Experience the Best of Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet, Massachusetts after Labor Day
By Sonja Stark
GoNomad Senior Writer
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 in Wellfleet reminds you that worshippers of the Outer Cape have been arriving since 1620. The Pilgrims first set foot on these calm beaches but today it’s my family who will be stargazing at the National Seashore.
Arriving in Orleans
“Take one. They’re homemade,” says the owner with a fading tan as we check into the East Orlean’s Ship’s Knees Inn. The lovely b&b with a funny name has homemade treats for hungry travelers at check-in.
Our home-away-from-home is a shingle-style homestead surrounded by blossoming hydrangeas, lush trees, and a rolling green lawn. There are 17 rooms and one apartment rental separated by a maze of hallways. It’s easy to get lost in the main house, one that has meticulously preserved over 200-years of Cape Cod history.
We pop open a bottle of Truro Vineyards Pinot Grigio that we picked up on the way. Friends who visit Cape Cod on a regular basis recommended this favorite vintage. We toast to the start of our 3-day adventure.
Ship’s Knees Inn
The Inn was apprised of my sister’s physical disabilities beforehand so they saved us a ground-level abode called the Nauset Suite.
The pull-out queen sofa in the living room is ideal while my sister is 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. 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 sneakers and cross Beach Road for a light jog to nearby Nauset Beach. A 10-mile stretch dotted with umbrellas and whitecaps. I can see why this part of the Cape is said to be the best for a morning sunrise. I promise to set my alarm early the next day.
Running on sand is no easy task. 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 skeptical of giant neon signs that call attention to themselves. Still, we enter a hole-in-the-wall fish and chips landmark called Sir Crickets.
Fodor’s, Zagat’s, Travel + Leisure, and Food & Wine gave it high marks so who am I to question the aesthetic?
The small pub hasn’t any available tables but this is October, off-season and civil, so the wait is short. Mom is anxious for the works and orders the Fisherman’s platter 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 catch the sunset.
Fellow beachcombers unclip their dogs to run wild chasing migratory birds or sniff 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 fall fairs and festivals. From concert series to arts & crafts to vintage car shows but I recommend the Wellfleet OysterFest.
Millions of signature shellfish are readied all season to be consumed during this annual aquaculture event.
Having arrived later than expected (breakfast was too good), we luck out with parking at the Mayo Beach lot. We hop aboard the 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 an oyster shucking contest, a 5K road race, and culinary cook-offs.
This sleepy, historic village of 3,000 people swells six-fold during this event. 10,000 people wash up and over Main Street to unleash their love of the eponymous oyster.
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 its taste or “merroir,” a concept akin to the more-familiar relationship between wine grapes and soil or “terroir.”
Merrior comes from the Latin word mer for sea and describes how 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.
David 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. ($1.50 to be exact).
David has been coming to this event for years, one that has yielded big profits for the Shellfish Promotion and Tasting not-profit organization or SPAT. The group 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 options but purists prefer sans garnish. He generously 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 David. “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. I’m not exactly in love with the healthy stinkers, but, then again, I don’t exactly loathe them either.
Sexy Globs of Flesh
Raw oysters are a natural aphrodisiac. They are rich in protein, vitamins and loaded with zinc, stuff that can boost your sex drive. David’s wife nods her head wildly in agreement.
It all makes sense. No wonder there are so many couples gathered at the Ship’s Knees Inn, all of who I see wandering hand-in-hand at the Wellfleet OysterFest. Who knew gooey globs of grey flesh could be the answer to relationship romance?
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 the theater showing a historical film on the collapsed whaling industry, I brave the spitting flakes.
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: “A man can 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. The Nauset Marsh Trail winds past a gigantic depression cut by melting ice blocks from the last Ice Age. This is the salt pond that was originally freshwater but due to ever-eroding tides, it was carved into a diverse community of marine life.
I traverse an easy footpath to a spectacular vista overlooking Nauset Marsh; typical of salt marshes, this one also wreaks with decaying nutrients, most prevalent in the fall. Yet, it’s the odor that helps breed important habitats for flora and fauna.
I make the trek a couple of miles further to the Coast Guard Beach and back again. In Eastham alone, there are four trails that 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 is 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 an 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 that the Ocean Spray commercials are hogwash. The juicy fruit does not grow in flooded pools of saltwater like the television ads would have you believe. Rather, they thrive on shrubs 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 cranberries touch water is during a 24-hour process called wet harvesting,” says 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.
FOR MORE PHOTOS: Visit Sonja Stark’s Outer Cape Cod FLICKR Album.