WEST FALMOUTH, Mass. — The autumnal palette of Cape Cod features a color not found in the mountainous regions of New England.
In the Cape's ethereal light, the blue ocean adds a sensational dimension to a landscape already resplendent with bright crimson cranberry bogs and yellow, orange and red deciduous trees.
Savvy travelers prefer this time of year. Days are warm and sunny, and nights are cool and crisp. For swimmers, the water is at its warmest because of accumulated heat gains during summer. The stream of tourists turns into a trickle. Beaches and streets seem comparatively empty. Tee times are easy to book, and hotels offer value packages. Stars of rare intensity fill the sky, like diamonds sprinkled on a velvet cloth.
"We are so well-known for our beaches that people don't realize what a great arts destination this is," says Kristen McMenamy, a spokeswoman for the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. "We have 83 museums, 475 art galleries and many theaters, including the oldest summer theater in the country, the Cape Playhouse," she adds.
The cultural scene takes center stage once the beach season ends. Festivals focus on the visual and performing arts, bountiful harvests and fine dining that invariably includes piping-hot chowder, succulent lobster rolls and delicately seasoned white fish.
Shaped like a fishhook, Cape Cod has historic and economic ties to the ocean. For centuries, people earned their living plying the waters of Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay. The fishing fleets at Chatham, Orleans and other ports uphold this maritime legacy.
The Cape's heritage remains most evident along Route 6A, better known as Old King's Highway. It follows a 17th-century cart path and runs parallel to Cape Cod Bay, crossing through seven towns from Bourne to Orleans. The 34-mile scenic byway is America's largest designated historic district.
We pick up the highway in Sandwich, making a stop at the Heritage Museum and Gardens. This colorfully landscaped, 100-acre site includes three museum buildings that showcase Americana collections, an old-fashioned carousel, the Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame and classic cars. Gary Cooper's lime-green and primrose-yellow 1930 Duesenberg is the most stunning of the highly polished cars.
A working windmill, dating to 1800, is the centerpiece of a perennial garden. Another local attraction is the 98-year-old Sandwich Glass Museum, where visitors see glassmaking demonstrations.
The historic highway is slow-motion sightseeing. Motorists stop at village greens in Yarmouth, Dennis and Brewster. Silver-gray saltbox cottages, grand Greek-revival estates and Victorian farmhouses punctuate the Upper Cape, an area boasting an interesting mix of gift shops, restaurants, inns and museums. A 20-mile stretch between Barnstable and Brewster supports more than 50 antiques stores. Beachcombers on Sandy Neck Beach have pleasing views of Barnstable Harbor. The Cape Museum of Fine Arts in Dennis was founded in 1981 to focus on local artists and keep their works on the Cape.
We make a turn northward to explore Cape Cod National Seashore, established in 1961 to preserve fragile ecosystems. The park's Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham is a hive of activity as people organize picnics, hikes and bicycle rides. Six swimming beaches dot this 40-mile ocean stretch.
Nearby at Fort Hill, walking trails offer glimpses across Salt Pond Bay and the green-gold grass of Nauset Marsh. Visitors to the Penniman House walk through an archway of whale jawbones at its gate. This ornate French Empire residence once belonged to a captain of whaling ships.
To reach other historic structures operated by the Cape Cod National Seashore, we travel through Wellfleet and Truro to Provincetown.
Wellfleet, considered a wiggle-your-toes-in-the-sand destination, is chockablock with shops and restaurants. Truro is less commercial. Rolling moors and dunes still dominate the seascape. We climb to the top of the venerable Highland Light and watch players on the Highland Golf Links adjust their swings to the gusts of wind blowing in from the Atlantic. The lighthouse, also called Cape Cod Light, was a favorite overnight stop for Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s.
"A man may stand here and put all of America behind him," he wrote while staying with the lighthouse keeper. Today's travelers can have similar experiences at the Race Point Light keeper's house, just a few miles north in Providence. The American Lighthouse Foundation's Cape Cod chapter manages the three-room house. With the ocean on three sides, guests can watch for whales, walk the dunes, swim and dig for clams.
The boisterous crowds of Provincetown are a jolt after the hours spent in placid marshes and dunes. Commercial Street is shoulder-to-shoulder with people. Many arrive for the day on high-speed ferries from Boston and Plymouth. They are here to sunbathe on the beach and party in the many bars, cabarets and dance halls.
P'Town's celebrated reputation as America's oldest continuous art colony began with impressionist artist Charles Hawthorne, who planted his easel on the Cape in 1899 and spent 30 summers teaching artists. This artist haven with a large gay community supports many galleries and cultural events, plus a vibrant restaurant scene.
Perched on a hill, the Pilgrim Monument provides an overview of the town's exuberance. The 255-foot granite landmark commemorates the Pilgrims' first landing in the New World at Provincetown. They stayed long enough to write the Mayflower Compact, but then settled across the bay in Plymouth.
Having reached the fingertip of Cape Cod, we turn our attention to the elbow. Chatham is surrounded by water on three sides and features a classic lighthouse and graceful homes on Shore Road. People buy the catch of the day at the fish pier. It is the most stylish town on the Cape, according to Boston hipsters at the high-end shops and restaurants on Main Street.
Hyannis is the midpoint in a drive across the Lower Cape. Harbor cruises allow for views of the Kennedy residences. The John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum displays photographs of the president's carefree days at the resort town. Woods Hole, located on a peninsula far to the west, is home to the world's largest independent oceanographic laboratory. Visitors to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute learn about marine research at the exhibit center that is open daily.
We reach West Falmouth in the evening and snag one of the last tables at Chapoquoit Grill. It's the kind of place where locals take their house guests and spend a few hours in lively conversation, fueled by fine wines and delectable fare that includes creative pizza, pasta and seafood.
This town on Buzzards Bay has many congenial spots. Cedar-shingle cottages and sea captains' mansions rest on quiet lanes. Quaint shops, bakeries and other businesses make up the small village.
We stay at the Inn at West Falmouth, located within a half-mile of shell-strewn beach. The turn-of-the-last-century residence has six guest rooms elegantly furnished with Oriental, English and continental antiques. Our spacious room with a private porch is almost too comfortable to leave, but heated pool, clay tennis court and billiards await our attention.
We venture down to the veranda and watch the sun set over the bay, its golden glow illuminating the English garden. Exceptional tranquility and hospitality are hallmarks of this choice accommodation (508-540-7696, www.innatwestfalmouth.com).