Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are often talked about collectively as one destination, but in truth, these three distinct Massachusetts areas offer quite different charms and different vacations. Inevitably, anyone who visits them more than once ends up gravitating to a particular town. It might be for a favorite beach, a quiet atmosphere or a clam shack like no other. Read on to discover which one may become your favorite.
At the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown has a lively, welcoming atmosphere. Photo by Sharon Hahn Darlin/Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
CAPE COD: PROVINCETOWN IS JUST THE TIP
For me, the special somewhere that I return to is Provincetown at the very end of Cape Cod. I especially love its vibe in the summer when an irresistible festive atmosphere can be felt almost everywhere you go—as if any minute a party were going to break out.
Although it is the farthest point on Cape Cod by car from Boston—at the tip of the 60-mile length of the peninsula—Provincetown is reachable via a convenient 90-minute fast ferry from May through early December from the Boston waterfront.
Long a favorite spot for gay and lesbian travelers as well as an artistic enclave, the town feels inclusive and welcoming to all. Most attractions can be reached on foot, by bicycle or by bus. Commercial Street is the main avenue, packed with restaurants, bars, shops and museums and making for excellent people watching.
The Shining Sea Bike Path in Falmouth features scenic views along its 10-mile length. Photo by Greta Georgieva/Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
If you have time for only one activity, make sure it’s Art’s Dune Tour, which has been in business since 1946. On a drive out in a six-passenger SUV to the pristine and gorgeous dunes, part of Cape Cod National Seashore, you’ll learn about the area’s fragile ecosystem and get a glimpse of the historically registered but primitive Dune Shacks, where artists and writers such as Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams once came to work in solitude.
But P’town, as it’s familiarly known, is just one of 15 small towns that compose Cape Cod. Shaped a bit like an arm bent at the elbow, the peninsula offers restaurants, lighthouses, museums and other attractions around every turn, but its beaches are what most people first associate with it.
The 44,600-acre Cape Cod National Seashore is the crowning jewel. Established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the national seashore features six beaches, historic sites and bike paths, plus several fantastic National Park visitor centers along 40 miles of coastline between Provincetown and Chatham.
Long before the Mayflower landed in Provincetown in 1620, this land was home to Native Americans. The Mashpee Wampanoag Museum offers a chronological look at the Wampanoag tribe, with displays of ancient artifacts and other heirlooms. Other sites on Cape Cod include the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum, which is dedicated to a history of JFK and his famous family, while the 62-mile Old King’s Highway, the largest contiguous historic district in the US at 62 miles, treats visitors to 17 lighthouses and a rich arts scene, including the Cape Cod Museum of Art and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Adding to the charm of Martha’s Vineyard are its historic multihued gingerbread cottages. Photo by Bob Radlinski/Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
MARTHA’S VINEYARD: FROM LIGHTHOUSES TO LANTERNS
Just seven miles from shore, Martha’s Vineyard can be reached by ferry in 45 minutes from Woods Hole in Falmouth. About 100 square miles in size with six distinct towns, the island was once inhabited by the Wampanoag, despite claims of others discovering it later. Whaling was big business back in the day, but tourism is now the main industry for both this island and Nantucket.
Those arriving by ferry into the Vineyard land at either the town of Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven in Tisbury, which naturally are the main tourist spots. You needn’t bother to bring a car to the island; rental cars, mopeds and bicycles are plentiful, and bus transport between towns is easy and frequent. Among the best things about the island are that each of its towns feels very different, and it’s easy to discover new things to see and do.
The Obamas famously vacationed on the Vineyard when President Obama was in office, and later the family bought a home there. Many other famous faces can often be spotted on the island. too.
Among the island’s popular attractions, besides its many beaches and five lighthouses, are the Camp Meeting Association grounds in Oak Bluffs. About 300 tiny, colorful “gingerbread” houses on the grounds, originally built by 19th-century Methodists who came to the Vineyard in the summer to worship, never fail to delight visitors. Grand Illumination Night, held each August, is a night when lanterns hang from the gingerbread houses’ every post, making for a magical experience. When darkness descends, visitors and residents stroll through the grounds ooh-ing and ahh-ing.
Beaches, lighthouses and water sports attract visitors to Nantucket. Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
NANTUCKET: A WHALE OF A TIME
About 30 miles from land, Nantucket is undeniably more exclusive than Martha’s Vineyard, due to its wealthy residents and visitors as well as its more remote location. Its name translated from the native Wampanoag language is said to mean the “Faraway Land.” It’s also quite small, just 48 square miles, approximately 40 percent of which are protected.
In its heyday of the early 19th century, Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world, with rich ship owners and sea captains vying to outdo each other with ever more elaborate mansions. Nantucket Town, the center of most activity, is a National Historic District with more than 800 pre-1850 structures within its one square mile.
Nowadays, you can fly (a 45-minute trip from Boston) or take a one-hour fast ferry from Hyannis on Cape Cod to Nantucket and once there, get around on foot. In town, you’ll find exclusive boutiques, upscale restaurants and accommodations ranging from bed-and-breakfasts to small hotels. The informative Whaling Museum has exhibits that include the skeleton of a 46-foot male sperm whale, a 28-foot fully rigged whaleboat and one of the world’s most important collections of scrimshaw (engraved ivory).
Nantucket’s walkable streets are lined by historic homes that once belonged to ship owners and ship captains. Photo by John/Stock.Adobe.com
Nantucket’s gorgeous beaches and pristine lands are among its biggest draws. Even in the height of the summer season, you can find a beach that is uncrowded, with plenty of space to spread out.
Another great spot to take in the island’s natural beauty is at its northernmost point, at the 1,100-acre Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge. You can hike around and take a tour of the Nantucket Lighthouse or Great Point Lighthouse in the summer.
Whether you head to Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, the more you explore, the more likely you’ll find the place that fits your personality best. Maybe in the summer, you want to visit a bustling beach town on the Cape, but in the winter, you may want to snuggle by the fire at an inn on Martha’s Vineyard. Perhaps Nantucket’s remote location fills a need to escape a busy life, and a spring or fall visit when fewer people are there is perfect timing. Fortunately, there is no wrong answer, just lots of right ones.