It was a cold evening in December as I walked Chatham’s Main Street. Summer had settled down for a long winter’s nap and I had the town to myself. A wind whipped up off the Atlantic, and then I saw it: Santa’s Workshop.
A tiny white house festooned with lights, garlands, and a wreath tickled my inner 6-year-old. Out front, Santa’s Mailbox was accepting Christmas wish lists promising express delivery to the North Pole.
Here on business, I wasn’t planning to linger. But my assignment was complete and I had only Route 3 traffic to face. Why not make a list, check it twice, and knock around a few shops?
During the holidays this popular summer village is rife with retro elegance. Lights twinkle up and down Main Street. Inside the varied independent boutiques and galleries, you’ll find Christmas music and jolly salespeople. “A cup of hot, spiced cider while you shop?”
“Every single shop is unique and affordable; you don’t have to go anywhere else,” said Lisa Franz, executive director of Chatham Chamber of Commerce.
In the last several years Cape Cod has established itself as a holiday shopping alternative to jostling at the malls.
Falmouth, Mashpee, and Provincetown are magnets this time of year, but for my money, Chatham, with its walkable and friendly downtown, captures the spirit of the season. Think Nantucket sans the ferry. Visit midweek for the best experience.
One of the first things I noticed, beyond plentiful parking, was a lack of chain stores. Chatham is one of those increasingly endangered towns that promotes local at every turn. “We have the Black Dog and that’s about it,” said Franz.
For something less ubiquitous, hound lovers should make tracks to Chatham Beach Dog. Canine gifts, from a Boston Celtics bowl to mouth-watering elk antlers, will elicit wags around the tree.
For the hard-to-shop-for Brahmin on your list, visit Tale of the Cod. At the tasteful home gift and decor shop you’ll find everything from Simon Pearce glassware to furniture wrapped in nautical themes. Need a little Christmas right away? Scoop up some vintage ornaments before heading out the door.
There are a number of women’s boutiques in town, but I had the most success at the spacious and nearly empty Sundance Clothing. Entering to browse, I fell for a Joseph Ribkoff dress and a fun skirt on the sales rack. Trying them on without the fitting room frenzy was a holiday miracle.
Next door I picked up a copy of “The Outermost House” at Yellow Umbrella Books. Henry Beston’s year on the National Seashore is the ultimate beach read. The 1928 naturalist novel is one of many Cape-themed books lining the shop.
Across the street, the festive Kate Gould Park glows bright.
Last year the entrance to the town green was lined with Christmas trees decked out by local merchants. The hairdressers went to town with comb-covered trees and even lawyers and a Pilates studio got in on the act.
This year all eyes will be on the bandstand where orbs and sea creatures dance in the breeze. For next weekend’s 34th Chatham Christmas Stroll the crowds will be out in force and shops are open late.
“Downtown villages are thriving this year. There’s a warm and cozy feel,” said Kristen Mitchell Hughes, vice president of marketing for the Cape Cod Chamber. “There is so much going on. The holidays are a great time to visit.”
On Dec. 9, Chatham hosts a historic inn and museum tour. This is when Colonial and captains’ homes, now bed-and-breakfasts, and even the posh Chatham Bars Inn open their doors to the curious. “It’s a chance to see what rooms look like and try the outrageous dip at the Carriage House Inn,” said Franz.
Speaking of lodgings, overnight guests can expect a considerable drop in rates this time of year. From $139 versus $400 at some spots.
I stayed at The Cranberry Inn on Main Street and found this 1830s hotel a welcoming retreat. With a roaring fireplace and full breakfast ranging from homemade scones to eggs to French toast, it was hard to force myself up from the table and out the door. It was quiet, unfussy hospitality from another age.
Need another reason to point your sleigh to the Cape’s elbow this time of year? Temperatures can be mild in the winter, making walking off all that merriment a tad easier.
If you haven’t checked everyone off your list, visit the Atlantic Workshop and Gallery. This artist cooperative puts a modern stamp on antique furniture with repurposed bureaus and chairs in splashy hues. During the stroll, a woodworker will be carving Christmas ornaments by an outdoor firepit.
To keep your stamina going, pop into Carmine’s Pizza for the best pie this side of the Bourne Bridge. This is a no-frills joint that turns out exceptional pizza with a cornmeal crust and a bevy of toppings.
Now you’re ready to hit Fisherman’s Daughter. Cape Codder Taylor Brown altered what it means to be a sea hag with her modern, eco styles. Striped fingerless shucking gloves and striking dresses made of organic cotton are far too original to be found in a mall.
Finally, because it is the season of bling, visit The Chatham Bag to accessorize. The small boutique with sparkly swag became a hit this summer with its Chatham shark gear. Pick up a mug or shirt “for those with discriminating tastes.”
Now that sharks have migrated south, the only thing biting are the winter winds.
Kathleen Pierce can be reached at kathleen-pierce.com.