PROVINCETOWN, Mass. - "Provincetown?" a Boston friend, who only summers on tony Nantucket, sniffed when I mentioned my plan to visit the artist colony and fishing port at the tip of Cape Cod. "You're not going to Provincetown. It's so tacky, so hectic. Commercial Street has become so … so commercial. And the crowds."
I understood what he meant, sort of. Provincetown's continual parade of high-season day-trippers and frenzied social whirl isn't everyone's cup of chowder. The center of the town's commercial strip can get congested with hoards of pedestrians and cars competing with bicycle riders going in every direction.
But that's not my Provincetown. Like Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways, the Provincetown I love has two faces: there's the hustle and bustle of Commercial Street, with its street performers, shops, restaurants, bars, and traffic.
And then there's the quieter, contemplative side, the one less readily revealed. Sustained by the surrounding 40-mile-long National Seashore, this is the face that most visitors never venture out to see.
For a few days last summer, some friends and I set about exploring this other, hidden Provincetown (some locals insist that only outsiders ever call it "P-town," but that's a matter of debate). After settling in at the Land's End Inn, arguably the most luxurious digs in this part of the Cape, we oriented ourselves by climbing the Pilgrim Monument, a landmark visible from nearly anywhere in town. Over the years I had visited many times and made a mental note to scale the tower and tour the adjacent Provincetown Museum, but resisted the temptation. This bright morning would be the day I'd finally make the ascent.
And it was a climb. At 255 feet and with no elevator, this 1910 edifice is the tallest all-granite structure in the U.S. Our knees wobbling, we finally reached the top, but a reward awaited us. It was another world. At this wind-swept elevation, Provincetown was the quintessential New England seacoast village: white steeples, wharves jutting into the bay, clapboard houses spanning four centuries. We could observe the Cape's curvature, the small airport served by tiny Cape Air, the all-encompassing Atlantic, even the distant towers of Boston to the north. Below us, we could appreciate how little of this peaceful hamlet was actually inhabited, despite a recent spate of development. Nature still ruled this land where the Mayflower first anchored (local wags quip that the pilgrims moved on to Plymouth because they couldn't find a parking space).
A closer look was in order. Our next stop was Arnold's Bike Shop, where we rented sturdy cycles to explore the National Seashore's seven miles of paved trails. Properly outfitted (helmets are a good idea because the trails are narrow and hilly), we cycled to the end of town and into the parking lot at Herring Cove Beach, where the faintly sweet scent of wild beach roses signaled the trail's start. Almost immediately, the scenery changed from asphalt to astounding. One minute we'd be whizzing through towering dunes, with twisted scrub pine and white-capped ocean as backdrop. The next we'd be in the midst of a shady, damp-smelling beech forest, which had made an uneasy truce with the encroaching sands.
Midway through our expedition, we stopped at the Province Lands Visitor Center (Race Point Road, 508-487-1256), maintained by the National Park Service. This is a useful place to begin any tour of the National Seashore. Maps, books, and brochures are available, and you can watch a continuously running film about the area. Ranger-led hikes through the dunes are offered, including one past the dozen or so remaining shacks where artists, writers, and other recluses live and work in splendid isolation (these "grandfathered" structures are the only dwellings allowed on the Federally-owned land).
Back in town, we parked our bikes and set out on foot. We chose the quiet West End, beginning at the Grozier House (160 Commercial Street), an impressive three-story home built circa 1830 by whaling captain John Atkins, stopping long enough to admire its polygonal tower from which a faithful wife would scan the sea awaiting his return. Today there is a 360-degree view that stretches as far as Boston Harbor. We continued to the circa-1746 Seth Nickerson House (72 Commercial), perhaps Provincetown's oldest dwelling and a classic full Cape Cod design. Built by Seth Nickerson, a ship's carpenter, it was constructed with materials collected from the many wrecks that once littered these shores. Just down the street at number 54 we came across the 1807 House, now open to paying guests, but once one of four local homes participating in the Underground Railroad.
Our walk brought us to the breakwater leading to Woods End and a working, though unmanned, lighthouse at the Cape's very tip. A popular activity is to walk across the huge breakwater boulders and enjoy a picnic lunch on the deserted beach, or to continue on to Long Point at the very tip of Cape Cod, a good two-hour walk, where there's another lighthouse. It was here that the first inhabitants built their homes because the fish were particularly bountiful. When the cod and herring left, so did the settlers, who sailed their residences back across the harbor on rafts and barges. Little blue plaques depicting a house floating on water designate these "boat houses."
The next morning, a bright and sunny one, we had planned a whale watch cruise. When the Pilgrims landed here in 1620, the Mayflower was greeted by dozens of whales, frolicking around the small vessel. Then, the humpback population numbered 500,000. Today, a mere 10,000 to 15,000 remain, but they still play in the wake of boats leaving from local piers. Sometimes the whales get so close that you can almost touch them. We chose to sail with the Dolphin Fleet (800-826-9300). And we did see whales - breaching whales, mama and baby whales, even sleeping whales. It was a highlight of our trip.
We ended our day at Front Street (230 Commercial St, 508-487-9715), one Provincetown's oldest and, many locals say, best restaurants. Like everywhere these days, dining out and shopping are two of the biggest tourist activities here, and we did our share.
But except for the tiny local franchise of the Subway sandwich shop empire, there are, refreshingly, no chain restaurants or even chain retail outlets in Provincetown. No McDonald's, no Gaps.
On our final day of exploring Provincetown's hidden charms we took to the dunes once again. As aerial photographs make clear, these shifting, towering mountains of sand dominate the landscape the way ice does the Arctic.
In the morning, we drove down Bradford Street, one of the town's three east-west arteries, and took a left on Snail Road. Crossing Route 6, we parked in an unmarked turn-off that could hardly be called a parking lot, since there's barely room for five cars. From here, we set out on foot to explore some of the area's most majestic dunes.
The two-mile hike goes through cranberry bogs and winds past the mysterious, weathered dune shacks, clinging defiantly, improbably to the land. Considerable controversy surrounds these structures, which the National Park Service originally wanted to tear down when it took over the seashore's management. But protests resulted in a compromise: the shacks were made part of a National Historic District and now cannot be sold as private property. If you're really into roughing it, you can stay in one of the shacks for a week or two as a guest of artist- and writer-in-residence programs, or if you're lucky enough to win a place in an annual lottery.
Passing the shacks without disturbing their solitary occupants - one of which, in former times, was playwright Eugene O'Neill - we continued on until reaching the Atlantic. Here the waves crashed against the sandy beach, and overhead terns and other birds swooped down on us menacingly when we came too close to their nesting grounds. After several plunged perilously near, almost grazing our heads (shades of Hitchcock's "The Birds"), we decided to beat a hasty retreat to our car.
Those dive-bombers provided about as much excitement as we were to experience that long summer weekend. Meanwhile, Provincetown's social whirl went on without us. There's an old joke about the Maine country bumpkin who wins a trip to New York City. When he returns he's asked how he liked New York. "Well," he replies, "there was so much goin' on at the depot I never did get to see the village."
That's how we felt that weekend in Provincetown. The parade down Commercial Street went on as usual, people queued in all the same lines at the restaurants, and had their hands obediently stamped at the bars and discos. We didn't care. Our depot was Provincetown's shy but beautiful side. The village could wait for another visit.
IF YOU GO:
To plan a visit, check out http://provincetowntourismoffice.org and http://ptown.org.
George Hobica is founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times