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Named for the large quantities of cod caught by its founder ship in 1602, Cape Cod is a 70-mile (113km) peninsula likened to a flexed arm bent at the elbow, extending from the main body of Massachusetts. It is the premiere vacation destination in New England, with charming historic towns and small villages, miles of sandy beaches, and wind-sculpted sand dunes. Millions of visitors from around the world flock to the amazing natural beauty of the Cape, and although known as the playground for the rich and famous and mostly geared for big spenders, there is plenty of sun, sea, and sand for everyone to enjoy.
Provincetown, at the tip of the Cape's 'fist', is the happy centre of New England and long renowned as an artistic colony with more than 20 art galleries. It's also the liveliest resort town on the Cape. Stretching from Provincetown, which was the landing site of the first Pilgrims in the 17th century, down to the pretty town of Chatham are 40 miles (64km) of dunes and desolate beaches protected within the Cape Cod National Seashore. Wellfleet is a quieter, picturesque town untouched by commercial development, and famous for its oysters. The commercial towns along the horizontal stretch of the arm offer shopping, exquisite dining, and beach activities, but there is also whale-watching, walking, and biking.
Martha's Vineyard is a favourite summer destination for New England's wealthy elite. Tourism is the main economy, boosted by celebrity regulars like actress Sharon Stone and the Clinton family. Martha's Vineyard is far less developed than Cape Cod, but more sophisticated than neighbouring Nantucket Island. Holidays here are dominated by simple pleasures such as the weekly farmers' market, and walks on the miles of coastal pathways. Although it is a peaceful place, Martha's Vineyard does host many events in the summer months, which keeps things lively; however, the influx of people in summer raises prices and makes things less serene so that some travellers prefer to visit off-season. Visiting outside of the busy summer period (June to August) also increases the chance that some of the private beaches in the area will be open to the public. The six towns of Martha's Vineyard have distinct characters. Upmarket Vineyard Haven is the island's main port, receiving ferries as well as private yachts. The fun centre of Oak Bluffs is home to the old Flying Horses Carousel, pizza takeaways, and ice-cream parlours which cater to the young and carefree. The graceful Edgartown has quaint inns, historic whaling captains' homes and stylish boutiques lining the narrow streets, and is the island's oldest settlement.
Thirty miles (48km) off the coast of Cape Cod, the small and remote island of Nantucket is an escape from the city stress and chaos of everyday life. The land has miles of unspoilt beaches, rolling wind-swept moors, solitary windmills and lighthouses, church steeples, and peaceful lanes. Its only settlement, Nantucket Town, was once the whaling capital of the world and retains much of its 17th to 19th-century character with historic mansions, old fashioned street lamps, and cosy inns lining the cobblestone streets. Bar a few villages, the rest of the island is mainly residential. There isn't a billboard, fast-food franchise, or flashing neon light in sight. Nantucket has long appealed to wealthy visitors and has grown to a summer vacation retreat for nearly 50,000 tourists. Despite the increasing amount of luxury houses going up, more than 36 percent of the land is protected from development and the island still feels like a romantic paradise. The excellent Whaling Museum is an added attraction to the beaches, strolling and biking, and window-shopping at the exclusive boutiques. July and August are the most popular months and the busiest times, and although off-season has its charms thick fog often covers the island at this time.
Cape Cod is home to a number of picturesque lighthouses that draw sightseers throughout the year. At one point, there were more than 20 on the peninsula. However, many of them are now decommissioned and knocked down. Those remaining have varying degrees of difficulty in access: some are easy to reach, while others require a hike. Some of the most popular, and easiest to get to, include Chatham Light and Nobska, which offers a spectacular view of Martha's Vineyard. Some that involve more walking are Cape Cod Light and Race Point Light. There are also lighthouses that only viewable from a distance, including Monomoy Light, which involves a boat trip past a very active seal colony. Some of the lighthouses can be rented for weekly accommodation.
Cape Cod is primarily a beach holiday destination. The best beaches include the Nauset Light Beach and Coast Guard Beach of Eastham, as well as the other three beaches that make up the protected stretch of the National Seashore. Visitors should note that there is a fee for visiting any of the National Seashore Beaches, but the spacious, unspoiled seashore is totally worth it. There are also numerous public beaches, like Craigville Beach, Sandy Neck Beach, and Sea Street Beach in Barnstable, but these do tend to get crowded during the summer tourist season.
Those travelling with children should bear in mind that the bayside beaches are far calmer and more protected from the elements than those on the oceanside, making them safer family destinations. The summer months, between June and August, are the most popular, but those visiting at this time should come prepared for crowds and traffic-filled roads, booked-out accommodation, and high prices. Otherwise, come in the off-season when the colder beaches afford solitude and the towns have quietened down. Cape Cod is also the gateway to the beautiful vacation islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Please note that many beaches in Cape Cod are for residents only.
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