Elbow Room

Four Cape Cod towns, located at the peninsula’s elbow, retain that “old Cape feel”
travel, lifestyle
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Stephanie Lipscomb
Illustration By Brittany Porter

A shellfisherman digs for Cape Cod’s favorite delicacy in Orleans.

Natives like to claim that Massachusetts’ Cape Cod peninsula, with its distinctive flexed-arm shape, is “the arm that beckons the world.” Watch the sunrise from the veranda of a century-old hunting lodge, however, and the elbow of this famous coastline feels like a refuge that enjoys its privacy.

Pleasure boats swing lazily on their moorings as the lobster fleet sweeps by on its way to sea. Early risers stroll the otherwise deserted beach. Couples seated nearby sip coffee and plan a day trip to an offshore island.

“This is the way Cape Cod used to be,” local Lisa Franz recounts. “We still have our Norman Rockwell moments around here.”

Cape Cod has been popular with visitors since the Pilgrims came ashore in 1620. Cars and roads transformed the Cape in the last half-century, with first day-trippers then second homebuyers flocking to the headland. Shopping malls and subdivisions followed, and hotspots like Hyannis, Provincetown and Martha’s Vineyard went from quaint to kitschy.

No corner of the peninsula dodged the effects of progress, but the four towns at the elbow—Chatham, Brewster, Harwich and Orleans—each retained that “old Cape feel.” Windmills that aren’t obstacles on miniature golf courses dot the countryside. Wooden bandstands mark the Friday night community gathering spots. Steamed clams dug from sandy beaches litter restaurant tables.

“The locals made a conscious decision some years ago to do whatever was necessary to maintain that link to the past,” says Steve Sampson, a Cape native who returned home to serve as the director of sales and marketing at the Chatham Bars Inn. “That’s what makes us so special.”

The Chatham Bars Inn is an elegant resort and spa based around a 40-room hunting lodge built in 1914. The inn, surrounded by dozens of Cape Cod-shingled guest cottages, sits atop an oceanside bluff on the edge of Chatham’s charming Main Street shopping district. The Chatham Bars Inn, along with the area’s other distinctive retreat, the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in Harwich, are hubs from which to explore Cape Cod’s elbow.

Life Aquatic

Water will forever be the Cape’s magnet, and the elbow towns boast a dazzling array of beaches, fishing grounds and estuaries. Days can be spent shelling, swimming, sailing, casting or paddling.

The Cape Cod National Seashore stretches along the elbow’s Atlantic Ocean waterfront and draws sunbathers from around the world. Yet the area’s true allure is with those who want more than a tan. Wading fisherman can stalk striped bass along the Brewster Flats, a surreal expanse of tidal mudflats on Cape Cod Bay. Low tide exposes flats wide enough to leave moored boats dry on the sand along the Brewster and Orleans shoreline.

The Brewster Flats, along with the tidal coves of Pleasant Bay, also attract shell fishers, who dig for clams, oysters and quahogs. The protected bay waters and inshore estuaries appeal to kayakers, canoers and paddle boarders.

“Those who like the outdoors,” says local Kyle Hinkle, “never get bored here.”

Arts Enclaves

The Cape elbow towns are so rich in arts and cultural offerings not even Hollywood can compete—a six-screen Cineplex, centrally located off the Mid-Cape Highway, closed less than five years after it was built and is now a school.

Players theaters, park bandstands, museums, shops and art galleries captivate on warm evenings or rainy afternoons. Shows at Chatham’s Monomoy Theatre, home to a summer college drama training program since 1957, and the nationally renowned Harwich Junior Theatre sell out in advance. Blanket-size patches of grass surrounding the bandstands in all four towns are sought-after commodities on concert nights. And art lovers flock to the antique shops along the Old King’s Highway in Brewster and the walkable shopping and gallery districts in Chatham and Orleans.

The locals made a conscious decision some years ago to do whatever was necessary to maintain that link to the past.

“Unlike other parts of the Cape, we have a significant number of residents who live here year round or come down for the whole summer, and that creates a deep sense of community,” says local Noëlle Pina. “That community involvement has led to the arts, cultural and music scenes just exploding.”

History lovers flock to the Cape’s elbow, too. Radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi based his wireless communications operations in the area, and his Chatham station is now a museum. Brewster is home to the Stony Brook Factory Gristmill and Museum, where the curators still harness the power of running water to grind corn into meal. And for a few days each spring, Stony Brook doubles as a herring run. So many fish swim and jump up the terraced waterway to spawn in freshwater ponds that onlookers can catch them with their hands.

Ocean's Bounty

Ask for utensils in any Cape restaurant, and expect the flatware to include a cracker, pick and oyster knife. With an abundant supply of crustaceans and mollusks plucked from the local waters daily, those tools are more useful than a fork and knife.

Lobsters and clams are the staples. From the finest bistros to roadside shacks, every menu features lobster rolls, clam chowder and “steamers,” or steamed soft-shell clams dug from the sands of area coves. Subtle recipe differences make all the difference—butter vs. mayonnaise in lobster rolls; the proportion of potatoes to clams in the chowder; the duration of steamers’ precook soak.

For those who prefer fish with bones to those in shells, swordfish, bass and, of course, cod are popular favorites. The elbow towns’ many bakeries reflect the region’s heavy Portuguese influence. Sailors from the Azores, a chain of islands off the Portuguese coast, immigrated to Cape Cod in the late 1700s and early 1800s to participate in the whaling trade. Their descendants carried on the tradition of baking pastries and sweetbreads and today operate thriving bakeries. One legendary locale, Bonatt’s in Harwichport, pulls in early-risers with its signature sugary pastries, known as meltaways.

Cape Cod Clambake

Lobsters, corn and other staples of a Cape Cod clambake cook over an open rock pit.

Chef Anthony Cole tends his favorite stove with a shovel, rake and lawn tarp

Most summer days, chef Anthony Cole and his staff prepare a traditional Cape Cod clambake on a large open rock pit in front of the Chatham Bars Inn’s The Beach House restaurant. They steam lobsters, clams, potatoes, sausage and corn on the pit, just as the Cape’s indigenous people, the Wampanoag Indians, did for centuries.

The secret to a succulent Cape clambake is in the preparation. The process starts three hours prior to the food going on to cook, with Cole’s staff lighting a mix of firewood and charcoal piled on top of the rocks. The wood and coals burn for three hours before being raked away. Seaweed is then laid atop the red-hot rocks as a bed for the shellfish, meat and vegetables. A wet tarp is placed over the top and weighted down with sand, trapping the heat and moisture underneath.

The food cooks for an hour, its aroma drawing the hungry better than a dinner bell.

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