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On the furthermost tip of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod lies the seaside town of Provincetown, a progressive enclave which for decades has hosted artists, beach bums and pleasure-seekers, arriving en masse when the weather turns and remaining until summer’s end. It gives P-Town – as it is affectionately known to residents and returning visitors alike – a uniquely spirited character. But, away from the bustle of downtown Provincetown there are more sedate pleasures to be found – not least in the long stretch of undulating Atlantic coastline, one of America’s most peaceful.
Provincetown has been such an idyll for over a century: back in 1916, in what was known as ‘The Great Provincetown Summer’, the small historic town played host to, according to the Boston Globe, the “biggest art colony in the world”. Over the next hundred years it would become a rare place of tolerance for those who lived life on the fringes: best epitomised by Provincetown’s halcyon days of the 1970s and 1980s, when you might have ended up partying with Cookie Mueller or John Waters (and maybe never left). Such a spirit remains on the busy Commercial Street, an quaint amalgam of independent galleries, boutique markets and artisanal bakeries (and, come summer, drag shows and bars jostling for trade).
Plan your own arrival from Boston, where Boston Harbour Cruises’ high-speed catamaran leaves the city’s Long Wharf and arrives in Provincetown harbour 90 minutes later. (Avoid travelling by car – not only will you miss dramatic views of Cape Cod’s picturesque Atlantic coastline – but roads into the town, particularly when the city-escaping hordes arrive on summer weekends, can remain blocked for hours.) From the harbour – located right in the centre of town – head towards upscale B&B Salt House Inn, recently named one of the best new hotels in the world, and drop off your bags. Spread over a number of cottages which once housed the area’s salt-mine workers, the quaint 19th-century exterior leads way to simple, white-washed interiors and a wisteria-scented garden – all just a hair’s breadth from P-Town’s central drag (not that you’d know it).
A sister hotel, Eben House, offers a similarly calm haven: just moments away from Salt House Inn, the hotel’s white clapboard exterior is just about as New England as it gets. Expect similarly elegant lodgings, though with the summertime benefit of a small-but-perfectly-formed outdoor saltwater swimming pool. Eben House dates right back to Provincetown’s beginnings – constructed by the hotel’s namesake Captain Eben Snow in 1776, it is one of the many historic buildings in the area (wander down Bradford Street for other houses in the Federal style). By American standards, Provincetown is about as historical as you’ll find in the young country – in 1620, the Mayflower and its pilgrims landed on its shores, and a 252-foot tall Pilgrim Monument, the town’s tallest building, serves as a reminder of their arrival.
Provincetown wharf. Photo courtesy Giorgio Galeotti.
When it comes to travel, do as the locals do and traverse the town by bike: ride out to Herring Cove, a long, sandy beach which has been beloved by locals and holiday-makers for decades, or head inland on the Province Lands Bike Trail, a tranquil loop through rolling dunes and beech forests. Further afield, on the other side of the Cape’s tip, is the vast, miles-long Race Point Beach, where you can bask among the picturesque rolling dunes in relative solitude, even in summer. Further still, hidden in dense pine woodland close to Truro and Wellfleet, are a number of still-secret freshwater ponds, where clear, pristine waters have an elysian calm.
Salt House Inn makes a breakfast worth getting out of bed for: roll downstairs to the communal dining table for lox, yoghurt parfait and granola, all made on the premises. For those not ready to socialise pre-midday, take your coffee onto the sun terrace, or out into the inn’s shaded gardens.
Cycle down Commercial Street and out towards Herring Cove, Provincetown’s best beach, where you can also wallow inland through channels which run through the nearby moors. En route, make a pitstop for beachside supplies: stock up on wine and artisan cheeses at the perfectly placed Perry’s Provincetown, first founded in 1934.
Lunch in Provincetown is best enjoyed at local gathering spot Canteen, where simple, modern New England fare is served on their expansive beachfront terrace, just off the water. Favourites include hand-shucked lobster rolls (warm with butter or cold with salad), Provincetown oysters or their much-recommended side of brussel sprouts, served crispy.
Take one of the many boat trips from Provincetown’s central pier to seek out the Cape’s most prized – and indeed largest – day trippers: from April, humpback, finback and minke whales feed en masse in Massachusetts’ waters. The lucky will spot dozens on a single trip.
Leave the city by car and head towards nearby Truro and Wellfleet, where among dense pine forests you will find a tranquil series of freshwater pools which, while formed over 15,000 years ago, nonetheless remain a secret to most summertime visitors.
Early morning in Provincetown. Photo courtesy Giorgio Galeotti.
If not entirely OD’d on seafood – or, indeed, food in general – The Lobster Pot is a bustling seafood shack where New England specialities are all accounted for (steamed lobster, lobster rolls, fried clams et al), alongside more international dishes (poke, sashimi, mussels marinara), and a sweeping wine list.
Head to Commercial Street and enjoy the town’s famed after-dark activities, where getting punters into the various bars and drag shows is akin to a competitive sport. Our best advice? Simply surrender and follow the crowds.