By LARRY VAUGHT
How do you describe a week in Cape Cod in a reasonable length yet making sure you convey just how lovely that area of Massachusetts was, especially in late May before the hard-core tourist season started on Memorial Day.
So I did what any reasonable person should do — I asked my wife what her top five highlights of our recent 2,500-mile trip turned out to be.
Again, there’s a lot more to do, including a ton of free stuff, on Cape Cod than these five things. But here are her five choices (and that means they are also my five choices) and it doesn’t even include our trip to Plymouth Monument in Provincetown where we learned the Pilgrims originally landed there, not Plymouth Rock, and signed the Mayflower Compact there.
1. Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises out of Barnstable is the mid-Cape’s only whale watch sailing daily from mid-April through October from Barnstable Harbor to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary — which annually ranks among the top 10 places to see whales.
At $49 per adult (there are reduced prices for children and senior citizens) it’s hard to find a better bargain in Cape Cod.
As we boarded the jet-powered Whale Watcher, we learned we had a naturalist to not only help spot whales along with the captain, but also to educate us about everything we saw. Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises claim a 99 percent sighting rate, but that sounded too good to be true.
But guess what? Less than an hour into our cruise, we spotted a minke whale. Actually, I was one of the first to see it surface twice. That was great, but only the start.
It was not long before we saw our first humpback whale. Luckily for us, it was not our last one. For almost 90 minutes, we seldom went longer than 6-8 minutes without seeing a whale of some type. Once a humpback whale got so close to the boat that I thought it might come aboard. Later another humpback got almost as close.
Minke whales are not as big, but perhaps more playful and several times we saw a minke whale lift its tale out of the water.
Our cruise had people of all ages and origins. We got to spend a good bit of time with a family of six. The father was a Navy doctor stationed in Roanoke, Va., and had his wife and four small children with him. They were energetic but loved the whales as much as I did.
Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises also had another nice touch — a galley with reasonable prices. I had a bowl of chili (even with temperatures in the 70’s on the coast, the wind on the water made it much cooler) that was delicious and priced at $3.50. Bottled water and soft drinks were $2. The galley had hot dogs, cheeseburgers, pizza, big pretzels and a lot, lot more. But it was all reasonably priced.
Yet you were also allowed to bring food and drink on board with you and most of us did that also for the four-hour trip.
2. Art’s Dune Tour in Provincetown offers a 2 1/2 hour off-road experience through the National Historic Dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore Park.
Art’s Dune Tour is the only company with the permit to take you through the majestic dunes — and to tell you how good it is the three people with us had been many, many times before.
We took the sunset tour and even though it was an overcast day with basically no sun, it didn’t matter.
You ride in an enclosed, air-conditioned Suburban — so you can wear about anything you want — with a driver/tour guide. That also means the tour does not have to be cancelled due to rain and our driver said some of the most gorgeous views can actually be in the rain.
We saw a coyote almost as soon as we got to the dunes and a baby fox as we were leaving. While driving on the the beach we also saw lot of seals. And I mean a lot.
Our guide also pointed out the various plants growing in the area as well as the “dune shacks” where artists and writers apply up to five years in advance for the right to stay a week or more in the summer months even though there is no electricity or running water at the shacks.
During warmer weather, the sunset tour can include a traditional New England clambake with steamed lobster, clams, corn and either clam chowder or Portuguese kale soup.
We got to meet owner Rob Costa. His father founded the company 70 years ago and Costa said during the peak summer months he says he has up to 10 tours stay full daily. He allows children of all ages to take the tour and also lets you bring beverages and snacks to enjoy during the tour.
Our tour allowed us about 30 minutes to sit on a nearly empty beach just before darkness and enjoy the beauty and peace that is simply inspiring.
3. Nantucket Island is about 30 miles south of Cape Cod and we had a delightful ride over with Hy-Line Cruises that took about one hour each way. Once we arrived, we found a city with cobblestone streets, diverse architecture and shops and restaurants of all kinds.
Residents told us the population is something around 15,000 but in summer months that can swell to 50,000 or more daily. Of course, that goes for most towns in Cape Cod.
The city is filled with history and it is easy to spend hours just roaming the streets. There are plenty of terrific spots to eat in all price categories, and some of the best ice cream ever.
We also toured the Nantucket Whaling Museum for over an hour where we found whaling artifacts and memorabilia, including scrimshaw — the name given to scrollwork, engravings and carvings done by whalers that is most commonly made out of the bones and teeth of sperm whales.
There is also a 46-foot skeleton of a bull sperm whale suspended from the ceiling of the old candle factory.
There is also a great view from the third floor of the museum.
4. Church of the Transfiguration in the Community of Jesus just outside Orleans was not an anticipated event. However, Bill DeSousa and the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce recommended we make this stop and we were overwhelmed by the beauty of this ecumenical Christian community on the shores of Cape Cod. The church has doors featuring Adam and Eve and once inside you find mosaics and frescos that are breath-taking and part of the message that in all things God may be glorified.
Sister Gabriella took us on a tour of the church. Guided tours of the Church of the Transfiguration are available every day except Wednesday and daily prayer and worship services are open to anyone.
The mosaics and frescos both took about eight years to complete. Maestro Silvestro Pistolesi was born in Florence, Italy, and he traveled here for six-week stints when the humidity was right to do the frescos. The full-scale drawing of the mosaics first painted on cardboard by Helen McLean was cut into pieces and sent to Alessandra Caprara in Ravenna, Italy. It was really intriguing to see since a few years ago we had been in Italy and saw churches up to 1,000 years old with the same concept but not the vibrant, fresh colors.
Sister Gabrillea took great pride in explaining the community members helped Pistolesi and gradually got to do more and more work with him. Same with Caprara as community members went to Italy to work with her and then also helped install the mosaics that are colorful and full of life just like the frescos high on the wall.
The Church of Transfiguration also has an incredible choir — I listened to one of the CD’s — that has recently been to Italy to perform and to other countries in prior years.
And here’s the best part — there’s no cost for the tour or for parking (a rarity in Cape Cod) to enjoy a hidden Cape Cod treasure. Plus, there’s a beach near the parking lot.
5. Chatham Lighthouse was established in 1808 and is the second oldest on Cape Cod. Obviously, we wanted to see lighthouses. Who could come to Cape Cod and not want to see a lighthouse or two?
There is an active U.S. Coast Guard station with on-duty personnel living quarters that allows for missions to be carried out from the station. The primary mission is for search and rescue and the movie, “The Finest Hours,” was based on a dramatic rescue mission out of Chatham station that saved 32 lives.
The lighthouse is 40 feet tall and overlooks the Chatham Bar. And even on a Thursday night near sunset, there were plenty of visitors to this historic landmark.
We also went to see the Three Sisters Lighthouses in Eastham. The first set of lighthouses was commissioned in 1837 and three lights were built to distinguish the site from other lights. Each was painted white with black lantern decks, which lent to their looking like three ladies with white dresses and black bonnets – the birth of the name “Three Sisters.”
In 1892, three new lighthouses were built because the original three were too close to the cliffs. However, the lights had to be moved back again due to erosion and eventually were moved to their current location that is a bit off the beaten path. However, that lets you wander right to the lighthouses and look inside them all.
So there you have my wife’s top five (the mansions in Newport, R.I., just missed making her top five). Me, I would have listed all the great spots we ate seafood. I doubt many are on fine dining lists but Salty’s in West Yarmouth and Sir Cricket in Orleans had unbelievable seafood, including shrimp and lobster tails. And there were so many great seafood chowders to eat and each was a bit different no matter where we stopped.