A Cozy Cottage on the Cape At Recession-Proof Prices

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.

On our first visit, our son, Liam, had made a point of wandering down to an old oyster-shucking shack every morning to listen to the stories of the Collins family patriarch, Ken. He told us the cottages had been built between 1928 and 1929 out of material from old chicken coops that had stood on the grounds of the former Chatham Naval Air Station. This community, he said, was one of the last small-scale cottage colonies that had once dotted the Cape.

And he regaled us with tales of the sea. We were still talking about the time his grandfather, who was in the Coast Guard, had sent Ken's father out as a boy in 1914 to help save the men on an Italian brigantine that had run aground in a wicked winter storm. It was so cold that one man's hand had frozen to the wheel and Ken's father had to cut a peg off the wheel before he could get the man off the ship.

The wheel, Ken said, was still on display at the Eastham museum, in an old schoolhouse just up the road. Our daughter, Tessa, who was 6 at the time, asked every day to visit the museum to see "the skeleton hand," thinking that Ken's father had cut the man's hand off to save him. But the museum was closed for renovations on that trip.

This summer, sadly, we learned from Ken's son, who manages the property, that his father had died last year. In Ken's honor, we made a trip to the museum, the old schoolhouse built in 1869. There, big as life, was the wheel of the Castagna, with only nine of its 10 pegs.

* * *

We spent the week rediscovering the simple -- and cheap -- pleasures of doing nothing. Mornings we'd paddle our canoe around Town Cove. One day we made it all the way up to where the cove empties into the Atlantic Ocean just off Coast Guard Beach. Two seals bobbed and dove around our boat most of the way. We stopped on a sandbar, watching others dig up mussels and clams and check their lobster traps.

Afternoons, we ate lunch at our cottage or packed the cooler to take with us. We lazed the hours away swimming, reading, searching for shells and building sand castles at First Encounter Beach, where a shore party of Pilgrims first came upon Native Americans in 1620 before sailing on to Plymouth, and for $55 bought a parking permit for the week. It's a calm, relatively warm-water bayside beach, perfect for kids. We biked the flat grade of the Cape Cod Rail Trail, an old railroad right-of-way that runs 22 miles from Dennis up to Wellfleet. Once, we biked up to Arnold's Lobster and Clam Bar in Eastham for a cup of the famous clam chowder ($3.99 a cup, $4.99 for a bowl) and a game of miniature golf.

Liam and I hiked around Salt Pond and explored the sea marshes while Tessa and Tom drew and painted pictures of the boats moored out in the cove. One windy day, we walked along Nauset Beach, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. On others, we explored Fort Hill, wandered through Old Cove Cemetery, where some of the original passengers of the Mayflower are buried, and went to a free evening concert at the windmill museum in the center of Eastham, one of the oldest villages in America, first settled in 1644.

We bought fresh corn and other produce at a roadside farm stand on Route 6, not far from our cottage, stocked up on groceries at the Stop & Shop, and grilled out and ate on our screened-in back porch almost every night. And we spent our evenings reading or playing cards. The first time, there'd been no TV in the cottage, and we'd loved it. This time, a hulking set was perched on a table in the living room. We unplugged it the minute we arrived.

We did have our occasional little splurges. One day, after a run, I discovered the Cottage Street Bakery in nearby Orleans. There, we found the delectable, cinnamon-sugar-covered Dirt Bomb, a French doughnut. And on a trip to Provincetown, we couldn't resist a stop at the Purple Feather for gelato.

Our big spending day came in Provincetown, where we took the kids to the Whydah Museum ($10 admission for adults, $8 for kids, less with a coupon), with what it bills as the world's only exhibit of pirate shipwreck treasure, including gold pieces of eight, unearthed from pirate "Black Sam" Bellamy's ship, the Whydah, which sank off Wellfleet in 1717. And we booked a whale watch with the Dolphin Fleet. It was pricey -- about $140 for the four of us -- but AAA discounts are available, and coupons can be found online and in many of the free guidebooks at visitor information centers and local businesses. It was worth it. We saw seven humpback whales breach the water, flap, flop, blow bubbles and spray from their blowholes. We were mesmerized.

After the trip, we went out to dinner -- our only major dining-out experience of the week -- to funky and eclectic Napi's in the heart of lighthearted Provincetown. The kids had burgers and pasta, Tom had chicken, and because it was the Cape, I had the clam chowder and the sauteed cod. The bill for the four of us, with cocktails, appetizers, Shirley Temples and wine, came to $137.56.

In the end, with the odd trip to the Eastham Superette here, the Provincetown general store for art supplies there and a trip to the go-kart track outside Dennis, the whole affair cost us just shy of $2,000. Again.

It wasn't as cheap as a camping trip or staying at home, but not bad for a long-distance haul to a generally high-priced destination when gas prices are still fairly steep. For such a special place and time, not bad at all.

At the Cape Properties

508-255-0136, http://www.atthecapeproperties.com/rentals

For more information about Eastham, check out the Chamber of Commerce site, http://www.easthamchamber.com, or the Eastham Historical Society, http://www.easthamhistorical.org.

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