I am always looking for destinations for myself and clients that offer a variety activities that will appeal to different types of people. When clients come to me with suggestions, I want to not only be able to give them suggestions, but also to be able to explain why this is a great destination for their family or group. My research of Cape Cod shows that it marks off all the boxes for a group with varying interests…or just a cozy weekend beach retreat with the family.
When people think of Cape Cod, they often think of beach cottages with steep-pitched gabled roofs. Cape Cod is known for its many beaches which offer ample opportunities to relax, sharks (Jaws anyone?), and the Kennedy compound. Those who have spent any amount of time there know it as a place rich in history, enjoys a beautiful marine ecosystem, and offers an endless array of activities…not to mention all the fresh, mouthwatering seafood. All of these ingredients make it the perfect recipe for a family destination.
My first trip to New England happened back in 5th grade. My mom and her sister decided to take some of us kids back east on an historical tour. And while organized tours offer many benefits, I think what I remember the most about this trip was riding the bus and the short stops we made at each destination. It was not nearly enough time to view and experience the sites we were visiting.
Our time near Cape Cod was very limited with a short stop at Plimoth Plantation. I remember loving the hands-on experiences of life for the early settlers…and getting a brief glimpse of Cape Cod Bay after we left. I missed out on so much. Plans are underway to return there in the near future. The more research I do, the more excited I get. I have fallen in love with this place and can’t wait to visit.
Cape Cod: The Basics
Geographically speaking, Cape Cod is known for being a cape that stretches out from the southeast corner of Massachusetts. It is approximately 70 miles in length and is considered part of Barnstable County. The northernmost town is Provincetown, and as the peninsula curves south and west, you can find its most southernmost town point at Wood’s Hole.
The southern half of the Cape Cod peninsula, while close to land, is called the Upper Cape. The more northerly part of Cape Cod (after the land bends) is called the Lower Cape. It seems that sailors came up with the terminology because the coastal area of Massachusetts encounters southwesterly winds which meant that when ships headed north, they were usually sailing “downwind” towards the Lower Cape.
Cape Cod Canal was built between 1909 and 1914 and separates Cape Cod from the mainland of Massachusetts. Myles Standish of the Plymouth Colony was the first we know to suggest such a canal be built to make trade easier along the coast. It is approximately 7 miles long and cuts through the towns of Bourne and Sandwich. There are two vehicle bridges that cross the Cape Cod Canal (the Bourne Bridge and the Sagamore Bridge). Cape Cod has many quaint villages encompassing 15 towns.
Cape Cod was formed as a glacial terminal moraine (or end moraine), which means that it marks the end of the advance of where a glacier once existed. This lends itself to a somewhat unique ecosystem. Other glacial terminal moraines in New England are Long Island, New York and Block Island, Rhode Island.
Cape Cod: History
Early Cape Cod Explorers
Cape Cod was visited by a number of well-known explorers dating back to the 1500s. One of the first explorers to visit was Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. Although he hailed from Italy, he explored the New World for France. He drew near to present-day Cape Cod from the south. He named the area he named the area (now known as Martha’s Vineyard) Claudia after the wife of Francis I of France.
Explorer Estaban Gomez was a Portuguese cartographer (or map maker). In 1525, he was working for the Spanish government. He helped explore the area and create maps of this newly discovered part of the earth. He called the area Cabo de la Arenas, meaning Cape of Sands.
Bartholomew Gosnold, an English explorer, named the tip Cape Cod in 1602. This is one of the earliest English place names still in use today in the United States. He was also a lawyer and privateer. He helped found the Virginia Company of London as well as the settlement of Jamestown in the colony of Virginia.
Samuel de Champlain was a French explorer and map maker. He charted the waters and harbors in 1606. This helped make it safer for boats to land in the area–much needed for successful trading in the New World.
And in 1620, the famous Mayflower arrived close to the area known today as Provincetown. The lore of Plymouth Rock is just that. The earliest reference to this story came approximately 95 years after the landing. The area of present-day Eastham is where pilgrims had their first known encounter with the Native Americans.
How Early Settlement Affected Present-Day Cape Cod
The English chose Cape Cod as one of the first places to settle in the New World. The 15 towns along Cape Cod took over 100 years to settle. Early settlements along the Cape were nothing more than clumps of tiny, roughly built homes and huts.
The early settlers needed a way keep warm during the cold winters. The only source of fuel was the wood gathered was from the nearby trees. Much of Cape Cod was cleared of its forests early on.
The early settlers used poor farming techniques which ended up changing the ecosystem. The English settlers tried to farm crops they were familiar with…like wheat. They used the practice of torching the forests (depleting the number of trees even further) hoping to release important nutrients into the soil for planting. Instead, these methods led to an erosion and destruction of the topsoil.
The grass on the dunes was perfect for cows to munch on. That is, until the farmers realized that the grass on the dunes was preventing the sand on the beaches from invading the area and entombing their crops below. This is why today there are more dunes on the outer part of Cape Cod and the harbors have been saturated with the eroded soil.
The area around Cape Cod was not very good conditions for “modern” industry when the Industrial Revolution happened in the mid-1800s. Instead, Cape Cod became the perfect place for a substantial fishing and whaling. The farmers were happy to leave the Cape Cod area as the American West began to develop around 1860. The mid-1900s found forests starting to re-emerge.
More Modern History
Cape Cod started to become a beach-side sanctuary for those who lived lived in the big cities. The emergence of rail system made the small towns even more accessible. The early 1900s found the elite of the day building large cottages along the area known as Buzzards Bay.
The first transatlantic wireless transmission happened from Cape Cod in the town of Wellfleet. The man who made this first transmission was named Guglielmo Marconi. Below the bluff where his transmitter was stationed is now known as Marconi Beach. A new receiver station was built in the town of Chatham. Its main enterprise was as a maritime radio station allowing ships at sea to communicate with each other.
Many well-known aviators were supported by this station. Some examples are Admiral Byrd, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes…and even the famed Hindenberg. Chatham was the perfect place because it was surrounded on three sides by water.
President Kennedy and Other Famous Residents
The Kennedy Compound, located in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod, was known as the summer White House during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy was so enamored with the beauty of the area that he set aside an area in 1961 to be the Cape Cod National Seashore…thus ensuring over development of the area would not occur.
Through the years, Cape Cod has been the home (or summer residence) of many famous people. Among those individuals are:
- Louis Brandeis: U.S. Supreme Court Justice
- Canary Burton: Composer and radio talent
- President Grover Cleveland: Maintained a summer home in Bourne
- Todd Eldredge: Six-time U.S. national champion figure skater
- Julie Harris: Emmy-winning, Tony-winning, and Grammy-winning actress
- Norman Mailer: Author
- Kurt Vonnegut: Author
Tourism at Cape Cod
The height of tourist season at Cape Cod runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Baby boomers, millennials, and individuals with no school-age children enjoy hanging out all the way through to mid-fall…making the “off season” a little shorter than it used to be.
There are many opportunities to enjoy the water and marine life around Cape Cod. For example, take a whale watching excursion to see the many different species of whales abundant in the waters surrounding the area…including the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Cape Cod is known to attract artists of all mediums…writers, painters, and sculptors, to name a few. Provincetown Art Association and Museum is Cape Cod’s most visited art museum. It’s definitely worth a stop for anyone who has an appreciation for the arts.
Cape Cod has nearly 560 miles of coastline. While some beaches are private, there are over 60 public beaches. If you are looking for walking paths and sandy beaches, the Cape Cod National Seashore offers more than 40 miles of paths to explore.
Cape Cod offers an abundance of outdoor activities with something for every interest. Golfing anyone? There are 27 public courses and 15 private courses scattered throughout Cape Cod…and even miniature golf. In addition, you can comb the beaches for treasures, enjoy a day of biking through the cape, or go fishing on a chartered boat. Quaint little shops offer an abundance of shopping.
Cape Cod for Families
So you may be wondering if Cape Cod is a good destination for families…more specifically, your family. Cape Cod is known to be a fantastic destination for families of all ages and sizes…whether it’s a weekend couples retreat or a week-long reunion. It is one of those destinations that truly offers a little something for every taste. It is easy to do as much or as little as your family wants.
There are a wide array of accommodations available from quaint little inns to house rentals along the beach. But be sure to book early (especially if you’re traveling with a larger group) for the best selection and prices.
The history of Cape Cod is fascinating. Cape Cod history helped to shape the New England of today. Knowing how it all fits together and has affected the ecosystem is a remarkable story. Spend the day reading, visiting lighthouses, enjoying fresh seafood, or just hanging with your family on the beach.
I am already looking forward to our family’s trip to Cape Cod. I am researching the activities that I know my family will enjoy. And because our family enjoys a little good humor thrown in, maybe I’ll even a schedule a stop for some lobster ice cream (yes, that’s a real thing).
Have you ever been to Cape Cod? I’d love to hear what you enjoyed experiencing. I always appreciate tips and insight into our destinations. Leave them in the comments below…and feel free to share this article with your friends or family who might enjoy this article.