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Harbor LIFE: Provincetown

Expect the unexpected in this historic seaside escape

We’ve all done it. Someone asks where on the Cape we live or visit, or maybe they want to know the location of our favorite not-quite-secret beach. So we teach a geography lesson by raising our left arm, with elbow bent at 90 degrees, wrist flexed and fingers curled into a small cup.

Inside that “cup” is Provincetown Harbor.

“Cape Cod spirals in on itself and that’s what creates this well-protected harbor,” says Provincetown Harbormaster Rex McKinsey. “It’s one of the things that the people on the Mayflower noticed right away—a big, deep, natural harbor.”

Flash forward 398 years later and the harbor is busier than ever. The whale watching boats are thriving, 200,000 people a year visit Provincetown by ferry, and an aquaculture industry is on the rise.

Commercial fishing is making a comeback, too, with a fleet of about 55 boats. “We hit bottom probably 10 years ago, and it has been building up ever since,” says McKinsey. The primary catches are lobster and sea scallop, but boats also bring in groundfish, bluefish, whiting and tuna.

You can take in the action from the 12 benches at the water’s edge at Provincetown Waterfront Memorial Park, but you’re better off strolling around to take in the action.

Provincetown, Wood End, Long Point

Provincetown, Wood End, Long Point. Photo by Paul Rifkin

Start by wandering down MacMillan Pier, which is named for arctic explorer and Provincetown native Donald MacMillan. The pier is home to Boston ferries, artist shacks, a pirate museum and the commercial fishing fleet. It’s also the future site of the Provincetown Fishermen’s Memorial.

The art shack wares include jewelry, paintings and wood carvings. Working with cedar and basswood tupelo, Rob Scott, a Provincetown resident, carves birds, whales and fish—“decoy style with fine art influences is my tag,” he says. On a sunny day, he was working in front of his shack, carving and sanding a new piece between conversations. “Smaller things I might be able to do a few in a day. Bigger things take longer. It’s like growing crops. Every now and then one is ready to put out into the world.”

Tucked among the art shacks is a shack staffed by the Center for Coastal Studies, a Provincetown-based nonprofit that conducts research on marine mammals and coastal and marine habitats.

The pier is home base for several whale watching boats and charter fishing boats. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can book a trip with Provincetown Parasail and ride into the sky on a parachute-like canopy that’s pulled by a boat. At the end of the docks, the Expedition Whydah museum helps visitors learn about piracy, shipwrecks and underwater archaeology with their exhibits gathered from a local shipwreck.

Commercial Street, Provincetown

Commercial Street, Provincetown. Photo by HBarrison

On and away from the water, Provincetown is home to some “eclectic and interesting” people, says McKinsey. Wandering up and down Commercial Street is the best way to see them, as well as an eclectic and interesting mix of businesses.

The Governor Bradford Restaurant at the corner of Commercial and Standish looks like a basic bar. Unlike most basic bars, it features drag karaoke seven nights a week.

Heading east on Commercial Street (turning right from the pier), the Lobster Pot Restaurant spotlights bouillabaisses and stews, including Sopa Do Mar, Shellfish Algarve and P-town Paella (clams, mussels, Italian chicken sausage, chicken and Sardinian cous cous, in a saffron tomato creamy broth).

Interesting shops this side of town include How Bazaar (framed insects), Pürl (yarn and fibers), Mad As A Hatter (hats), Utilities (kitchen and bath items) and Chameleon (women’s vintage clothing).

The eclectic Strangers & Saints has one of the street’s best signs: “Come One, Come All—Loot, Pillage, Plunder, Play—Dine & Drink.” Other restaurants in this neighborhood include Ciro & Sal’s, a much-loved Italian restaurant, and the Wired Puppy, a coffee and tea spot where people hang out for the drinks and the Wi-Fi.

If you head west (left) from MacMillan Pier on Commercial, one of the first places you spot is the Paws & Whiskers Dog Bakery. For humans, one of the highlights at the Provincetown Portuguese Bakery is the Portuguese soup (carrots, cabbage, squash, potatoes, beans, ham and linguica).

Puzzle Me This sells brain teasers, puzzles (nature scenes, New Yorker covers and “The Golden Girls”) and special topic board games (“Harry Potter” Trivial Pursuit, “Game of Thrones” Monopoly and “Star Wars” Risk). Down an alley across from Puzzle Me This is The Donut Experiment with made-to-order donuts.

Commercial Street, Pilgrim Monument

Commercial Street at night, with the Pilgrim Monument in the background. Photo by Josh Shortsleeve

No trip to Provincetown is complete without a visit to Shop Therapy. At street level, you’ll find colorful hippie-style skirts, tie-dye T-shirts and cool postcards (hula-hooping nuns and the Beatles circa 1963). Upstairs—no minors allowed—are cigars, smoking paraphernalia and sex toys.

Other stops on the stretch of road: Cabot’s Candy, where there’s a taffy-pulling machine that produces basic flavors along with amaretto, sour apple and cranberry-walnut; Henry & Company men’s clothing, which sells “handsome provisions for the upwardly casual”; Mystik Moon for psychic readings; and Toys of Eros.

Waydowntown is a bar with live music year-round by local acts, including Randy Frost & The Hurricanes, Steve Morgan & The Kingfish, and Sarah Burrill & Kami Lyle. The 1620 Brewhouse has a large beer selection, a collection of vintage beer cans and a menu of Prohibition-era cocktails, including the Mary Pickford (light rum, maraschino liqueur, pineapple juice and grenadine).

Whaler’s Wharf houses galleries and a movie theater. Go to the end of the first-floor walkway and you’ll find the beach. To the right, you can see the 180-degree curve of the shoreline forming the harbor with the Long Point lighthouse straight in front of you. The soft sounds of the breeze and the waves contrast with the hustle and bustle of Commercial Street. Ross’ Grill on the second floor offers cocktails and a lofty view of the harbor.

Scattered the length of Commercial Street are dozens of galleries—too many to name.

Back at the pier, by the entrance to the marina, a 10-foot-tall blue Adirondack chair towers over the beach. It’s a good place to rest your feet and take in the harbor view one more time. At 9 Ryder Seaside Dining, there’s an impressive selection of pasta dishes, including foriana, caretiera and penne ragu con vitello—saying them is almost as much fun as eating them.

At the far end of Commercial Street is Pilgrim Park, a garden inside a rotary. A marker overlooking the harbor is a reminder that on Nov. 11, 1620, “near this spot the Pilgrims first touched foot on American soil.” A visit to the 252-foot-tall Pilgrim Monument and the adjacent Provincetown Museum will provide the real stories of the time.

On your way out of town, stop at the Province Lands Visitor Center. “Too many people don’t go to the dunes or the National Seashore,” says Herbie Hintze of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce. “That’s the most spectacular thing about Provincetown. It’s a totally different world.”

Hours for many Provincetown businesses change with the seasons, so be sure to check by web or phone before visiting.



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