ORLEANS — Initially it was frustrating, almost infuriating, to see the hydrangeas weighted down with dense blooms on every Cape Cod lawn. The cheerful, bulbous blue pompoms conjured images of an overdressed cousin from Hoboken who shows up to sit shiva in a sequined minidress. C’mon hydrangeas, read the room!
The tiger lilies seemed just as indifferent to the gray world surrounding them. Their blazing orange hue was a bit too similar to the color used in graphs to indicate states where cases of COVID-19 are spiking upward. Tame the flame and put it back in the cage, lilies. Maybe next year. This isn’t the summer to be thriving. Same goes for you, cloudless skies and perfect sunsets. Shut it down, nature. Nostalgia should be taken off the menu this summer. There’s only room for anxiety, with a side order of fear.
This seems as good a place as any to begin a story about Cape Cod. If you couldn’t guess from my anger toward hydrangeas, which I think is very rational, I’m having a difficult time reconciling travel and coronavirus. It’s impossible to experience a vacation where you can get away from it all this summer. A careless day at the beach means making sure your beach blanket is 12 feet from others, wearing your mask when you’re in line to order lobster, and making sure your mini golf putter is sanitized. Also, you may be on vacation, but the virus is not, so please, just wear your mask.
For many of us, going to a seaside New England town in the summer drips nostalgia the way melting ice cream glides down the side of a sugar cone. Coming to terms with the current state of the world while surrounded by past childhood joys, such as eating fried clams dipped in enough tartar sauce to clog a horse’s arteries, can drive the most rational among us to yell at flowering shrubs. I tried my best to stop overthinking it all. “Buck up, buttercup!” I yelled at myself — after yelling at tiger lilies.
Enough mulling and brooding. It was time to go to the beach.
I wound up in Orleans because up until last week it’s a town that I had previously only driven through on my way to other places on the Cape. I heard great things about Nauset Beach and someone on Facebook said something about frozen hot chocolate, and that was pretty much all the convincing that I needed.
I went to the Orleans Chamber of Commerce website to look at beach options. They listed three: Nauset, Skaket, and South Orleans Beach on Pleasant Bay. South Orleans Beach was described as “a best kept secret in Orleans.” Naturally I went there first. The beach has no fees, no lifeguards, and warm water. What could go wrong? As you know, when someone asks “What could go wrong?” something is about to go very wrong.
I planted my towel, chair, and began twisting the umbrella into the sand when a dark shadow wearing capri pants approached.
“Private beach!” the capri-panted Karen yelled at me. “This is a private beach!” I explained to her that the beach was listed on the Chamber’s website as public. Also, I was surrounded by dozens of families. There was a section of the beach that was designated as private, but this wasn’t it.
“Private beach!” she spat back. I was beginning to think those were the only words she knew. I asked her to either put on a mask or stand farther away from me. She harrumphed and moved on to the next family. “Private beach!” she screamed at them. I picked up my chair and moved it over about 20 feet. Private Beach Karen had bigger fish to fry and seemed to forget about me. Meanwhile, I thought “Is that really the best you can do, 2020? Private Beach Karen is about as intimidating as a mosquito bite.”
Aside from Karen — and if you meet her please send my regards — South Orleans Beach on Pleasant Bay was indeed a hidden gem. The crowds were a fraction of what they were at other beaches. It’s tiny but subdued and I drifted off listening to waves.
On the topic of hidden gems, I had specifically come to Orleans to experience a diamond that I recommend even more than South Orleans Beach on Pleasant Bay. The Nauset Beach Inn is the only lodging available within the confines of the Cape Cod National Seashore. It originally opened in 1950, before the National Seashore was established. It’s now owned by the National Park Service but leased out to a Brewster-based company that continues to run it as a hotel. If this were an ordinary hotel, I would have had a field day writing a review. I’m sure the bathroom tile is original, and the ceiling was covered with strange tiles. But this wasn’t an ordinary hotel. The room had a huge picture window that looked out over Nauset Beach. This is probably one of the best views on Cape Cod.
The Inn, a semicircle of rooms on a hill looking down at the ocean, may have been a tad dated, but it was charming as all get-out. My room was spotless, there was a new wood laminate floor and climate controls that looked as if they had recently been updated. The paint was a cheery combination of yellow and blue.
Did I mention the view?
It was a five-minute walk from the inn to Nauset Beach. I quickly learned that Nauset Beach is huge (10 miles to be exact), has some impressive waves, and is known for sharks. It was also fairly crowded, although the beach is large enough to handle crowds without feeling cramped. It’s $20 to park at Nauset (because I was staying at the hotel I could just walk down the hill for free) and there are facilities, along with a couple of food trucks.
At sunset I drove to Skaket Beach, where the waves are gentle, the water warmer, and because it faces west, you can watch the sun set over the water. It’s almost hypnotic. Parking at Skaket is also $20. Best of all, no Karens. If you’re not the beach type, I recommend Kent’s Point Conservation Area, where you can walk to ponds and rivers from easy paths.
Because I was coming to Orleans with no prior knowledge of the town, I did some extensive research before my trip, and by research, I mean I asked for recommendations on Facebook. I was pleasantly overwhelmed. It helps to have a bunch of know-it-all friends. Suggestions included the Yardarm, Sunbird Cafe, Viv’s Kitchen, the Knack, Emack & Bolio’s, Hole in One, Nauset Farms, Land Ho!, and Captain Cass Rock Harbor Seafood. Given that I was only there for three days and there was a grill outside my room at the Nauset Beach Inn, I didn’t make it to all of those restaurants. But I did have a burger at the Knack (better than Shake Shack) and ate it near the Jonathan Young Windmill, I tried a sugar roll at Hole in One, purchased lots of provisions at Nauset Farms, and, here’s the important one, drank something called frozen hot chocolate at the Hot Chocolate Sparrow.
The Hot Chocolate Sparrow is a local institution. Currently it’s take-out only with several picnic tables for sitting and enjoying treats. I didn’t get to see the beauty of all confections up close, but I dutifully followed the instruction of friends to sip the glory of frozen hot chocolate. I went at it so quickly I initially got an ice cream headache. But I slowed down and enjoyed its icy sweetness. The chocolate was cut with just the right amount of whipped cream.
In that moment, that glorious moment, I created a new Cape Cod memory. I briefly sat at the picnic table, greedily sipped the chocolate, and forgot about COVID-19 and Karen. It may have only been five or 10 minutes, but this was exactly what I needed to reset myself before putting my mask back on, spraying my hands with sanitizer, and facing the hydrangeas once again.