Recession Travel: A Family of Four Visits Cape Cod on a Budget

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

Summer was near, and we needed a break from the hectic pace of work and school and violin lessons and errands and to-do lists, but like just about everyone else on the globe, we were feeling the recession's bite. When the plummeting 401(k) and 529 statements came in the mail every month, my husband, Tom, was tempted to take them outside and ceremonially burn them. Without looking at them.

Then the AC went out on Tom's 2001 Jeep, and the power steering conked out in my 1995 Volvo wagon. More than $4,000 later, what was to have been our vacation budget was close to tapped out.

What to do?

My husband, our two children and I staycationed for two weeks, taking trips to the pool and visiting friends. But for that one-week getaway we really needed, we knew exactly where to go: Collins Cove on Cape Cod, Mass.

Two summers ago, in similarly stressful financial times (a house addition -- remember those? -- gone way over budget), I had spent days searching the Internet for a cheap but charming place to stay on the Cape, where Tom had spent summers as a child. We knew from experience that too cheap and ratty can ruin a trip. And getting a motel may seem like a good way to save, but you invariably bust your budget by having to eat out all the time. Camping would be cheap, but we don't have the gear or the know-how.

Then I found the Web site At the Cape Properties. There, for less than $900 a week even in high season (about $32 each per night for the four of us), we found the Port Hole on Town Cove in Eastham and fell in love with the place. It's a small but cozy cedar-shingled, two-bedroom cottage built in the 1920s with a rustic outdoor shower, a screened-in porch and forest green Adirondack chairs set on a wide, grassy lawn that slopes down to a private beach.

The Port Hole, still under $900, was again available.

And so we found ourselves heading north, loaded down with the canoe we'd bought used for $400 and the $5 paddles I'd picked up at a flea market. We borrowed a friend's bike carrier and hitched up our 12-year-old bikes, our son's Wal-Mart sale special and the hand-me-down Wildcat bike attachment for our 8-year-old daughter, who hadn't yet mastered a two-wheeler for long distances. We'd gone to the grocery store the day before for sandwich meat, fruit and snacks so we could avoid the greasy and often expensive roadside food.

Unlike two years ago, when we threw the kids in the car at 4 a.m. and arrived just after noon on the Cape, this time we got a late start and made an emergency decision to stop in mansion-strewn Newport, R.I., for the night. Thank you, Comfort Inn. Thank you, AAA and late-arriving-guest discount. We got one of the last rooms overlooking the ocean for a little over $200, with breakfast.

In the morning, we wandered along the famous Cliff Walk (free!) and then bought the mansion tour ticket that got us into only Cornelius Vanderbilt II's palatial "cottage," the Breakers -- which was about as much gilt, crystal chandelier and marble-tiled finery as any 8- or 10-year old can take in a day. (Touring one estate is far cheaper than a package allowing visitors to see inside multiple homes.)

It was midafternoon when we arrived at the Cape. We stopped in the town of Barnstable, where Tom's grandfather had run the local grocery store, and showed the kids the sprawling house where Tom's father had grown up. As we drove north to the Outer Cape, the effects of the Great Recession became apparent. Two years ago, the Cape had been packed in July, but now we noticed vacancy signs all over the place. We drove through Orleans to Eastham, made a tight right turn on a dirt road and hit our destination.

The Port Hole is part of Collins Landing, a group of seven cottages that line the bayside beach of Town Cove and are preserved as part of a family trust. The cottages themselves are on the National Register of Historic Places. The kids immediately scampered down to the dock near an old fieldstone seawall and began searching for hermit crabs while Tom and I unpacked.


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