I’ve always wanted to visit Cape Cod, but the Polo Ralph Lauren-ad vibe is not my thing. Any suggestions?
Provincetown, Mass., at the very tip of the Cape – but just a two-and-a-half-hour drive or 25-minute flight from Boston’s Logan Airport – offers spectacular natural beauty and is a key location in American history. Provincetown (or Ptown, for those in the know) is considered to be the oldest continuous art colony in the United States and the birthplace of modern American theatre. And for years, it has been a haven for LGBTQ travellers and residents. On a recent trip, I did not spot a single person wearing a sweater with its sleeves tied around their shoulders.
Okay, but I’m straight. Will I fit in?
Yassss, queen! I, too, fall into that category and I had the time of my life there. Being the gayest city in America (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) comes with its perks – the absolute pleasure of being in a warm, welcoming, non-judgmental and completely inclusive environment tops the list. But also: fabulous home décor shopping (bric-a-brac, P-Town is thy name); fantastic restaurants and nightlife; a renowned drag scene; and absolutely not to be missed: the Tea Dance, which, over the summer season, happens daily from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Boatslip Beach Club. I’m not sure I have ever witnessed or experienced such uninhibited joy as I did during the Solid Gold Tea, shaking my booty to the likes of Donna Summer and the Village People (yes, everybody did the YMCA hand motions). “No Madonna?” I inquired, surprised, as the session wound down. “Girl gets her own tea dance,” one of my companions replied. (The Madonna Tea is scheduled for Aug. 7 if you want to plan your trip around that.)
Madonna aside, when should I go?
P-Town gets very, very busy in the summer – a plus or a negative depending on your outlook – and it is very quiet in the winter. There are themed weeks and weekends that you might want to keep in mind as you make your plans, including Family Week, Women’s Week, Bear Week and Mates Leather Weekend.
What about that spectacular nature you were promising?
Provincetown is surrounded by Cape Cod Bay on one side and the Cape Cod National Seashore Park most of the way around (the Atlantic Ocean coastline of Cape Cod was preserved as a National Park by U.S. president John F. Kennedy in 1961). There are beaches, ever-transforming dunes (and a few scattered dune shacks), a salt marsh and wildlife (it’s a birder’s paradise). On foot, take the long walk out on the breakwater along giant rocks at P-Town’s west end. Or, rent a bicycle and hit the Province Lands Trail which winds through the natural area. You can also opt for the more protected (and less strenuous) option of Art’s Dune Tours, where you ride through the dunes and take in the landscape from the comfort of a vehicle (which I was particularly grateful for when our tour guide pointed out certain marks in the sand – snake tracks). We also saw some wild turkeys and natural cranberry bogs, which seemed on point with the area’s pilgrim history.
Can you tell me more about P-Town’s history?
Thanks to the American-dominated media of my childhood, I was raised on images of pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and years ago took a long drive outside Boston to get a glimpse of it. (Conclusion: unimpressive.) But the Mayflower pilgrims actually first landed in Provincetown in 1620. They spent a few weeks on the Cape and signed the document known as the Mayflower Compact. P-Town’s Pilgrim Monument pays tribute to this group – and is the tallest all-granite structure in the United States at 252 feet (climb it for spectacular views). Provincetown will mark the 400th anniversary next year with a slate of events (as is Plymouth). European settlement is a complex and sensitive issue and tourism officials are consulting on this with the local First Nation, which has representatives on the Provincetown 400 board and task force. The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum is making significant changes to its treatment of this history between the pilgrims and the Wampanoags with a new exhibition that creates a more realistic portrayal of their interactions. A Wampanoag memorial is being erected at the park at the foot of the monument.
Thanks for the history lesson. What about the art colony?
Charles Hawthorne founded the Provincetown Art Colony when he opened a summer art school there in 1899. Artists continue to be drawn to the area in part because of the magnificent light. The Provincetown Art Association and Museum mounts about 25 shows each year, including shows of work by legendary U.S. artists with Provincetown connections such as Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell and Edward Hopper (PAAM holds the second-largest Hopper collection after the Whitney Museum of American Art). Another spot to visit is the Fine Arts Work Center, which is celebrating 50 years of supporting emerging artists with a year of exhibitions and other events. Want to take some art home with you? Tiny P-Town has far too many commercial galleries to list here, but one must-see is Bakker Gallery, which focuses on artists associated with the Provincetown Art Colony.
Okay, enough with the culture. Where do I eat?
Tourists flock to The Lobster Pot with its famous neon sign and ocean views. Sure, snap a photo and munch on some seafood. But there are also many excellent dining options a tiny bit further afield. I had fantastic meals at Strangers & Saints (their cocktails are divine) and Patio American Grill & Cocktail Bar where the people-watching is as good as the food. If you want to combine your love of food and art, check out Napi’s Restaurant and its fine-art collection.
All right, I’m in. Where do I stay?
I chose a spot off the beaten track. AWOL is P-Town’s newest hotel – a former roadside motel turned posh inn out in the west end. It’s removed from P-Town’s hustle and bustle and, for me, that was a bonus. Each room (starting at US$359 this summer) has a view overlooking the salt marsh with either a patio or balcony. If you can drag yourself away from that there’s a heated pool, fire pits, complimentary non-alcoholic beverages around the clock and breakfast. Bikes are available for guests; I used mine to get everywhere. It’s a pleasant, 10-minute ride to the centre of town (faster if you’re in better shape than I am).
Biking around town sounds fun. But how do I get to P-Town to begin with?
From Boston, I took a fast ferry from Bay State Ferries, which got me there in one-and-a-half hours. You can also fly Cape Air. Or drive the length of the Cape, heading south from Boston. If you take the scenic route you can drive through Plymouth. There’s a rock there. But if, in addition to a U.S. history pilgrimage, you’re looking for great American art, unparalleled people-watching and joyful dancing in the afternoon, keep going.
The writer travelled as a guest of Provincetown Tourism. It did not review or approve this article.
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