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Getting to Know Provincetown

Getting to Know Provincetown
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There is no better way to know a famous tourist town than arriving off season, when the tourists  have left, and the locals reclaim their streets, their beaches, their way of life that brought them here in the first place, perhaps generations ago. I rarely visit a beautiful place without daydreaming at some point about what it might be like to live there. And it was no different this time when we came to Provincetown, at the tip of the outer cape.

Photo/Art by Annie Graves
Colorful buoys that will soon top the famous lobster trap Christmas tree.

If you’ve been to Provincetown, Massachusetts in the height of summer, you know there are few more entertaining destinations in the country. You can pass a day simply people watching on Commercial Street, the three mile long living carnival of homes, shops and humanity that runs parallel to Cape Cod Bay.

You can walk for hours through the undulating dunes of the Province Lands in the Cape Cod National Seashore. You can simply throw down a blanket on the beach and let the enervating surf cool you down.  And you can share all of this with some 50,000 plus like minded visitors, who are willing to wait for traffic to crawl through town, wait for restaurant tables, wait for parking by the beach.

Approaching Fisherman’s Wharf by boat.

Which is why I love off season.  There may be at best barely 3000 year-rounders to share the streets with you. Like bookend visits, I came to Provincetown in April and again this November, just before the town’s famous Thanksgiving lighting of the Pilgrim Monument. The monument seems to follow your gaze wherever you are in town, or even on the wind swept dunes. The monument symbolizes the town’s pride in its history—and reminds everyone that the pilgrims first made landfall right here in Provincetown Harbor, and signed the Mayflower Compact while anchored offshore. If you had forgotten that fact before coming to town, you won’t soon forget it again after visiting the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.

Provincetown’s Pilgrim Monument.

Commercial Street beckoned with only a relative handful of cars and pedestrians, all of waving to each other as if we were all in on a wonderful secret.

The Outer Cape’s ocean waters moderates temperatures—flowers bloom here earlier and stay longer.  In April the lovely, well kept homes that hug the narrow, winding streets were already boasting flourishing gardens.

April flowers start the season with color.

And here I was just days before Thanksgiving, looking at roses refusing to relent to winter’s black and white world.

A November rose resists the coming cold.

If you want to know the details we checked into the Anchor Inn and Beachhouse.

We were greeted by Molly, the resident Labrador.  Provincetown boasts it is the most dog friendly town in America and that was certainly borne out as no matter where we strolled, we saw dogs and their owners—and you couldn’t walk for more than a few minutes without seeing a welcoming dog dish filled with water.

Molly taking her ease.

Just two of Provincetown’s many canine residents.

To get a room at the inn with a sweeping view of the bay in summer would have required a reservation made perhaps in the dark heart of winter. But even though a number of B&Bs and inns close up after Columbus day, so too, there are always others who keep welcome signs posted year-round.

Sunrise from the Anchor Inn and Beachhouse.

The venerable Lobster Pot Restaurant is famous for its “line out the doors and down the street,” our waitress told us as she seated us. Sharing the dining room of this mother and son run restaurant was a couple huddled in one corner, and a playwright from New York City who said he’d been coming for nearly 20 years and celebrating his birthday right here each time at the Lobster Pot. We caught a break since the restaurant would soon close until April. Our meals: blackened tuna sashimi and sole almondine showed why even though it is one of Provincetown’s most famous dining stops, it is one of those rare places that lives up to its following.

The famous Lobster Pot Restaurant.

Tuna sashimi at the Lobster Pot.

Sole almondine at the Lobster Pot.

Mornings start early when your room faces the rising sun.  Which is good because I was ready to explore. On foot. Off season when Commercial Street and the entire town hums to a different rhythm.

Breakfast could not have been more convenient—about five steps from the inn’s front door. Bayside Betsy’s, with its tables looking out to the beach and the brightening sky, all made brighter by delicious and hearty fare. As is the case with so many of Provincetown  eateries, your waiter (in this case Steve) had a personality that mixed serving with comedy.

Bayside Betsy’s serves breakfast with a view.

Our waiter Steve is part of the experience at Bayside Betsy’s.

After breakfast, several hours of meandering followed.

We saw workers fixing, repairing, battening up, at once getting ready for winter, and at the same time laying the foundation for the spring and summer ahead.

The off season is the right season for repairs.

I don’t think there is a dull block along Commercial Street.  Whether exploring famous MacMillan Wharf with fishing boats bobbing by the dock,

Boats at MacMillan Wharf

Or walking to the end of the pier to look at the famous mural with its tribute to the women who sustained the fishermen on their long, dangerous voyages

Fisherman’s wives art mural at Fisherman’s Wharf.

or meandering down alley ways which peek onto the sand and water,

There were views around every corner in Provincetown.

or just appreciating the trim cottages, or looking at the home where Norman Mailer lived and wrote (now a writer’s colony since his death), a day unfolds at whatever pace you want.

Walking the waterfront with the Pilgrim Monument in the distance.

Norman Mailer’s house is now a writer’s colony.

Off season there are fewer shops open, sure, but also few people tugging at the stuff you want.  I think every store had 50% off sales—and it’s no surprise that the days after Thanksgiving lading to Christmas sees a surge of visitors who come for fun and bargains.

Plenty of shops remain open in the off season.

Marine Specialties is part shopping mecca and part vaudeville show—in this case the performers being the eclectic shelves filled with anything you might ever imagine to see if a store was stocked by someone with a great sense of humor.  Pith helmets? If you’ve been looking, you’ve come to the right place.

Marine Specialties offers can’t-miss browsing.

Pith helmets? They’ve got those.

There are any number of lunch stops, but I discovered Napi’s one spring and we spoke about it for months afterward.

Napi’s restaurant – famous for its food and ambiance.

It is part art gallery, part repository of Provincetown memories, and for decades has stoked the fires of its customers.  I asked our waitress for the recipe of its famous Portuguese kale soup and in moments she returned with a printed copy.

Portuguese Kale Soup from Napi’s.

Portuguese Kale Soup
Recipe from Napi’s in Provincetown, MA

Ingredients
1 lb. linguica
1 lb. chorizo (a spicier version of linguica)
1 bunch kale
1 lb. dried kidney beans or 3 cans of the beans
1 large onion, diced
2 large potatoes, chopped
2 small cans of tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
Cider vinegar

Directions

  • Follow package directions for soaking beans ( if you use canned skip this step)
  • Cut linguica and chorizo into thin rounds and sauté in just enough oil to keep them from burning.
  • Remove and place in soup pot.
  • Sauté the diced onion in the pan. Add to soup pot.
  • Add beans and enough of their water and plain water if necessary to cover to the soup pot.
  • Add potatoes, and salt and pepper and tomato paste to taste.
  • Cook gently until the beans are as tender as you like.
  • Wash kale, remove stems and cut into bite size pieces. Add to soup.
  • Cook until the kale is cooked to your taste.
  • After the soup has been put into a bowl, add a splash of vinegar.

After lunch we had to climb the Pilgrim Monument, its tower rising over 252 tall. The walk is relatively easy, with gusts of wind at the top all but taking your breath away, but no more so than the hawk’s eye view of the town, the bay, the distant dunes.

View from atop the Pilgrim Monument.

The museum itself is one of those treasures that can all too easily be overlooked.  There is a room devoted to Polar explorer and Provincetown native Admiral Donald MacMillan’s numerous explorations. And I guarantee you will come away with a greater appreciation of the pilgrim experience after visiting the Pilgrim wing and it’s diorama of the Mayflower.

A white wolf brought back from one of Admiral MacMillan’s polar expeditions.

The jaw bone of a finback whale leaves childrens’ mouths agape.

In summer you may share sunset watching at Race Point in the National Seashore with a hundred or more people—but on this November afternoon, with the wind billowing and sand swirling, we seemingly had the entire coastline to ourselves.  When you are alone on the dune backed shoreline, it is easy to forget that only a mile or so away is a town filled with light and noise and camaraderie. In the Provincelands offseason at twilight it is lovely and lonely, as if on a deserted island.

Dunes at Race Point.

Sunset at Race Point.

A final Provincetown dinner had to be fish, fresh from the water just beyond our table at the Central House at the Crown and Anchor Inn.

You can never go wrong with fresh fish in Provincetown.

The last thing we did the following morning was to gather up those ubiquitous real estate brochures –with cottages and condos, and homes ranging from affordable (especially if you rent it out in high season) to this is great when we win the lottery.

Could we live in Provincetown?  We could. Could you?

I could live here. Could you?

Mel Allen

Author:

Mel Allen

Biography:

Mel is the fifth editor of Yankee Magazine since its beginning in 1935. His career at Yankee spans more than three decades, during which he has edited and written for every section of the magazine, including home, food, and travel. In his pursuit of stories, he has raced a sled dog team, crawled into the dens of black bears, fished with the legendary Ted Williams, picked potatoes in Aroostook County, and stood beneath a battleship before it was launched. Mel teaches magazine writing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is author of A Coach’s Letter to His Son. His column, “Here in New England,” is a 2012 National City and Regional Magazine Awards Finalist for the category Column.
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40 Responses to Getting to Know Provincetown

  1. Polly medlicott November 25, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    Beautiful photos and description of an amazing beachplace! can’t wait to go there, and now I will know what to do and where to eat…. thanks YM!

  2. Kristin Frykman November 25, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    Provincetown is a beloved place to us, but we’ve never been there in November. Thanks for showing us that it is as much fun — and just as beautiful — as it is in high summer! This was great fun to read and the photos are fantastic. Really lovely!

  3. kim dupre November 25, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    Reading this made me long for a trip to this very colorful place. Loved the mix of photos – beautiful scenery, yummy food and of course the cute doggies. Whether in season or not, P-town is one of the most unique places you’ll ever visit.

  4. Baxter Harris November 25, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    Lovey photos and the words were put together nicely as well.

  5. Mary Lou O'Neil November 25, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Fantastic photos, captions and commentary. Makes me want to go there. Or move in when you win the lottery!
    :)

    ML

    • Darlene Graves November 25, 2011 at 11:39 am #

      Stunning photography and delightful comments make this place so inviting, especially when the crowds have left and the beauty has remained. Thanks for sharing with us as if we were tagging along with the happy sojourners.

  6. woody keppel November 25, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    Great job! Can’t wait to go, and we’ll be bringing the dogs! “woof, woof”

  7. Coni Porter November 25, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    What great photos and stories. We were in Provincetown a few years back, and this brings back great memories… including all those stairs in the Pilgrim Monument. Now, I want to go back!

  8. Cathie Sage November 25, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    Beautious and gorgeful!! Thanks for sharing this with all of us!

  9. Vicki S November 25, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Just lovely! I’ve been living in L.A., but moving back to NH in January. Your photos and words reaffirm how much I love New England.

  10. Donna George November 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    OMG…what a beautiful trip you’ve taken us on, an engaging storyline with gorgeous stills. You’ve both brought this lovely area to life, with color and images that scintillate the palate! Love this, and cannot wait to make it out there in the off season as well. Thank you, M&A, for sharing the lusciousness!!! :-}

  11. Peter Tuttle November 25, 2011 at 3:15 pm #

    Well…I think after this persuasive blog…P’town off season will be a little less uncrowded. -But still lovely. Bravo.

  12. jane preston November 25, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

    Have been to Ptown in Nov years ago with my beloved friend Joanie Thibeault and our daughters…………..brings back wonderful memories. The photos are wonderful and makes me homesick for New England ………………but not for the cold.
    You know you are always welcome down here.AG AG xo

  13. Michael Graves November 25, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    You two created a world that contended with, and almost vanquished, the memory of an overlong, hot, ill-advised car trip to PT. The car overheated and there were a million people there (or zombies). AARRGGHH! OK, then, take me along on your next trip.

  14. Randy Avis November 25, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

    I have got to share this with my friends they will love it!!!

  15. jessie pollock November 26, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    I loved your pictures. You captured the feeling of Ptown very well. I love going there. It’s filled with characters too!

  16. Paul A-B November 26, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    I have been fortunate to be a year-rounder since 1977, when, in my mid-twenties, I ran away to the tip of the Cape. I have never looked back. One can go to the back shore (ocean side) and spit at Spain. The boundlessness is breathtaking. Yes, an east-facing shore, a bracing wind, and a crashing wave, and I’m 7-years old forever!

  17. Bonnie Harris November 26, 2011 at 9:58 pm #

    What a tantalizing trip. I want to go, now. Beautiful pictures – especially loved the sand dunes and the lone rose reaching through the fence – and a great write-up. Sounds like you had a fabulous time.

  18. Melissa Sounder November 28, 2011 at 6:14 am #

    Great photography but the article leaves out one of the important parts of Provincetown. ART
    I see no mention of the 70+ galleries in town or the fantastic art museum. Provincetown is the oldest art colony in the US.

    • Mel Allen November 28, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

      Melissa,
      I agree that Provincetown’s justly famous art galleries, art museum, and art heritage is a major oversight. I simply ran out of time in this one brief visit to see the galleries and the Provincetown Art Assocation and Museum. http://www.paam.org/
      Provicetown’s growth as a major tousrist destination really dates all the way back to the late 19th century when the first art colonies became established right here. Thank you for pointing this out.

      • Adam Peck November 29, 2011 at 8:42 am #

        And know that many of the galleries remain open, particularly on weekends, throughout the winter.

  19. Ellen Klempner-Beguin November 28, 2011 at 11:10 am #

    You have an eye and ear for the charming, delicious and interesting.. Love the way you took us for a stroll through town.. What a treat to see P’town in November. Thanks for sharing the trip.. and yes I could live there!

  20. Melody Zahn Russell November 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    Thank-you for a virtual tour of the tip of the Cape. I enjoyed Mel’s commentary and fabulous Annie photos. Lobster buoys my favorite! Truly does whet the appetite and travel urge.. Also stirs memories of that Provincetown sea air and artistic impulses everywhere.Even the dogs looked artsy! I wonder if the Moors [Portuguese Restaurant at the tip near Race Point} still exists? There I experienced my first whiff of real Beatniks when I was 12 and I never really recovered. Ahhh…..

  21. Cathy Biliouris November 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    We’ve visited in May, June and October. Next stop …. New Year’s Eve !! Can’t wait !!

  22. Gail Dupre November 29, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Each photo brings back a sensory memory and leaves me yearning to return. Thanks for sharing this Provincetown trip….things I’ve experienced and things I look forward to exploring next time around!

    Beautiful photos….and of course love the dogs!!

  23. Alexandra December 2, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

    One spot you missed is 331 Bradford, the local health food store. A great raw food chef now operates out of its kitchen. A few steps up the street, explore Ruthie’s thrift shop, the place to find extravagant clothes that used to belong to drag queens. (If you are curious about learning more about life on the Outer Cape, read my Wellfleet blog: http://chezsven.blogspot.com.)

  24. Alexandra December 2, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

    That address is 141, not 331. Sorry!

  25. Jamie Trowbridge December 6, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    Good to see Marine Specialties in here. Whenever my family goes to the Cape, we go out to P-Town just to shop there!

  26. Linda CA December 6, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your article and wonderful pictures about PTown. It’s been nearly 50 years since I’ve been there!! I’m sure that with all the changes that must have occurred over time that it would be hard for me to find the small quaint village that it use to be. I use to get up real early in the morning and go out with my friend on his cousins lobster boat. To this day I can still smell the smells and savor the flavors of my time there. What wonderful memories I have. Thanks for taking me there again even if it was for only a short time. Linda

  27. Annie December 7, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Hurray for P-Town and for Mass. Have been a regular vacationer there for over 15 years – the minute I am on 6A headed to Truro (right outside of P-Town) – I know I am partially there. There is an incredible bus that runs all throughout the upper cape and for $ 2.00 one way – you don’t have to fight the traffic to and from P-Town – or pay for the parking – yuck. The people are always friendly, the stores interesting, the art stunning and the ocean – well its eternal….

  28. Vanessa December 9, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    One of my favorite places on earth. Love biking in the dunes. Best sunsets at Herring Cove Beach! In March, you can actually see seals close to shore here. From Race Point beach in March, we have been able to see whales off the coast.
    Napi’s is an awesome place to eat. I need to book a trip back there soon!

  29. A.R.E. Silva December 12, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    Years ago, a restaurant on the pier offered a Portuguese Fisherman’s Platter, the difference being: Nothing is fried! Boiled potatoes, steamed clams, baked scallops and fish, etc. You don’t get the larded down feeling as with a regular fisherman’s platter. Unforunately, the next year, the restaurant was gone. Someone pick up on it. Really!!! From a New Bedford Yankee transplanted to Montreal.

  30. Cher L. December 26, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Great article and great picstures. I was hoping o see a picture of Lady Di from WOMR.

  31. Cindy Dumser December 27, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    Post Labor Day has always been our favorite time to visit Truro and Provincetown. The crowds of icecream eaters are gone but the total quirkey ambiance lives on. I Love It!! But how did we miss Bayside Betsys? A new destination for us next time we go.

  32. Robin Higgins February 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    I have vacationed here since I was a kid in the 60′s. My husband and I continued the tradition, coming in crazy August every year. Then we added a weekend in Nov. Then a week in February. Then a week in May. We finally took the plunge in 2009 and moved here! Come see for yourselves – it is the best!

  33. sharon roda dwinell February 9, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    my grandparents moved to ptown in 1917, my dad was born there, & i lived there until i was 23. tho i’ve been in vermont since 1973, i go back to visit often & have contact w/ many of my old friends – & some new! i was fortunate to be a part of the large portuguese community, & it was a wonderful place to grow up. i still miss it. love marine specialties! the picture of the provincetown bookshop reminded me of an interesting bit of trivia: john waters was a clerk at the bookstore in the 60′s-early 70′s while putting on plays @ the provincetown playhouse at nite.

  34. Dan Lewis February 9, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    Lived there for 15 years (24 years ago) & November is best. Thanks for taking me back.

  35. Megan Nelson February 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Great article. Grew up in Provincetown as did my mother. It was, and is, a place like no other!

  36. Mel Allen February 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

    I have enjoyed reading all the responses. Before you know it, spring will settle on P/town and there is no nicer time to be there, flowers blooming, first whale watching trips going out (April), and still the streets are not crowded.

  37. Queenie March 30, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

    Loved the photo’s…. Go Molly; the famous Provincetown dog of Anchor Inn !!!!

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