Wellfleet: Famous Oysters and Fall Festivals
Experience the Best of Orleans, Eastham and Wellfleet, Massachusetts after Labor Day
By Sonja Stark
You can have your summer crowds, your high priced hotels and your bumper-to-bumper traffic. Ask anybody who’s been to Cape Cod and they’ll tell you that the best time to visit this windswept peninsula is anytime after Labor Day. It’s a bit chillier so bring a sweater but it still hums with activities, events and festivals.
A bronze-plated plaque etched in stone in Wellfleet reminds you that worshippers of the Outer Cape have been arriving here since the fall of 1620. Back then it was the Pilgrims who first set foot on these calm beaches, today it’s my Mom, younger sister and me. We immortalize the weekend with walks along the National Seashore, oyster eating in Wellfleet and huddling around a cozy fire pit when the sun sets.
Arriving in Orleans
“Take one. They’re homemade,” the owner with a fading tan insists as we check into the East Orlean’s Ship’s Knees Inn, a lovely b&b with a funny name but serious accommodations. Our stomachs are empty and we gladly accept the afternoon treat.
The classic shingle style homestead is surrounded by blossoming hydrangeas, lush trees and a rolling green lawn. There are 17 rooms and one apartment rental separated by a maze of halls, staircases and wings. I get lost in the main house, one that has a 200-year-old history, mistaking the front for the office.
On our way through town, we stopped at a local wine shop for a bottle of Truro Vineyards Pinot Grigio. Friends who visit the Cape on a regular basis have repeatedly recommended Truro. Mom pours the refreshing elixir into three long-stemmed glasses. We toast to making it safely to our new home for the next three days. Surprisingly, the white wine and baked goods pair nicely together.
Ship’s Knees Inn
The Inn was apprised of my sister’s physical disabilities beforehand so they saved us the ground-level abode called the Nauset Suite.
The pull-out queen sofa in the living room is ideal for me while my family are separated by pocket doors to a beautifully-dressed kingsize bed. At the ready is a private patio entrance where we drape our beach towels over a bluestone bench and toss our flip-flops next to the door. It’s still warm enough for shorts and sunscreen.
The Inn is a tableau of festive seasonal colors and textures. The walkways are decorated with fat pumpkins and blossoming mums while dry corn stalks hang loosely from antique lamp posts. An array of gourds adds an autumnal touch of spontaneity around the courtyard.
15-minutes after my white wine buzz wears off, I slip into my sneakers and cross Beach Road for a light jog to nearby Nauset Beach. The 10-mile expanse stretches for as far as the eye can see. I can see why this part of the Cape is said to be the best place to enjoy a morning sunrise. I promise to set my alarm early the next day.
Running on sand is no easy task so it doesn’t take long to feel a lactic acid burn. I’m grateful for the salty mist that sprays my face. Other than an occasion seagull, it’s just me – the beach is unusually calming and quiet. In the meantime, Mom and sis have driven down to the parking area, 200 spots strong in the summer but empty today.
They follow a manageable boardwalk that crosses over lofty dunes to dip their toes in the tranquil surf. Playing in the waves would be nice but the temperature tingles and numbs, and, besides, there are shark advisories of Great Whites preying on seals close to the shoreline. Better not take any chances.
As soon as pants pockets are overflowing with shiny pebbles we return to the car and ask about dinner suggestions. A helpful local rattles off a half-dozen places: The Lobster Pound, Land Ho, The Lobster Claw, Mahoney’s Atlantic Bar and Grill and the Nauset Fish and Lobster Pool.
Fast-Food Done Slow
I’m a little skeptical of giant neon signs that call attention to themselves but we enter a hole-in-the-wall fish and chips landmark called Sir Crickets anyway. Hey, if it’s good enough for high marks from Fodor’s, Zagat’s, Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine.
The small pub hasn’t any available tables but this is October, off-season and civil, so the wait for a clean seat doesn’t take long. We’re struck with indecision at the vast menu. Mom is anxious for the works and orders the Fisherman’s platter: clams, scallops, oysters, ship, calamari and more oysters, all fried to a golden brown and piled high.
Nostalgia on the Inner Bay
After dinner, pushing away from the table takes effort, we head to Rock Harbor Marsh on the western side of Orleans where the tide is low and the air cracks with stiff winds. There’s still time to admire the sunset. Fellow beachcombers unclip their dogs to run wild chasing migratory birds or sniffing at prehistoric horseshoe crabs.
Mom sits on a washed-up piece of driftwood, evidently to reflect on the past. She closes her eyes and lets the rhythm of the ocean take her back to when her children (that’s us) were young and the travels we’d make to Virginia, Maine and Florida together. How did we miss vacationing at the Cape? Who knows. No matter, we’re here now and that’s what counts!
The Colors of Autumn
Returning to the Inn, we’re pleasantly surprised to see the courtyard garden aglow with warm, gold hues emanating from a gas fire pit. Freshly-painted Adirondack chairs tempt us to stay awake a little longer and take advantage of the enchanting solitude.
The atmosphere begs for an acoustic guitar or hand drum but none of us can contribute. Instead, recently-wed songbirds, grooving to their own beat, take a seat to our left. They’re arm-in-arm, eyes locked on each another. They’re discussing the region’s most famous annual event called the Wellfleet OysterFest.
It occurs to me that, unlike the quiet lethargy of today’s activities, tomorrow will echo a return to what it’s like in the summer: chaotic and crowded. We retire to get a jump start on the traffic along Route 6A or Old Kings Highway, as the locals call it, but not too early as to miss out on the Inn’s renowned breakfast buffet.
For three mornings, we savor a creamy mixture of chopped banana, chia seeds and Quaker Oats, poached egg drizzled over tortilla chips and fresh pastries. Freshly sliced watermelon and fruit cups round out what the owners call a simple continental breakfast, we call it a smorgasbord!
The World’s an Oyster in Wellfleet
Cape Cod offers dozens of colorful fairs and festivals to enjoy in late fall, from concert series to arts & crafts to vintage car shows but my resources wisely recommend the Wellfleet OysterFest. Millions upon millions of signature shellfish have been readied all season to be consumed during this annual aquaculture event.
Having arrived later than expected (thanks to breakfast), we luck out with available parking at the Mayo Beach lot and hop aboard a yellow school bus bound for the epicenter. The vibe on the bus feels like we’re going to a sporting event and, in many ways, we are. The day includes a oyster shucking contest, a 5K road race and culinary cook-offs.
This sleepy, historic village of under 3,000 people swells six-fold during this event. Like lapping waves, 10,000 people wash up and over Main Street to unleash their love of the eponymous oyster, retreating back to their cars in the evening.
If you visit, I encourage you to educate. One of the most informative is
an oyster-pairing workshop called “Taste of Place” in Preservation Hall. It’s there that I learn what gives the humble filter feeder it’s taste: the sea or “merroir,” a concept akin to the more-familiar relationship between wine grapes and the soil or “terroir.”
Merrior comes from the Latin word mer for sea and describes how the effects of tides, salinity, algae and temperature impact the taste. East and West coast oysters taste vastly different but training allows you to appreciate both flavors, neither being superior to the other. Preference depends on the subtleties of your individual palette.
Bottom line: location is key.
Chew Your Food, Don’t Swallow
Regardless of East or West, raw oysters are slimy, slippery and sometimes sandy so what kind of person could enjoy such a cuisine? I pose that question to David Mudd, a Boston-based emergency room physician with a face awash in liquid oyster goo.
“People who are open-minded. We like new and different things. We are daring and adventurous!” he shouts over the din of revelers dancing to a live horn section blasting tunes from the stage behind him.
MUDD pulls out another $5 bill from his pocket for three more half shells from the icy tub. While naysayers save their appetites for the clam chowders and lobster rolls, shellfish connoisseurs insist that the sustainable bivalve is worth every penny (or $1.50 to be exact).
Mudd has been coming to this event for years, one that has yielded big profits for SPAT, the Shellfish Promotion and Tasting not-profit organization, that helps to educate, preserve and improve the aquaculture traditions of Cape Cod. The physician refills his plastic plate at a rapid pace, bathing the lot in lemon juice and hot sauce. Cocktail sauce and vinegar are other options but purists prefer sans garnish. His generosity insists on sharing the morsels with me. Feeling a little anxious, I slurp down the first with a chaser of Sam Adams Oyster Stout.
“That’s not how you do it!” bristles Mudd, “those briny pearls died for us. The least we can do is savor them.” And with that, I let the second oyster quite deliberately sit idle in my mouth for a few seconds. It doesn’t take long to realize that I’m not exactly in love with the healthy stinkers, but, then again, I don’t exactly loathe them either. Mudd chimes in that oysters are a natural aphrodisiac. Okay, okay, maybe I can keep trying…
Sexy Globs of Flesh
“Raw oysters are rich in protein, vitamins and loaded with zinc, stuff that can boost your sex drive,” declares Mudd. His wife nods her head wildly in agreement. It all makes sense now. No wonder there are so many couples gathered at the Ship’s Knees Inn, area restaurants and the Wellfleet OysterFest. Who knew gooey globs of gray flesh could be so romantic?
Commercial vendors know the value of the oyster-inspired clothing lines. For sale are men’s boxers and briefs that read “Oysters make me horny” and others that scream “Mutha Shuckah” and black bikini thongs with the words “Shuck me.” Backside Bakes, a deep-friend hushpuppy stand, takes the prize for the most clever expression: “We’ve got balls!”
With inhibitions at an all time low, the day ends in a free-flowing drum circle lead by the talents of six musicians from the Cape Cod African Dance and Drum troupe. The instruction is contagious and Mom and sis are flaring their arms and hands to the thundering percussion. While they dance, I duck into another educational forum for more oyster enlightenment.
Museums and Trails
“October is Archeology Month!” screams a poster at the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham. The facility holds indoor programs throughout the month focused on glacial history, present conditions and the future problems of rising sea levels.
Mom and sis agree that the prevailing winds are a deterrent for a walk to see a 15,000-year-old kettle pond. While they hurry inside for free admission to a theater showing a historical film on the collapsed whaling industry, I brave the spitting snow and take to the trails.
It’s really hard to capture in words the wonders of the magical National Seashore landscape, 40 miles of protected sandy beach, marshes and ponds, that Henry David Thoreau once said, of the place, “A man may stand there and put all of America behind him.”
Like a kid in a candy store, I’m at the mercy of my natural curiosity now. The Nauset Marsh Trail first winds past a gigantic depression cut by melting ice blocks from the last Ice Age. This is the Salt Pond that was originally a freshwater kettle pond but due to ever-eroding tidal action, it was carved into a diverse community of marine life.
I traverse an easy foot path to a spectacular vista overlooking Nauset Marsh and, typical of salt marshes, this one also wreaks of decaying nutrients, most noticeable in the fall. But it’s that noxious smell that helps breed important habitats for flora and fauna. I make the trek two miles longer by adjoining spurs to the Coast Guard Beach and back again. In Eastham alone there are four irresistible trails to beckon the imagination.
Our aimless drive takes us past more treasures like the Three Sisters Lighthouses, the Outer Most House and the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
Other Points of Interest
Having sampled the pleasures of oysters, another export native to eastern Massachusetts are cranberries. Cranberries have been a dietary staple for many years, first with the Wampanoags Native Americans, then Pilgrims – who staved off scurvy with cranberries – and now Cape Codders, who drop the sweet fruit into desserts, drinks and sauces.
On our way out of town, we head to Harwich and visit the home of independent organic farmer, Leo Cakounes of Cape Cod Farm Supply & Cranberry Company. His is the largest pesticide-free cranberry bog on Cape Cod, patrolled by four dogs, two goats and one pig.
Quickly, we learn from the veteran of the cranberry biz that the Ocean Spray commercials are hogwash. The juicy fruit does not grow in flooded pools of salt water like the television ads would have you believe. Rather, they thrive on shubs in low-lying wetlands called bogs or marshes that are made up of a special mixture of soil containing layers of sand, peat, gravel and clay. “The only time when cranberries touch water is during a 24-hour process called wet harvesting,” repeats an emphatic Cakounes.
The tour, via a jumbo golf cart or rusty school bus, includes a visit to the barn to observe a traditional harvesting component called a separator. Cakounes pours a bucket full of berries down a chute, letting them fall onto several shaky, Rube Goldberg-like wooden boards. The high quality berries high-jump like Olympic athletes out the back while the losers stumble and trip out the front. If you time your visit right, you’ll get to observe one of two methods of harvesting, dry or wet, or both, each takes place between mid-September and early November.
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