked on a whale-watching excursion from P-town’s dock – courtesy of Captain John Boats – an experience that surpassed all expectations. The sight of a humpback whale breaching the surface with elegant grace was a humbling and awe-inspiring encounter that left me with a renewed sense of wonder.
A busy day meant the evening was a more sedate affair, eschewing the lively bars and clubs of the town for dinner at the legendary Lobster Pot restaurant. With a hint of salt still lingering on my lips, I ventured into this bustling seafront restaurant (booking essential), partly as a pilgrimage to the late chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who talks fondly of manning the grill at a busy seafood spot in Provincetown during his early years. A sensory delight awaited me, where the scent of freshly steamed lobster filled the air. Nestled within the heart of this vibrant community, the restaurant is a culinary institution that had delighted taste buds for generations. The succulent lobster bisque and perfectly grilled seafood was a celebration of the ocean’s bounty and I lingered as long as this busy restaurant would reasonably allow.
Hard as it was to tear myself away from Provincetown, the rest of the Cape was calling. I headed back down, stopping briefly for a swim at the stunning Coast Guard beach where, bar a couple of friendly seals, I had the entire place to myself. It’s incredible to think that, almost anywhere else in the world, this sort of white sand and wide-open sea experience would have day-trippers arriving in their droves. A complete lack of facilities, such as toilets or a café, may have played a part in this but I’d like to think it’s also that Cape Cod has so many great beaches that there’s room enough for everyone.
Dinner that night was at the chic Rooftop at the Pelham House hotel, a sister property to the nearby Pelham on Main, where I was staying. Featuring uninterrupted views of Nantucket Sound, it offered the sort of menu where you want to eat everything although, keeping with my Cape tradition, I went with the lobster – this time in a toasted brioche roll with lemon and dill aioli – and it was sublime. So much so, in fact, that I asked my wife whether she thought I could simply eat lobster every day and forever. “Sure,” came the quick reply. “So long as you don’t mind the rest of your family living on lentils and rainwater.”
It was still early – and a balmy evening – when we returned to Pelham on Main, so I took the opportunity to have a dip in its beautiful outdoor pool. Surrounded by grass and woods, it’s the perfect spot to unwind after a day of beach, drinking and dining. By this time, frankly, I was in a state of sybaritic bliss, helped in no small part by my room – an oasis of tranquillity adorned with thoughtful touches that exuded both warmth and refinement. The plush bedding and luxurious linens promised restful nights, while the carefully curated artwork and coastal accents celebrated Cape Cod’s maritime heritage. It was also perfectly positioned for further exploring the next day, taking a scenic drive to visit some of the Cape’s most iconic towns, such as Yarmouth, Orleans and Wellfleet. As the epicentre for striking out on Massachusetts adventures, it’s easy to see why Pelham on Main was fully booked during our visit.
Too soon, it was time to return to England, via broiling New York once more – with a brief stopover stay at the city’s Hard Rock hotel. A very different vibe to our languorous Cape Cod experience. Right now, I prefer to remember Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard – not merely as destinations but as storytellers, weaving narratives of natural splendour, cultural heritage, and timeless charm.
To discover more about the region, head to the excellent Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.