WHO: Globe staffer Jenna Russell and her daughters, ages 2 and 4
WHAT: Cape Cod Canal Visitor Center
WHERE: Sandwich, just over the Sagamore Bridge
For those of us on the deep South Shore, Cape Cod is a three-season destination, a favorite place to take the kids as long as it’s not summer. Luckily for us, the Cape Cod Canal Visitor Center — just over the Sagamore Bridge in Sandwich — opens early in May and stays open late into October. For everyone else, it’s just as lucky, the perfect family rest stop on your summer journey to the Cape.
I first heard about the visitor center from another mother at the playground. She was surprised that I had never been there, understandably, since the place was barely a five-minute walk from where we were standing. This tiny, kid-friendly museum is the very essence of a hidden gem, surprisingly rewarding and requiring just the slightest detour off the beaten path.
Run by the US Army Corps of Engineers, its purpose is to tell the story of the canal, the commercial waterway, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, that turned the Cape into an island and saved a century of boat traffic from traveling around the Cape the long way. The tale of the man-made channel’s origins is interesting enough to engage older kids; happily, the center’s impressively well-designed interactive exhibits are there to seduce the younger ones.
Some of the offerings are simple: a touch table full of seashells; a train table equipped instead with toy boats and a model of the canal. Others are showstoppers, especially the 45-foot canal patrol boat Renier, installed here after her retirement from service, and open for kids to take turns “driving” in the wheelhouse. My children have to be dragged away from the fishing “pond,” where they love to hook the laminated cutouts of native fish like tautogs and winter flounder using real fishing rods equipped with magnets. A ruler lets them measure if the fish are big enough to keep.
Elsewhere, kids can spell their names using wooden blocks painted with the colors and patterns of maritime signal flags, or learn to tie shipshape knots like the shackle and the eye splice. A briskly paced 18-minute documentary, “Canal Story,” plays on a continuous loop in the small, comfortable theater.
Outside, a gravel path runs along the canal to its northern egress, where the open water beckons. There’s a fine small playground around the corner at the Sandwich Marina, and a nearby ice cream stand, The Shipwreck, that also serves hot dogs. Best of all, a row of rocking chairs in front of the white-shingled visitor center makes a breezy spot to watch for passing tugs and barges. The chairs weren’t out yet when we visited last weekend, but we’ll be back to sit and rock awhile.
Cape Cod Canal Visitor Center, 60 Ed Moffitt Drive, Sandwich. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. 508-833-9678.