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What’s bleak, desolate, and absolutely perfect? The Cape in winter

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Frankly, it’s disconcerting to be on the Cape in winter. The clam shacks are closed. The beaches are empty. Traffic zips along Route 6. You can whip back and forth over the bridge in a flash.

It is quiet, and then some. And many Cape Codders wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s bleak, it’s desolate, and it’s absolutely perfect,” says Mashpee resident Rich Lonstein. Stripped of the tourists and traffic, the Cape’s loveliness snaps into sharp focus. Craigville Beach is a walker’s dream in wintertime, and, astonishingly, the few people you encounter will nod or say hello. (Are we still in Massachusetts, Toto?) The Cape Cod National Seashore rewards those who brave it with a dazzling landscape of pounding surf and heathery marshlands. The night sky is ablaze with stars; who’d guess that a major metropolis was so close by?


Although most seafood shacks and T-shirt shops are shuttered, businesses that remain open are warmly inviting, and it’s easy to get a table at buzzy restaurants like Fishermen’s View in Sandwich. The folks at the Kandy Korner, a summertime classic in Hyannis, will sell you some house-made fudge or a bag of turtles, although the ice cream counter is closed. Grab a seat at the bar at Tap City Grille in Hyannis, and you will absolutely get pulled into a conversation with another patron (best to avoid politics and stick to sports!) There’s a sense of camaraderie that just doesn’t happen in July. This spit of land feels like a small town when Old Man Winter blows into town.

If this sounds like your cup of cocoa, head over the bridge and see what the Cape is like in the off-, off-season. You may be tempted to stay over, since rates plunge in winter. (The luxury resort you’ve always wanted to try is half off right now.)

Best reason to get out
on the water

“Thirty or forty years ago, you probably wouldn’t have seen a single seal out here. Now, there are an estimated 75,000 grey and harbor seals along the eastern coasts of New England and Canada,” thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, says Cassie Lawson of the Buzzards Bay Coalition. We do love our seals! That’s why a group of 16 people, including a toddler, headed out on a motorboat for an hour-long seal and seabird watch on Buzzards Bay in Falmouth on a chilly Saturday morning. Before leaving, Lawson shared some background on these seals, using a plush model of a seal, complete with organs and a seal pup in a zippered pouch. “We’ll be looking for certain positions, like bottling, when they sleep by popping their heads out of the water, and the banana pose,” Lawson said. In the banana position, the seal stretches out on a rock. “It looks like an awkward yoga position, but they are simply resting with their heads and flippers raised,” she added.

This time of year, you’ll see grey and harbor seals that have migrated to the Cape’s warmer waters from Canada and Maine. Then there are the seabirds, many coming from breeding grounds in the north to feed by local estuaries and bays. Among the facts we learned: that some seabirds cry salt tears, to extricate salt from their bloodstream.

Happily, the cabin of the boat (typically a party boat) was heated, so we could pop out to look for seals and birds, and then pop back in to get warm. We cruised past the Elizabeth Islands, enjoying the grey-on-grey palette of ocean meets sky. And yes, we saw seals, along with eider ducks and oldsquaws.


The Buzzards Bay Coalition also offers mindfulness walks, full moon hikes, stargazing strolls, and children’s programs; Seal and seabird watch: $30 nonmembers; $20 members; $15 age 12 and under.

Best reason to go
to the beach

“A man may stand there and put all America behind him,” Henry David Thoreau wrote of Cape Cod National Seashore, a notion that feels comforting in these divisive times. In this landscape of rolling dunes, foamy surf, and endless ocean, people don’t seem all that important.

In January of last year, 113,352 people visited the seashore; in August, that number swelled to over one million, according to the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. Park rangers are on duty in winter at the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham, ready to offer advice on hiking trails. We chose Nauset Marsh Trail, a 1.3-mile loop with a spur to Coast Guard Beach. Winding along the edge of Salt Pond and Nauset Marsh, we encountered pretty vistas along the way, and a great blue heron or two, but alas no glimpses of the rare right whales that have been spotted off the Cape recently.

Hiking, hiking everywhere

If a beach walk sounds too wind-whipped for your comfort, consider a woodsy inland hike. The Cape is laced with walking trails, including several in the Upper Cape (closest area to Boston.) In Mashpee, the Trustees of Reservations’ Mashpee River Reservation offers two miles of woodland and shoreline trails that traverse a tidal river. Flanked with oaks and pine, this is one of the best walking paths in the area. To access it, look for the Mashpee River Woodlands parking area on Quinaquisset Ave. Then, follow the trail down to the river. You’ll cross the Mashpee River on the “Great Bridge,” and follow the old River Road down to Mashpee Woodlands West. The reservation links with other paths on Cape-wide network of hiking trails, the Cape Cod Pathways.

Where to warm up

The steamy air is punctuated with the shrieks of happy kids at the Cape Codder Water Park at the Cape Codder Resort and Spa in Hyannis. Opened in September (they had a wave pool before), this watery play land is like something you’d see at a Disney park, with an “adventure” river, water slides and cannons, a pirate ship, and a spouting (faux) humpback whale. You can get day passes ($40 per person; $30 per child under 48 inches; $25/$15 on weekdays, except school holidays), but if you stay at the Cape Codder Resort, you’ll each get a wristband that gets you in for free. Room rates from $239 on weekends, from $119 weekdays;

Looking for something a tad more elegant? The century-old Chatham Bars Inn stays open all year, and they host enticing events like a Guest Chef Dinner series. Cozy up to the fireplace in a cushy chair with a hot beverage, and read a book, or contemplate important issues, like, Should I get a spa treatment? (Adding to the cozy factor: pets are welcome.) Even more enticing, prices dip to about half of their high-season rates, starting at $199. And oh, that spa — it’s perfect for a girlfriend’s getaway.

Eat here

Even in winter, there are plenty of places on the Cape to get a hearty lunch and some decent chowder. In Hyannis, we like the pub-by Tap City Grille on Main Street. It’s a convivial spot, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how ambitious the menu is — think wild salmon cioppino ($20), a salt-roasted beet salad ($11), and “duck trio pub poutine,” featuring duck confit, duck gravy, and topped with a sunny-side-up duck egg ($14). Burgers are made with Pineland Farms grass fed beef.

Since opening in August, Fishermen’s View, located along the Cape Cod Canal in Sandwich, gets plenty of buzz. Started by two local lobstermen, this simple but quietly upscale restaurant focuses (unsurprisingly) on freshly caught fish and live shellfish. A raw bar sampler is a great choice here; expect entrees like Jonah crab-stuffed haddock with fingerling potatoes and Brussels sprouts in buerre blanc ($24). Open for lunch and dinner;

For a treat, head to Kandy Korner in Hyannis, and feed your Inner Kid something fun and frivolous, like saltwater taffy or fudge. They’re made on site; same with many of the chocolates they carry (they also stock retro candy brands). The back of the 40-year-old store is full of gift items, and goofy stuff like stick-on mustaches and bandages that look like bacon — fun in any season.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at

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