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A local family romps in the surf at Nauset Spit in Orleans, Massachusetts. (Photograph by Amy Toensing)

A Cape Cod for All Seasons

Some of my earliest beach memories originate in Cape Cod. When I visited during the summer of 1969, the Citgo stations on the drive from Boston were handing out reproduction oil paintings of Red Sox players. I was only eight, but I remember hotels that were intimate, quirky, run by innkeepers. Dinner meant a boiled lobster or a bucket of steamers.

The paintings are long gone, along with the attendants who distributed them. It’s a self-serve world now. But by the time I slip into bed beneath the 19th-century ceiling at the Ship’s Knees Inn and get lulled to sleep by the throaty air conditioner, it’s clear to me that the cape has hardly changed.

Freckle-faced boys still dig sand castles on Nauset Beach. Lobster rolls, served warm with drawn butter or chilled with a dollop of mayonnaise, still taste like nothing else. Some of the saltbox houses, fronted by picket fences, may have changed hands a time or three since I first saw them. Still, as I drive down streets with plainspoken names like Meetinghouse, School, Bridge, and Monument, the connection with the past feels vibrant.

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A timeless Orleans tradition: Digging for clams in Nauset Bay. (Photograph by Amy Toensing)

Orleans isn’t the quaintest town on the cape, nor the largest or most renowned. It doesn’t have Chatham‘s trinket shops or Truro‘s lighthouse, can’t boast of an art community like Provincetown‘s or oysters like Wellfleet‘s. Yet it remains my favorite.

Set just above the crook of the arm of the peninsula, it’s far enough out to discourage day-trippers but on the easy side of the long, traffic-clogged slog up Route 6 to the outer cape. It’s a real place, not a stage set. It has full-size supermarkets, which encourages residents to remain when the summer ends. That means restaurants stay open. And if you need a lock repaired or your hair cut or a picket fence built, Orleans is where you’ll get it.

The towns to the north stretch out along Route 6, the only artery through the outer cape. But Orleans has neighborhoods. Its streets meander to the water: Cape Cod Bay to the west, the Atlantic to the east. Cars heading north on Cranberry Highway turn left on Main Street to Skaket Beach, right to Nauset. It’s four miles from one to the other. Local kids ride their bikes between in a matter of minutes. “Coast to coast,” they call it, and it is–if Orleans is your continent.

The beaches couldn’t be more different. Nauset is nearly perfect. It looks like a football field of sand, and then another, off into the distance. The sand itself is grainy, with enough heft for a preteen to produce world-class seashore architecture to last for generations, or at least until the waves roll in. Eiders alight, their heads white and chests puffed out, then take flight again with a brief rustle.

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Liam’s Seafood & Grill is famous for its onion rings and fried seafood takeaway. Liam, the company namesake, at left. (Photograph by Amy Toensing)

Nauset gets crowded, but it’s a Saturday-afternoon-at-the-park kind of crowded, not Coney Island on Independence Day. There’s always room for touch football. Weekdays are better than weekends, late August or June better than July.

And sometimes there is nobody at all. My first morning in town, I walk the five minutes down Beach Road from the Ship’s Knees to the shore. It has rained the night before, and the fog hasn’t lifted, so I don’t see the water until I’m upon it. It’s warm out, humid enough that the air has a palpable thickness. I head along the ocean in a cone of mist, the waves purring rhythmically to my right, the sand in soft focus to my left. I pass the occasional couple and we nod conspiratorially, knowing how good this feels.

Another morning, up before dawn, I head to Skaket. First a stop at the Hole in One, with a pastry case up front, and where the breakfasts are as renowned as the lines are infamous. At Skaket, seagulls have gathered on a spit. Soon the small crescent of fine-grained sand will be filled with families, for the tide is so gentle on the bay side and the water deepens so gradually that anyone, even toddlers, can frolic.

But for now, the beach is mine. I leave my sneakers near my car and walk to the bay, then wade in up to my knees while the gulls squawk around me, offering a symphony for a summer morning.

This piece, written by Bruce Schoenfeld, first appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

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