During a journey through Massachusetts we detoured to visit the historical sites of the early…
Massachusetts: Cape Cod and Southern Massachusetts
It did seem a good idea at the time (we actually had a fantastic experience) to plan a camping trip to South Massachusetts in September. We expected changeable weather and we were not to be disappointed.
Places to visit
We had plenty of exploration time and below are some of the sights and places we recommend checking out. Most of these take only an hour or two to visit so you can get to see multiple sites in a day.
Nauset Light Beach
National Seashore Visitors Centre at Salt Pond
Penniman House in Eastham
Cape Cod Railway Trail
Hyannis and Cape Cod Potato Chips Factory
Aptucxet Trading Post Museum & Cape Cod Canal
Plymouth and Plimouth Plantation
Issac Winslow House, Marshfield
1. NAUSET LIGHT BEACH
One of our first stops in Cape Cod was Nauset Light Beach.
Lighthouses are an integral part of Cape Cod history. The first lighthouse station for Eastham, known as the Nauset Beach Light Station (nicknamed The Three Sisters), was completed in 1838. It consisted of a group of three lights atop 15-foot high brick towers located approximately 500 feet east of where the present light now stands.
Because of the encroaching cliff edge, the brick towers were replaced by three 22-foot high wooden lighthouses in 1892 and located roughly 450 feet east of where the present light now stands.
In 1911, the continuously retreating shoreline made it necessary to move the lights again. Two of the towers were sold at auction. The third tower was moved back, put on a brick foundation, and attached to the keeper’s house. A rotating Fresnel lens flashing three times every ten seconds was installed.
The present Nauset Lighthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is made of cast iron with a brick lining and stands 48 feet high. It was built in 1877, and was located in Chatham as a twin to the one that is there today. In 1923, the smaller wooden lighthouse in Eastham was retired, and the north tower in Chatham was dismantled, moved to Eastham, and reconstructed about 200 feet from the edge of the cliff near the relocated keeper’s house.
When we visit the weather is so grim that the light from the light house was clearly visible and it was only 1 pm (the photograph above was taken on a day when the weather was less inclement!) The light house is open for tours but was closed when we visited. It is worth checking the website of the preservation society.
Being British this is not so unusual a day’s weather – much like a summers day on the East Coast of England. So we do as all good Brits would do we head to the beach for a paddle. Braving the driving rain we head down to the water’s edge to soak our feet in the driving Atlantic breakers. Not surprisingly we did not stay long and beat a retreat back to the van.
2. THE NATIONAL SEASHORE CENTRE AT SALT POND
The Visitor Center at Salt Pond is an excellent visitors centre to visit, particularly when the rain is lashing down outside. We watched three films on Cape Cod, including its formation by glaciers during the ice age and more recent shaping by weather and sea erosion. We also learnt about the treacherous nature of the cape, when during the 19th and early 20th centuries an average of 3 ships a month were wrecked on its coastline.
Beyond the visitors, center are the marshes and salt ponds. There are regular Ranger-led outings to the ponds where you get to wade out with nets to catch and examine some of the pond life that inhabits the water around the Cape Cod National Seashore.
3. THE PENNIMAN HOUSE IN EASTHAM
Close to Nauset is the small town of Eastham and the Penniman House. This is where Captain Edward Penniman resided. Well to say resided is an exaggeration, particularly in the early years. Edward Penniman was a whaler and his trips away on whaling expeditions could last up to 4 years at a time. He ended up being one of the most successful whaler captains operating out of the New England.
The Penniman House today is run by the National Park Service. The house is fairly modest, with only four rooms upstairs and four down, but is well preserved and has some of the original wall coverings.
One of the more memorable parts of the is the two large whale jawbones that form an archway at the entrance to the property.
If you are in the area it is worth spending a short time exploring the Edward Penniman House.
4. CAPE COD RAILWAY TRAIL
The Cape Cod Railway Trail is operated by the State of Massachusetts and follows the path of a disused railway line (the name of the trail gives this away!) – therefore is totally off-road apart from the occasional road crossing. It is also thankfully flat (which is great unless you are a masochist who likes hills).
The trail is completely paved and runs 25 miles from South Dennis to Wellfleet.
During the exertions of walking or riding along the trail, you might need some sustenance. About halfway along the trail, you will come across the Hot Chocolate Sparrow which we highly recommend as they serve very tasty snacks, ice creams and coffee/tea.
5. THE MARCONI SITE
Travelling up the Cape Cod peninsula there is an interesting stop off to visit an important historical site. The Marconi Wireless Station, Wellfleet, is where in the early 20th Century Marconi built a wireless station. In 1903 a 48-word message was transmitted from this site (from Theodore Roosevelt) to England (Podhulu in Cornwall) for the attention of King Edward VII. Unfortunately, due to coastal erosion, the original site was claimed by the sea but there is the memorial plaque.
6. SKAKET BEACH
To end the day we went to Skaket Beach, which is on the Cape Cod Bay side of the Cape. These are very protected waters and the wave action is minimal which makes it safe for bathing. This beach is part sand and part salt marsh which makes it a great place for kids to explore the tide pools. When the tide goes out wonderful tide pools are left behind which are full of hermit crabs and small fish. If visiting with children it is important to be aware of the sand bars. One minute you will be wading waist-deep in water and a little further on the water will only be waist-deep. Beware when the tide starts to come in!
We were woken in the early hours by the pounding of the rain on the tent. It is amazing how much a tent resembles a drum at such times. . We had been planning to go out kayaking with a ranger from the National Seashore Park but the outing was cancelled due to the rain. So instead we decided to take a drive up to the top of the Cape to Provincetown.
En route, we pulled off the highway and went to the National Seashore Park visitor centre at the Province Lands. This centre is smaller than the one at Salt Ponds but has a great lookout point across the dunes. Well worth the stop.
Post the cultural experience of the dunes we went into Provincetown – which was a very different experience indeed. By this time the rain had started to abate. Not exactly the place we expected it to be. The town was extremely touristy, with a lot of eateries and gift shops. The town itself has its quaint aspects and some of the buildings are elegant – at the same time, there are some shops with tacky frontages. There are also plenty of art shops and galleries and by all accounts, there is a residential community of artistic types. We had lunch in a South African oriented restaurant which had a selection of food from around the world – they even had such delicacies as Marmite, Smarties and HP sauce of sale (much of this will not mean much to anyone who has not lived in the UK). For the rest of the afternoon, we strolled around the town and were amazed by the strange collection of people wandering the street – reminded us very much of Brighton (a south coast town in England).
All in all, we would recommend Provincetown as a place to visit for its shopping, eating and it’s community of bon vivants.
8. HYANNIS & CAPE COD POTATO CHIPS
Hyannis is a busy little town and in the summer I would imagine gets very busy as it is the port for the ferries out to the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
One of the activities on our list of things to do was visit the Cape Cod Potato Chip (crisps to those of you in England) factory in Hyannis. It is a short self-guided tour where you can look onto the factory floor to see the potatoes being sorted, cut and fried before passing onto the packaging department. This operation started with a couple of fryers inside a shop producing 200 bags of chips a day and now it is a fully automated operation putting out 350,000 bags each day. The best bit of the tour is the last bit – the factory shop where you can do some tasting from open bags of chips and take away some sample bags.
1. APTUCXET TRADING POST MUSEUM & CAPE COD CANAL
A couple of places to check out on the way from Cape Cod traveling North through Massachusetts are the Aptucxet Trading Post and the Cape Cod Canal.
The Aptucxet Trading Post Museum is a small open-air historical museum in Bourne, Massachusetts. The main attraction is a replica of the 17th-century Aptucxet Trading Post which was built by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in order to trade with the Wampanoag Indians and the Dutch.
The Cape Cod Canal is only about 7 miles long but it is a strategically important waterway that traverses the narrow neck of land joining Cape Cod to the mainland. There are several pull-ins along the road from the Cape to stop and take a look at this man-made waterway.
2. PLYMOUTH AND PLIMOUTH PATUXET MUSEUMS
For those of you (I would guess this is mainly for the benefit of our friends in the UK) who don’t know the significance of Plymouth, it was the landing place of the Pilgrim Fathers in December 1620. Actually, they first landed in what is now Province Town on Cape Cod. These people were farmers and what they found on Cape Cod; sand dunes (not good for crops), flat (not good for defending), unfriendly natives (not good for living long) and no water (not good at all), didn’t suit them. So, after 6 weeks they set off again and landed on the mainland and settled in what they called Plymouth, after the town from which they set out. 102 Pilgrims had set out on the trip onboard the Mayflower and by all accounts, it was a tempestuous 66-day crossing – they had to turn back twice in the English Channel as the second ship due to make the crossing kept taking in water and was deemed not seaworthy (they eventually gave up on this ship and all crowded on to the one vessel). The first year for the Pilgrims was tough and about half of them died, but they were fortunate enough to set up an alliance with the local Native Americans, the Wampanoag.
The Wampanoag Nation extended through what is now Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The leader of the Wampanoag tribes, Massasoit, decided an alliance with the English settlers would strengthen their position with respect to neighbouring Nations. The event of Thanksgiving was born out of one feast that occurred between the settlers and the Wampanoag. If it had not been for this alliance it is likely the Plymouth settlement would have floundered. Plymouth was not the first settlement in the US – this honour goes to Jamestown in Virginia – but at that time the nearest settlement was hundreds of miles south at the mouth of the Hudson River.
At Plymouth, we went down to the waterfront, where there is a State Park. The two main exhibits here are the Mayflower II and Plymouth Rock. Mayflower II was built as a replica of the original Mayflower and made the journey from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, the USA in 1957. This year was the 50th anniversary of the sailing and they were giving free entry to all those who are 50 in this year – unfortunately for Karen, she was born 19 days too late so we had to pay for her entry. Never mind she’ll be getting senior discounts soon enough. The boat is a very impressive recreation and it is hard to believe that 102 passengers and 35 crew fitted into such a small space. Onboard were a number of interpretive staff to answer questions and also a number of people who were in the role – they were dressed and acted as if they were in period and despite the taunts and trickery of the visitors they impressively did not slip from character.
After touring the Mayflower we went across to see the Plymouth Rock. Now, I don’t want to be insulting to my American friends but I was somewhat disappointed by the rock, or as Jack and Emily labelled it – Plymouth Pebble. En route we had to run the gauntlet of a very nice elderly gentleman offering pony and cart rides around Plymouth. I of course tried to avoid eye contact to prevent the embarrassment of not supporting this poor gentleman in his dotage. Of course, such niceties do not extend to the rest of my family who stopped to pat the horse and engage the man in conversation. The man was a real sweetie (obviously trying to break my will of iron). He gave Karen (at no charge) a print of a picture a friend of his had done of Mother Theresa of Calcutta … we will obviously cherish this and mount it on our return to civilisation or if nothing else pass it to some friends as a present. He said he had also given this picture to Prince Andrew and the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie when they took his carriage during a visit to Plymouth. Being polite they sent him a letter of thanks – we so far have slipped from these high standards of etiquette. Dragging ourselves away we went to see the aforementioned Plymouth Rock, around which they have built a large pillared monument (I guess so you can find the rock). It is also in a cage – I guess to stop it from escaping and running off to sea. The only distinguishing feature of the Rock (which is about 6ft x 4ft x 3ft) is that it has 1620 carved into it. Plymouth Rock supposedly (although this is questioned by scholars) marks the landing spot of the Pilgrims.
Our next stop was Plimouth Patuxet Museums (this is how it is spelt). This is a great place to visit – the three main attractions are living museums; a Wompanpoag village, a Colonial village (supposedly Plymouth settlement in 1627) and a craftsman’s workshop.
The Wampanoag village is manned (and womaned) by members of the Wampanoag tribe – they are dressed traditionally but don’t try to play in the character of their 17th-century descendants. They can talk about life as it was then but equally are pleased to discuss how they live today and what is happening within their Wampanoag Nation (there are about 5000 active members). It was very interesting to hear a wide range of views on subjects ranging from politics and the status of establishing a Wampanoag reservation to schooling and the reintroduction of their language. The buildings’ construction was similar to those of the Powhatan we saw in the Jamestown settlement museum in Virginia except they had used the bark for the main material instead of reeds.
I found the Colonial settlement to be excellent – it felt a lot more genuine than the reconstruction in Jamestown. This was also manned but by people who were in character – virtually every house (and there were a dozen or more) had someone in it in character and you could have a great chat with them about the settlement, its people and what was going on in the world (although in 1627 this was largely a myopic perspective). We had a great time, and whilst it took Jack and Emily a little while to get into it (they at first wanted just to chase the chickens around – but some “gentle” persuasion coaxed them out of their pursuit) they really took to talking to the characters.
The final exhibit is the craft centre where they have craftsmen working on materials for the other exhibits; such as furniture, textiles and pottery. You can watch them and quiz them on what they are working on. Emily was taken by someone fletching (making arrows) who appeared to be of Native American descent. He taught Emily some moose calls – and for those who don’t know she loves moose. This relationship went well until he told her he hunted them.
3. THE ISAAC WINSLOW HOUSE
The Issac Winslow house, which is maintained by a local historical society, provides a journey back into the time of the Pilgrim Fathers and the foundation of the early settlements in New England. Edward Winslow was one of the Pilgrims who traveled across on the Mayflower in 1620. Edward was not the one to build the house it was actually his grandson, Issac, who did the deed in 1699. Jack and Emily were fascinated by the tour, which covered the kitchens, great rooms, parlour and bedrooms. They were particularly captured by the story of lady Penelope’s ghost who apparently haunts one of the bedrooms.
Planning your trip to Cape Cod & Southern Massachusetts
Best time to visit Cape Cod
The best time to visit Cape Cod is May, June, September or October. These shoulder months usher in pleasant temperatures for outdoor pursuits, fewer crowds than the busy summer season and reasonable room rates. Visiting between July and August is best if hitting the beach is a top priority for you, but you’ll shell out a pretty penny for a seaside cottage during the peak tourist season. In contrast, the Cape is near abandoned from December through March and hotel prices are much less expensive than the warmer months, though many shops and restaurants close in the offseason.
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