Seven Decades In The Dunes
Cape Cod Life / June 2016 / History, Recreation & Activities
Writer: Matthew J. Gill / Photographer: Josh Shortsleeve
Art’s Dune Tours celebrates 70 years in 2016!
Driving slowly through the dunes of Provincetown, Rob Costa serves a variety of roles for Art’s Dune Tours. First, he’s a driver and skilled at easing the large Chevy Suburban loaded with seven passengers along the twisting, turning, and soft-sanded roads running through the dunes. Second, he’s the owner of the company, continuing a legacy his father Art began back in 1946 of introducing visitors from far and wide to this scenic area on the Outer Cape.
Finally, Costa is the guide on this particular excursion, and after leading thousands of tours, he casually rattles off details, anecdotes, and one-liners while passing by different spots on the route. “We have the biggest dunes anywhere on the Cape,” he says while passing a 100-footer. “We were formed by ocean and wind coming up the dune, caused by the glacial sand spirit.” Passing some of the area’s famous dune shacks, he points out that “Annie Dillard wrote her last book there,” and that writers Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, and others had spent time at this shack or at that one. Pointing towards one oddly shaped structure, he asks his passengers what they think it might be. He offers some hints. “We call it the international house . . . When you go in there, you’re Russian. When you’re in there, you’re . . . European, and when you’re done, you’re Finnish.” Any questions?
This year, Art’s Dune Tours celebrates its 70th anniversary of bringing customers well off the beaten path to experience Provincetown’s beautiful dunes and beaches. “It’s truly an amazing area to see,” Costa says. “It can be spiritual, it can be inspiring, it can be historical, cultural, beautiful, so many things to so many people.” From mid-April to mid-November, the company offers several tours per day; some last an hour and include a drive through the dunes and along the Atlantic shore, while others are longer and come with dinner on the beach, a sandy sunset viewing, or a stop at Race Point Light.
Art’s Dune Tours hosted a group of Cape Cod LIFE staff members for a tour last September to experience some of the fun. Many photographs were taken throughout, and dinner consisted of a lobster bake and s’mores on the backshore near Race Point Beach.
Rob’s father, Art Costa, founded Art’s Dune Tours in 1946. Raised in Provincetown, Art served in the army during World War II, and was issued a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster for his efforts while fighting in Italy. After his time in the service, Art returned to the Cape with some shrapnel in his leg, and a desire to see and enjoy the sand, and to bring others along for the ride. “He was a gentle soul,” Costa says of his dad. “Everybody loved him. He was friendly with everyone. He was very soft spoken and just loved doing what he did.”
In 1946, Art purchased a 1936 Ford Woodie and started the company. “I think it took some time to build it up,” Costa says of the business. In the decades that have passed since then, several other dune tour operators have come and gone, Costa says, but at present Art’s is the only one providing the service. “We’re the only ones left,” he says.
One of the highlights of the tour is the chance to view the 19 dune shacks that are located within the Peaked Hill Bars National Historic District. The district is named for the region, which was once home to one of the nine U.S. lifesaving stations overlooking the Cape’s Atlantic coast. Originally, the shacks served as homes for the lifesaving employees in the late 19th century. In the 1920s, Eugene O’Neill and other writers and artists took up residency in the shacks, or built new ones, and the location developed into a creative—though remote—place to be.
With the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, the federal government took over ownership of much of the area along the coast in the Outer Cape, including the Provincetown dunes, yet those living in the shacks at the time were granted squatters’ rights to the properties until they died. Today, eight of the shacks are still owned by individual families, while the 11 others are owned by the government, but local non-profit organizations are granted lengthy artist-in-residency programs so individuals can stay in the shacks for extended periods, just like O’Neill and others did years ago.
Costa says the company’s busiest months are July and August, and in summer he typically has eight trucks running throughout the day. In spring and fall, Costa says the motor coach business, which has been growing in the area since the 1980s, brings a lot of customers, as does the various off-season festivals the town of Provincetown celebrates.
Art Costa, at right, brought many famous folks out to the dunes during his career, including Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, at left, and broadcaster Curt Gowdy.
About how many passengers have toured with Art’s over the years? “I don’t know exactly,” Costa says. “I would say hundreds of thousands.” That amount includes many celebrities and movie stars, such as Farrah Fawcett, Ryan O’Neal, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosie O’Donnell, and Secretary of State John Kerry. Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams also toured the dunes with well-known sports broadcaster Curt Gowdy, and during the early 1960s, Art pitched in with some rides during the filming of a scene for The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen. Costa says he thinks that Dunaway ripped her dress while out in the dunes, and then requested (or demanded) that Art drive back into town to pick up a seamstress, and to bring her back to the dunes to sew up the dress. “My mom made Steve McQueen a coffee cake,” Costa adds. “He loved it so much he asked for another one.”
Rob’s mother, Patricia Costa, was also born in Provincetown. Her maiden name is DeCosta, and she and her future husband were even born on the same street—just 19 years apart. Patricia also spent some time working for the company as a tour guide. Costa recalls one tour he led many years ago when his mother joined him for the outing. They both worked for the same company, but she had never been on one of her son’s tours, and he had never been on hers.
The arrangement made for a humor-filled afternoon. “You put two tour guides from the same family in one truck and they’re always trying to one-up each other,” Costa says, “but I must say she got me good, she actually won the competition.” Driving by the Ray Wells shack—named for the late artist and Mews Restaurant founder who once owned it—Patricia let out the mother of all one-liners. “She told everybody that I was conceived behind the shack,” Rob says. “And it’s a true story. Everybody was cracking up, and I was beat red.”
During the mid-1990s, Art began to develop Alzheimer’s disease, so Rob, who was living in Connecticut at the time and working in sales and part time as a tour guide, moved back to Provincetown to help run the business. Art passed away in 2006, and Priscilla followed in 2012.
“I was very much blessed having great parents,” Costa says. “My dad was a gentle soul, my mom was more like an angel. Together, they were well liked and respected. You can’t get much better than that.”
Today, Art’s is still very much a family business. Rob Costa owns the company and leads tours, while his partner, Rob Papa, manages the office. Rob’s aunt Priscilla Braddock and cousin Lisa Zawaduk are also involved with the company, which numbers about 25 employees.
Costa says he loves his job, and enjoys interacting with the passengers. “You’re meeting different people, you’re in an ever-changing landscape, the lighting is always different,” he says, “but people’s appreciations make it much more interesting than a repeating tour all the time. I absolutely love what I do, and I can’t see me doing anything else.”
For those who have never been on an Art’s dune tour, why should they sign up?
For starters, the drive from the company’s office at the center of Provincetown to the entrance to the dunes is just five minutes. Traveling through the towering dunes can be an inspiring experience, and one may understand why writers and artists, such as O’Neill, Jackson Pollack, e.e. Cummings, and others have been drawn here over the years. The name of one of the dune shacks—“Euphoria”—may offer further inspiration. Also, in summer one can view both the sunrise and the sunset from the beach—on the same day. Anything else? “They should come see what we’ve been enjoying for 70 years,” Costa says.
Art’s Dune Tours offers one-hour tours for $29 for adults, $18 for children; longer and more involved tours, and those featuring meals, are more expensive. Art’s Dune Tours is at 4 Standish Street, Provincetown. For more information, call 508-487-1950, or visit artsdunetours.com.
Matthew Gill is the editor of Cape Cod LIFE magazine.
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