The beauty of the Outer Cape in winter
Joy Holdinghall calls it “our little end of the world.” On this bleak and windy mid-November day, that’s precisely what it feels like at the Provincetown Inn. The summer tourists have departed — although the inn remains open year-round — leaving the streets free of traffic and the beaches to the birds.
If it’s solitude you are seeking, the inn offers the idyllic winter retreat. It is located at the tip of Cape Cod, alongside a rocky breakwater that divides the ocean from the marsh and leads to a lighthouse.
“You can have the beach all to yourself in the winter,” says Holdinghall, the inn’s desk manager. “This is why Hagler came here.”
Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the former world middleweight champion from Brockton, used the inn as his training base for fights until 1985 because the distractions were minimal and he could focus on getting in shape. His picture, along with a boxing ring bell, hangs over the bar in the inn’s wood-paneled tavern.
The Outer Cape, which includes Provincetown, Truro, Eastham, and Wellfleet, is a different animal during winter. It can be both desolate and delightful, a place for reflection and relaxation. The traffic is gone, the lodging rates have plummeted by as much as 50 percent and in many cases parking is free and readily available.
Although it quiets down to a whisper, that doesn’t mean you must resign yourself to hours of reading, taking long, lonely walks, or staring out at the ocean — although time spent patrolling the peaceful National Seashore beaches is rarely a bad thing. The Outer Cape in winter can be a magnificent place to visit with a variety of intriguing options to fill up your day.
Even remote Provincetown offers activities to pique your interest after Labor Day. A handful of art galleries, jewelry stores, bars, and restaurants remain open on Commercial Street, while the Provincetown Art Museum hosts film screenings and art courses throughout the winter. If you make it there before Dec. 1, you can dine at the iconic Lobster Pot, which closes for the season on Nov. 30.
Truro is home to Highland Light (previously known as Cape Cod Light), which hovers over the century-old Highland Links Golf Club. The course closes for the winter on Dec. 1, but it’s still a wonderful spot to walk, with surrounding views of the ocean across treeless, wind-swept fairways that hark back to golf’s Scottish roots.
Nearby Truro Vineyards produces 18 locally made wines and offers daily wine tastings until mid-December. For $10, you can select five of 10 wines and take home the glass. The vineyard produces chardonnay, cabernet franc and merlot from grapes grown on the 3½-acre property. It sources grapes from across New England and California to make the remainder of its wines. For the first time last year the Vineyard branched out to produce a handcrafted rum. The wine shop also sells jams, jellies and a wide assortment of wine-related accessories. The vineyard is easy to find; look for the enormous oak barrel that can be seen from Route 6, and then head for the circa 1870 Chinese mulberry tree that dominates the front entrance.
Not far from the center of Truro is Chequessett Chocolate, which opened its doors, appropriately, on Valentine’s Day this year. Handcrafted chocolate is made on-site in a 60-pound drum using the “bean-to-bar” process. (Bean-to-bar refers to the making of molded chocolate bars from raw cacao beans, with minimal processing and using organic evaporated cane juice.) The sea salt candy bar, with the salt coming from the Wellfleet Sea Salt Co., is highly popular.
Wellfeet is a thriving artist community, and it’s where Edward Hopper spent summers painting some of his most famous works, including “Cape Cod Sunset,” “Corn Hill” and “Seven A.M.” His painting titled “October on Cape Cod” sold at auction last year for $9.6 million.
Beth Chapman, who grew up in South Truro, has been conducting Hopper House Tours for the past two years. I settled into the back of Chapman’s car (the tour can accommodate only four people at a time) to take a two-hour Hopper history lesson that began at the Wellfleet Town Pier. Before I could buckle my seat belt, Chapman was handing out an outline with the titles and dates of the paintings and landscapes she would visit, along with a thick ring binder filled with Hopper’s paintings. Each painting was numbered, and Chapman instructed us to turn the page to find the painting of each house we were about to see.
The tour is actually better in winter, because with the leaves off the trees, it is easier to see the houses that in some cases are tucked into the woods. The tour winds along back roads, through the woods, and even down a dirt road that included a train track when Hopper was painting. Hopper completed about 75 watercolors and 43 oils of local scenes, according to the Truro Historical Society. Chapman drives past 30 houses in Wellfleet and Truro, providing detailed background on each, along with information on the summer cottage Hopper rented from 1930 to 1933 before moving to his own studio.
Chapman spent her childhood summers in Truro and Hopper (1882-1967) painted her family’s farm. She also shares personal family anecdotes, including a testy encounter her father once had with the occasionally crusty Hopper.
Wellfleet is also home to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, which showcases the area’s beaches, woods, salt marshes, and ponds in a 1,100-acre setting. Visitors can take a bird walk led by a naturalist or go on a guided tour of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Evening lectures are also offered. The Nature Center is open year-round.
The Wellfleet Preservation Hall on Main Street has a full winter schedule of events. Live jazz and folk music, along with independent documentary films are presented in a renovated former church. There is also a regular schedule of Zumba and yoga classes.
Venture further up the Lower Cape to Orleans and you’ll discover a thriving winter community. Rock Harbor offers spectacular sunsets. In summer you are fortunate to find a parking spot, while the mosquitoes are persistent pests. But in winter there are only a handful of cars and there’s no need for bug spray.
One of my favorite stops whenever I’m in town is the Bird Watcher’s General Store. The owner, Mike O’Connor, is an accomplished author of bird-related books and is happy to answer any questions. Bird-feeders of every shape and size hang from the walls, alongside an extensive selection of locally hand-made wooden bird houses. The store also includes an eclectic assortment of gift items, from children’s clothing to Christmas ornaments.
To some, winter means escaping the Outer Cape. But for many others, it’s the best time to visit.