Cape Cod has miles of protected marshland, including this spot in Sandwich.
Cape Cod has miles of protected marshland, including this spot in Sandwich.
John Briley

A Hatteras Fan Goes North To Try Out the Other Cape

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 30, 2006

For somewhere I've never been, the scene is uncannily familiar: strolling an almost deserted stretch of wide, rustic national seashore with a group of friends as an intermittent rain dimples the sand. The beach is backed by a line of dunes, some marsh grass and then, beyond the park boundary, enviable homes. The Atlantic Ocean paws at the shoreline; sea mammals surface and retreat.

We do this almost every summer on Cape Hatteras, N.C., but this is the other cape -- Cape Cod, Mass. -- where the mammals are gray seals, the Atlantic is butt-numbingly cold, and the property tax alone on some of the homes could buy a beachfront lot in North Carolina.

A wedding brought me here, on this stormy June weekend, and I'm curious to see how this cape stacks up to Hatteras. I love the Outer Banks (the outer Outer Banks, really) for the wild coast, dominance of nature, clear, warm Gulf Stream waters and come-what-may pace of life.

It's not that I've studiously avoided Cape Cod, but perhaps I did so unconsciously because a) I'm a cold-water wussy, b) the Massachusetts coast is a longer drive from D.C. than the Outer Banks and c) hearing every third person in New England boast of "summah on thah cape" left me with the worrying image of wall-to-wall Bostonians elbowing for towel space on the one stretch of beach not owned by a Kennedy.

So where is everybody? "Oh, they'll be here," says Barb, the owner of Barbara's Bike and Blade, as we rent cycles near the entrance to Nickerson State Park, on the edge of the town of Brewster. "July and August are a zoo."

Even now the place isn't deserted -- families and couples cruise along the rail trail that runs 22 miles along a string of cape towns -- but when we duck into Nickerson's trail system, especially the single-track, off-pavement trails, we have the better part of the 1,900-acre park to ourselves. We zip through the cool forest, enjoying two features that are largely absent on Hatteras: expansive woods and verifiable hills. (Cape Cod's relatively variable landscape -- it tops out at 289 feet abut sea level -- was kneaded by the Laurentide glacier as it retreated northward around 20,000 years ago.)

The trails lead to a series of kettle ponds, pockets of clear fresh water formed by the melting of giant glacial ice cubes, and to dozens of primitive campsites, none occupied. According to Barb, these, too, fill up quickly in high season, but it still seems that Cape Cod, with 15 towns spaced over 400 square miles, a national seashore covering 43,608 acres of shoreline along with labyrinthine salt marshes and forest, can absorb a heavy tourist rush.

Plus the cape, which resembles a human arm in full bicep flex, touches four major bodies of water -- the Atlantic, Nantucket Sound, Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay (which is, incidentally, one of the major fisheries for giant bluefin tuna) -- affording ample play space for anglers, whale watchers and water sports enthusiasts.

Some of the towns, like Eastham, evoke Hatteras -- a few seafood shacks and kayak rental stands, maybe a gas station. But most towns have New England charm, rooted in early U.S. history, and the kind of quaint, expensive shops and galleries you'd expect in a Manhattan suburb.

I didn't come here to shop, so we pop into a National Park visitors center next to the Salt Pond -- an old kettle pond-turned-salt-marsh -- for information on kayaking.

Ranger Christopher Brett advises us against paddling at low tide -- "You'll do a lot of walking through the shallows" -- and offers another caution: "Certain times of summer, those greenheads [flies] can get bad. We've done [canoe] trips where people come back and their arms are literally bleeding from bites." My smug assurance that we have high-test bug spray draws a wry smile from Brett. "That's just an appetizer for those guys."

But behind him, beyond a big picture window, the soft green and yellow grasses and blue waters of the Nauset Marsh widen toward the sea. In the distance we see the sun-brightened sands of the barrier islands.

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