Falling for Cape Cod’s off-season charms

October, 2021
sesuit harbor cape cod

Boats line up at the marina in Sesuit Harbor. Pam LeBlanc photo

Cape Cod means lobster rolls, bike paths, cranberry bogs and beaches –– and if you time a trip for fall, it can also coincide with a showy display of foliage. 

I recently spent five days on the Cape, which curves like a strong man’s flexed arm for 60 miles into the Atlantic. My friends have a family home in Dennis, about midway up, and we whiled away the time pedaling bikes, swimming, watching seals and exploring charming towns. 

The only way to top that visit? Visit the Cape after the summer crowds have dispersed and the leaves are turning color. The show typically peaks in mid-October but lasts through the end of the month. (It’s a little later than on the mainland due to weather patterns.) 

And even if you miss the color show, consider an off-season visit. Cape Cod is a cozy place to hunker down when temperatures cool. 

Ride the Cape Cod bikeway 

Cape Cod rail trail

Chris LeBlanc pedals through a tunnel on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Pam LeBlanc photo

The best way to explore Cape Cod? By bike, of course. The 25.5-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail follows the route of an old railroad line that went bankrupt in the 1970s. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts bought the land in 1976 and the first 19 miles of the trail opened in 1981. Plans call for ultimately extending the path all the way from Barnstable to the west to Provincetown at the tip of the Cape.  

My husband and I zipped along the smooth, flat ribbon of asphalt, hollering as we went through tunnels, pausing to take a dip in a pond, and stopping for ice cream in Orleans. The path provides easy access to Nickerson State Park, too.  

RELATED: Paddling, Hiking and Biking in Fort Collins  

Trail users can park for free at 13 points along the route, which currently links Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, Chatham, Brewster, Orleans, Wellfleet, and the Cape Cod National Seashore.  

If you don’t have a bike, you can rent one from one of more than a dozen bike shops along the way. (Check out the list at Cape Cod Visitors Directory.) 

Whale Watching on Cape Cod 

Cape Cod is a whale watching hotspot, and several companies offer tours to Stellwagen Bank, where an upwelling current pushes up detritus that fish feed on. That draws in whales, which in turn lure in the tourists. I’ve taken a trip with Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises, which offers tours through mid-November. We spotted a humpback as big as a bus, plus smaller minke whales and an otter. Finback whales, which grow up to 72 feet, and North Atlantic Right Whales, are also spotted in the area. 

Cape Cod Beaches 

LeCount Hollow Cape Cod

LeCount Hollow Beach is known for seal activity. Pam LeBlanc photo

After Labor Day, parking is free at public beaches on Cape Cod. That’s a big deal, because during the summer, visitors must pay $20 to $30 to park a vehicle at the same spots. For something different, try strolling a beach at low tide, when you’ll find a wide expanse of wet sand that feels delicious between the toes. Chapin Beach in Dennis is a good choice. If you want to spot seals, head to Lecount Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, where you’ll walk down a sandy slope to reach the water. (If you do decide to swim here, be aware that great white sharks frequent the area. Seals are on the menu.)  

Cranberries 

Thanksgiving is approaching, and that makes me think of cranberries. Several Cape Cod companies offer tours of their growing grounds each spring, summer and fall. Don’t expect to see the marble-sized maroon orbs floating on the bog, because that happens only during harvest and lasts for about 24 hours. But you can drop by the farm stand.  

Try a lobster roll 

You can’t go to Cape Cod without trying at least one lobster roll, and we found the best at Sesuit Café in Dennis. After you order, settle into a picnic table overlooking the marina and watch the sun set. You’ll pay more than $30 for a single roll, but it’s filled with tons of fresh lobster chunks. (Bring your own bottle of wine; the café doesn’t sell alcohol.)  

Get some ice cream 

For the best scoop on Cape Cod (in my three visits, anyway), make the trip to Ice Cream Smuggler in Dennis, which has served up an array of home-churned flavors since 1979. My favorite? It’s a close contest between pistachio with cardamom or ginger. Or try the local’s favorite: frozen pudding. 

Swim in a Cape Cod kettle pond (or 200) 

kettle pond cape cod

Pam LeBlanc wades into Sheep Pond on Cape Cod. Chris LeBlanc photo

Perhaps my favorite thing about Cape Cod is its kettle ponds. Hundreds of the glacially formed pools pockmark the peninsula, and many are open to the public. I can’t resist swimming out into the tea-colored water, spinning around to take in the view of the encompassing trees, then diving down like an otter. Among my favorites are Sheep Pond, Flax Pond in Dennis and Great Pond in Wellfleet. (Check our kettle pond guide for more details.) 

RELATED: Dip a toe in the Kettle Ponds of Cape Cod 

Visit an old-fashioned general store 

Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned general store? In Brewster you’ll find a good one housed in what was built as a church in 1852, then converted to a general store in 1866. Peruse aisles at The Brewster Store filled with penny candy, toys, soap, t-shirts, greeting cards, books, linens, jams and jellies, saltwater taffy, books, and, weirdly, a broad array of lamp parts. Bring some change, too, so you can fire up the coin-operated miniature carousel on the second floor. 

Go shopping or bar hopping in Provincetown 

Chris and Pam LeBlanc sit on a giant Adirondack chair in Provincetown, Cape Cod. Photo by Sara McCabe

Spend a day in P-town, as the locals call it, and browse streets lined with art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and bars –– and a few bawdy theaters. The town is known as a favorite LGBTQ destination. Enjoy a cocktail on an outdoor patio, snap a selfie in the oversized Adirondack chair, or climb the 116 steps and 60 ramps to the top of the Pilgrim Monument, where you can take in the view of the surrounding ocean. The 252-foot granite tower commemorates the first landing of the pilgrims on Nov. 2, 1620. 

Take a ferry to Nantucket 

nantucket cape cod

A boat glides past the lighthouse in Nantucket, off of Cape Cod. Pam LeBlanc photo

Book a seat on a high-speed ferry to Nantucket. You’ll know you’ve arrived when Brant Point Lighthouse comes into view. Once there, make a beeline for Something Natural, which serves an array of gigantic sandwiches, including a turkey one that’s filled with stuffing and cranberry sauce. Eat at a picnic table on the surrounding grounds, or pack it to take to Siasconset Beach, which offers good swimming or strolling. Back in town, walk up the cobblestone streets, admiring homes once occupied by ship captains. Nearly every one of them is gray and white, with beautifully weathered shingles. Or learn about the island’s whaling history at the Whaling Museum, run by the Nantucket Historical Association 

hydrangea cape cod

Hydrangea bloom on Nantucket in Cape Cod. Pam LeBlanc photo

Before you catch the ferry back to the mainland, don’t forget to make up a limerick. My masterpiece? “There once was a girl from Nantucket, who gathered seaweed in a bucket. She used the green sprigs, to fashion two wigs, then waved at her friends and said  … ” oh, never mind. 

If You Go

Getting there:

Delta, American and Jet Blue offer direct flights from Austin to Boston. From there, rent a car or book a seat on Peter Pan Bus Lines, which operates service from Logan Airport to multiple destinations on Cape Cod. For more information go here.

Stay:

A variety of hotels, resorts and rental homes are available on Cape Cod. To get started, check with the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. 

Do:

Ride a bike, take the ferry to Nantucket, shop in Provincetown, swim in the kettle ponds, go whale watching, stroll the beaches –everything we mentioned in the article above. 

Eat & Drink:

Don’t miss the lobster rolls at Sesuit Harbor Café in Dennis. For ice cream, go to Ice Cream Smuggler 

Pro tip:

Don’t try to do too much. We’ve made a lot of suggestions above, but Cape Cod is about relaxing. Bring a book, take a nap and while away some time. 

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