By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 30, 2006; P01
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.
It's an irresistible scene, so we wait for an incoming tide, rent a kayak from a roadside shack and follow a road until it ends at a marsh shoreline of crushed shells and pebbles next to the Eastham Aquaculture Technology & Training Center. There we find Henry Lind, the town's natural resources director and shellfish constable, unloading supplies from a Toyota Prius. He answers my questions about the state of the local shellfishery (poor, due chiefly to pollution and overfishing), then glances at the boat.
"Stay away from that inlet," he nods seaward. "On a changing tide, the outbound rips at six knots. Your next stop is Portugal."
Mercifully, the greenheads are still dormant, and we ride the incoming tide into the marsh, through wind- and salt-swept grasses, and out toward the sandy humps of the barrier islands. Suddenly facing a strong onshore breeze, we have to paddle twice as hard to go half as far; we run aground -- twice -- and disembark to pull the kayak through shin-deep mud. But it's happy work, in the middle of a protected marsh, with salubrious ocean air and water streaming in.
Finally reaching the island, we walk over to the ocean. The beach is absent of vegetation and only lightly strewn with driftwood and dried sea grass. A lone fisherman casts into the anarchic currents of the inlet, his reverie and focus unbroken until . . . his cellphone rings. "Ah, man, you gotta get out here," he yells over the wind. "They're hittin' like crazy!"
* * *
One night after a dinner of locally caught tuna at Joe's Beach Road Bar and Grille in Orleans, we drop in on a baseball game between the Orleans Cardinals and Chatham Athletics. The teams are among 10 that play in the Cape Cod Baseball League, billed as the country's best amateur league. College players from around the United States -- drafted for the summer by invitation only -- spend the season bunking with local families and playing for big-league scouts and local fans alike.
With the teams locked in a 1-1 tie in the eighth inning, we settle in on the grass a few feet outside the right field foul pole. Families with their picnic baskets sit on blankets on the hillside, teenagers flirt in the cool night, and a guy who had interrupted a shopping errand to catch a few innings stands nearby, rocking his 5-year-old son in his arms.
The day after the wedding (and to protect the innocent, that is my final mention of that party) we drive about 30 miles from Orleans to the Cape's northern outpost, Provincetown, a former rough-edged fishing village turned tourist haven.
We had hoped to rent bikes here but learn that major portions of the Province Lands trail system, renowned for its sinuous course through protected dunes, were underwater due to an unusually rainy June. So, like any respectable American tourists, we got back in our car and drove through Province Lands (which is part of the national seashore), disembarking twice to take in views and feed the mosquitoes. The Province Lands are part lunar sandscape, part stunted pine forest and reveal yet one more face of this varied landscape.
Pullling into P-town proper, I now see where all the tourists have been this weekend. Kitsch clutters the main streets, and a Portuguese festival is in full swing, an annual celebration of the town's early settlers. Feeling stifled by crowds and commercialism, we walk out to two massive docks, where the whale-watching boats and Boston ferries come and go.
The detour proves to be among our better moves. Fronting one dock is the Townsend Lobster & Seafood Market, and behind its unassuming screen door are the best lobster roll and New England clam chowder I've ever tasted, all delivered with delightful cheeriness by a Bulgarian waitress.
Her conviviality is typical of so many people we meet, from the World Cup-tolerant staff at the Land Ho! in Orleans, who indulged my friend Francis as he shouted in French at the television, to the woman at Race Point Beach who waived our entrance fee when we said we'd stay only a few minutes, to bartender Drew Downing at the Chatham Squire in Chatham.
"I love this lifestyle," Downing tells me as I lean into a bowl of seafood gumbo. Around the rectangular bar, commercial fishermen are downing Jack-and-cokes, and the waitstaff is recounting exploits from the prior night. "I hit the beach in the morning with my fishing gear and my surfboard," Downing continues. "If nothing's happening, I turn around and get my mountain bike. We've got some legit trails up here. You gotta come back up."
He refills my iced tea and looks around to see who is listening before adding, "After high season, man. This place is awesome in September."
I wouldn't doubt that for a second. Hatteras will always have my heart. Cape Cod, at last, has my attention.
John Briley last wrote for Travel on kayaking in Chicago.