Commentary: Cape Cod—from a Brit’s perspective
“If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air,” goes the old song, “you’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod.” Well, dear reader, this Brit did exactly that about 15 years ago. Ever since the turn of the millennium, my family has been visiting New England, mostly during the summer. More often than not, an essential part of the itinerary has been a trip down Route 3 and across the Sagamore Bridge onto the Cape.
I have seen the Cape in blazing sunshine and in pouring rain; I have wilted in the heat and I have sheltered from the winds. And I remain as happy as can be. What is it about this outpost of Eastern Massachusetts that draws a Briton back so frequently? Partly it is the attraction of the familiar; I know my way around by now, and I am, I confess, something of a creature of habit. Some people go on holiday to experience new thrills and excitement, to expand their horizons. I am not one of them. I go on holiday to relax, and, 15 years on, the Cape fits like a comfortable pair of shoes. The tension lifts from my shoulders as soon as the wheels retract on the plane from Heathrow, and my mood improves further when we touch down at Logan (helped, it must be said, by a few glasses of wine on the flight).
There is also something unthreatening about Massachusetts in general and the Cape in particular for those from this side of the Pond. The first European settlers in that part of the world were, of course, from England, and several times I have stopped at Plymouth on the way to see the famous Rock. (I find it hilarious that this hallowed piece of real estate was trimmed to fit the pavilion erected around it.) An Englishman will find names that resonate—Barnstable, Yarmouth, Harwich, Truro—as well as those that recall rather earlier habitation, like Mashpee and Hyannis. Moreover, New England is the most comfortably European part of the United States that I have found.
Cape Cod, though, has a character all of its own. It manages, somehow, to feel relaxed and laid-back no matter how many visitors the holiday season throws at it. God knows, I have sat in the traffic waiting to cross onto the Cape for hours, and I’ve seen queues snaking out of cafés and restaurants. It doesn’t seem to matter. Walk down to the harbour in Hyannis, watch the ferries, laden as they are, come and go, and perhaps stop for a cocktail and a few oysters (though actually littleneck clams are my particular favourite). There is an inexplicable air of serenity. Don’t worry, life seems to whisper in your ear, everything will be fine. The world is a benign place.
Of course, the Cape also happens to be stunningly beautiful. The beaches and dunes seem to go on forever, and are sometimes surprisingly quiet. The waves break gently on the shore with a murmur. One year, we took a sunset wine-tasting cruise out into Nantucket Sound, and it really was the definition of idyllic. The wine was good, the crew was friendly, and the grand houses of Hyannis Port looked magnificent in the evening sunlight. The sea was as smooth as could be—not a drop of zinfandel or chardonnay was spilled. If you ever have the chance to spend a summer’s evening in Hyannis, I thoroughly recommend it.
Friends often ask what it is I do on holiday. ‘Do’ is rather missing the point. The family usually rents a house in Hyannis, close to the sea, and we stock up on food and liquor. Once the provisions are in, it’s a matter of being, not doing. I always take a stock of good books, or else buy some on the inevitable trip to the Cape Cod Mall. My stepmother, who is a ferry enthusiast, likes to watch the ships come in and out of the harbour (each to their own). I like to stroll up the JFK Memorial on Ocean Street, partly as a sop (or small concession) to demands that I take some exercise, partly to blow away any cobwebs, but mainly for the view over Lewis Bay it affords. A brief moment of contemplation—it’s very good for that—then back to the house in time for a martini before dinner, ideally on the terrace on a warm evening, listening to the hum of cicadas.
I am also very fond of Nantucket. Recently, our visits have been restricted to day trips on the fast ferry, but we spent a delightful Easter on the island in the early 2000s. I like the scale of Nantucket, the quaintness of Main Street with its uneven cobbles dredged from the ballast of sailing ships, the Greek Revival houses and the small, friendly shops. I happen to be interested in the history of whaling, so the museum is a must, and the views from the roof across the town are beautiful. One of my dreamier dilemmas is whether, in the event of a Lottery win, I would have a summer house on the Cape or on Nantucket. I still haven’t resolved it. Sadly, it has yet to be put to the test in real life.
I’m not one of nature’s sailors. I don’t get particularly seasick, but I don’t worship at the altar of cleats and reef knots in the way that some do. Nevertheless, the journey to and from Nantucket is thrilling. The gentle cruise out into the Sound past habitation, then the furious churn as the ferry stretches its legs and the spray begins to fly. I like the wind in my hair, the clear blue sky and sea, watching the Cape slip into the distance and then, not too long after, the Grey Lady herself begin to emerge from the mist. She is well named.
If this account doesn’t sound very high-octane, then you’re right on the money. Life in Hyannis is about shrugging off the cares of life, forgetting home for a while, indeed, making the Cape your home for those precious few days. Good food, good drink, sea air. Patti Page had it right.
All of this is a complicated way of saying it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why I cherish my time on Cape Cod and why I’ve been back so often. It just seems to fit. Everyone should go at least once (and, indeed, there are times when it feels as if everyone is doing just that, all at the same time). Not everyone will like it, certainly not the way I do. That’s fine. Just means shorter queues for a lobster roll for me.
Readers may or may not be familiar with some of the British English terms referenced in this article. Here are some helpful (wink) definitions.
Harbour—a watery place where fishermen, seagulls, and boats like the Mayflower or the U.S.S. Constitution might be found.
Queue—a stringy collection of people, lined up front to back, with the intention of taking in a film, entering a pub, or ordering fish and chips.
Favourite—one’s top choice within a certain category. One might say “my favourite British actor is Colin Firth,” or “my favourite English communities are Sandwich, Falmouth, and Harwich.
Sop—no translation in English
Grey Lady—a colorful moniker commonly used to describe an affluent island off the south coast of Cape Cod. The island is also called “The Gray Lady,” “ACK,” “Paradise,” “Heaven on Earth,” or simply, Nantucket. – Matthew J. Gill