Surprise: The Cape in winter is no ghost town. Sure, Steve & Sue’s Par-Tee Freeze is closed, and the dinosaurs at the Cape Cod Inflatable Park are as flat as front-yard Santas. But on a recent Saturday, The Lanes Bowl & Bistro in Mashpee was buzzing with families, and the Inn on the Sound in Falmouth was sold out. There’s plenty of action if you poke around a bit; moreover, you’ll find a convivial spirit and a warm welcome. Staffers at Sundance Boutique in Chatham will take the time to share the pros and cons of fleece leggings as they ring up your purchase; who has time for chat in busy July?
Outside is another story. The landscape of scrub pines, wind-whipped dunes, and frothy coastline has a stark beauty. It snaps into sharp focus when the air is clear and cold, and all the tourists are out of the picture. Long walks on the beach were never so beautiful, if a tad brisk. Add it all up, and the Cape is unexpectedly appealing off-season. And need we tell you, the rates go way down in winter, so you can experience a swanky seaside room for about half of what you’ll pay in high summer. Tempted? Here’s a look.
Get your cozy on
Dining out is always festive on the Cape, even if you’re doing it igloo-style. The Frost Bar at Ocean Edge Resort & Golf Club (www.oceanedge.com) in Brewster offers a la carte dining in private igloos behind the mansion, with heaters, fluffy blankets, and an array of belly-warming options like shepherd’s pie, fish stew, and roasted mushroom carbonara. Outdoor firepits encourage staying a bit longer and enjoying, say, a chocolate martini, if it’s not too frigid outside. (The resort is open in winter, by the way, with food and beverage promotions, holiday events, and fun activities for kids like Harry Potter-themed weekends.)
For igloo dining and drinking in a more casual setting, consider Naukabout Brewing Company (www.naukabout.com) in Mashpee. Igloos can accommodate eight guests, and it’s first come, first served. The menu is shortish (think chili, clam chowder, bar pizza) with an intriguing list of small-batch IPAs, plus live music on weekends. And who doesn’t love brunch? The Pelham House Resort (www.pelhamhouseresort.com) commands a lovely oceanfront spot in Dennis Port, and the brunch menu is first-rate, whether you head up to The Rooftop (a connecting room has a fireplace and best views), or Sea Level, an indoor/outdoor patio space with firepits.
And you may not know that Pain D’Avignon (www.paindavignon.com) — the darling of many a Michelin-starred restaurant and destroyer of many no-carb diet resolutions — was founded on the Cape. Check out the full-service French bistro in Hyannis or simply pick up a loaf of cranberry-pecan bread or their famous brownies. If you’re game to spend some time indoors, the venerable (circa 1968) Chatham Squire (www.thesquire.com) is always hopping (choose the dining room side, not the bar side, if you want more space to yourself). Along with classic pub fare, they offer some interesting options, like fall succotash with roasted fennel, and at dinner, “Angry Lobster”), trivia contests, and live music on weekends. Treat yourself to dinner at Cuvée (www.cuveechatham.com) at the Chatham Inn; the four-course tasting menu ($145 per person) is a delicious journey from the Berkshires (pork belly) to Spain (octopus).
You’d think the ice cream shops would be closed now. Some are, but, surprise — you can still get a peach cone (or another flavor, but the fresh peach is everything) at Four Seas Ice Cream in Centerville (www.fourseasicecream.com; open Saturdays until late March). Cape Cod Creamery (www.capecodcreamery.com) in Hyannis is open too. If you’re eating ice cream in this weather, yay you … we’ll stick with chocolates. And a shout-out to our favorites, Kandy Korner (www.kandykorner.com) in Hyannis and Chatham Candy Manor (www.candymanor.com) in Chatham, for staying open in winter, when chocolate isn’t just a luxury but a necessity. Once you’ve had the house-made turtles at Kandy Korner and the sea salt caramels at Chatham Candy Manor (made with local sea salt), you’ll be ruined for mass market candy forever.
Bundle up and explore
We can’t say enough about the glories of Sandy Neck Beach Park in Barnstable, a 4,700-acre spread of rocky beach, sandy dunes, and maritime forest. But for sheer volume of trails — and woodsy, hilly terrain — the West Barnstable Conservation Area (1,114 acres; town.barnstable.ma.us/departments/Conservation/TrailGuides/WBARN.pdf ) is tops. These trails are also popular for single- and double-track mountain biking, even now. Also in Barnstable, Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary (www.massaudubon.org) is a lovely destination for a winter walk, with 2.5 miles of gentle trails that lead to vistas of dune-flanked Barnstable Harbor. In Woods Hole, a tromp along The Knob at the Cornelia Carey Sanctuary rewards walkers with dazzling views of Buzzard’s Bay.
Cape Cod has one of the highest concentrations of lighthouses in the world — 22 in all, if you include the islands. The Three Sisters Lighthouses, off Cable Road in Eastham, are accessible year-round. There’s also Nauset Light in Eastham (it’s pictured as the logo on the Cape Cod Potato Chips bag), and Bass River Light in Dennis, the oldest original lighthouse on the Cape, built in 1855.
On the culture track
Winter is a great time to check out museums you might overlook on summery beach days. Both the Cape Cod Museum of Art (www.ccma.org) in Dennis, featuring the work of local artists, and Provincetown Art Association & Museum (www.paam.org) in Provincetown are open year-round (check their websites for current hours). Meanwhile, the Barnstable Comedy Club (www.barnstablecomedyclub.org) isn’t a comedy club at all, but a community theater, one of the longest running live community theaters on the Cape. Playing in March: the spy thriller “A Pack of Lies.”
Less artsy, but plenty of fun, are a couple of Mashpee spots, The Lanes Bowl & Bistro (www.lanesbowlandbistro.com), home of the pretzel burger (a salty-meaty delight that’s one of our favorite things to eat on the Cape), and an escape room, Upside Down Escape Games (www.upsidedownescapes.com.) Why, there’s even an ax-throwing room, House of Hatchets (www.capecodaxe.com) in Hyannis.
While nobody would ever call the Cape a shopper’s paradise, it does have a solid reputation in the antiques category. Sandwich Antiques Center (www.sandwichantiquescenter.com) stocks everything from Fiestaware to a vintage diving helmet, with a strong collection of nautical items. Another great stop is the Antiques Center of Yarmouth (www.antiquescenteryarmouth.com), a co-op so huge, it’s got everything “olde” you can imagine. If you like popping in and out of boutiques, the main drags in Falmouth, Chatham, and on a smaller scale, Osterville, offer some variety. And we can’t write about the Cape without giving a shout-out to Titcomb’s Bookshop (www.titcombsbookshop.com) in East Sandwich; one of the best and most inviting booksellers on the planet.
Bunk up here
Long walks on the beach, beautiful waterfront lodgings — romance is in the (chilly) air right now. The 18-guest room Chatham Inn (www.chathaminn.com; from $269 in winter) is the definition of cozy chic. Located near Lighthouse Beach and close to downtown, this Relais & Chateaux property offers rooms with all the trimmings: wood-burning fireplaces, two-person soaking tubs, Matouk bed linens, Frette towels, and Malin + Goetz bath products. And the luxurious, oh-so-Cape Cod Chatham Bars Inn (www.chathambarsinn.com; from $300) is an adult oasis in wintertime, when spa-going takes the place of sandcastle-building. Named one of the best hotels in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, the inn offers 12 adults-only Spa Suites, appointed with hydrotherapy tubs, saunas, steam showers, and fireplaces. Up the hedonism level with an in-room massage or body treatment. The inn’s signature restaurant, STARS, pairs seasonal cuisine with wow-worthy views of Chatham Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. Down Falmouth way, the circa 1872 Inn on the Sound (www.innonthesound.com; from $159 currently) is an inviting option. This 12-room B&B is located just steps from Falmouth Heights Beach, so the views of Nantucket Sound are fabulous (eight of the dozen guest rooms have ocean views.) Bonus: Delicious hearty breakfasts and afternoon treats. Their chocolate-hazelnut-cheesecake brownies alone are worth the trip.
Beyond all of that, consider this: On a winter visit to the Cape, you’ll experience one of the rarest occurrences in New England — a traffic-free ride over the Sagamore or Bourne bridge.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com