Ice cream from Sundae School tastes good any time of year and on every sort of occasion. Sundae School in East Orleans, Mass., is one of the must-stop joints on all my trips to Cape Cod. Those trips have occurred at the height of the summer and the onset of winter -- and most times in between.
I started visiting this hook of land off Massachusetts southeastern shore when I was a single college student and my friends and I would relax, go to the beach and barbecue. Now I go with my husband and two daughters. We meet up with friends, relax, go to the beach and barbecue. The beauty of a Cape Cod trip is that it doesn't have to change over the years. What was fun then -- the beaches, the miniature golf, the fried seafood -- is fun now.
Plus, there's a feel-good sense of wholesomeness that is rare in a country full of theme parks and mega malls, neither of which you'll find here.
And there are things to do year-round. Of course, choices are slimmer in the off-season -- but so are the crowds. June and September are the happy medium. The throngs of tourists don't fully descend upon the Cape until schools are out (mid-to-late June in most of New England), and the air and water temperatures usually are the same in September, in the high 60s. For Cape Cod, where the water only hits the low 70s in the middle of August and the air is only slightly warmer, September weather is pretty close to ideal.
I've mostly explored the area known as the Lower and Outer Cape, though surely many similar attractions are to be found on the Upper and Mid-Cape. Here are some things not to be missed, no matter which demographic you belong to.
A sunset at any of the western-facing Cape Cod Bay beaches. Cape Cod is separated from the rest of the state by the world's widest sea-level canal -- it's 480 feet wide -- so there's a significant pink-purple horizon for the sun to dip behind.
The Wellfleet Drive-In Movie Theater. Remember the scenes in "Grease" at the drive-in? Here's your chance to recreate them. There's a dairy bar complete with burgers, ice cream and root-beer floats, a playground and a miniature golf course. Child-friendly films often show up in the first of the double-feature slots each night, with a film for more mature audiences afterward. By day, the grounds frequently host flea markets and art shows.
. Tons of them. Sure, there are serious golf courses on the Cape -- the Ocean Edge Resort in Brewster comes to mind -- but for the more casual vacationer, miniature golf will do. It's an activity that takes about an hour, perfect to fill in the gaps between a beach day and dinner, or between dinner and bedtime. Kids and adults can both play the game, and there's room for all skill levels. Pirate's Cove in South Yarmouth and Cape Escape in Orleans stand out for their creative courses.
in Truro. Originally built in 1797, the Highland Lighthouse is the tallest on the Cape. It was reconstructed in 1857, automated in 1986 and moved back from an eroding cliff in 1996. Visitors to the still-functioning Coast Guard light can climb to the tower and the observation deck that sits 120 feet above the ocean. From this point, there's nothing between you and Portugal across the Atlantic. There's also an "interpretive room," which offers a video tracing the rich history of the lighthouse, which has survived many hurricanes and shipwrecks.
Art in Provincetown. Provincetown mixes kitsch at five-and-dime stores and fine art, ranging from photography to paintings, at neighboring galleries. By standards on the mainland, both can be purchased at relative bargains, and the offerings appeal to all tastes.
Roadside seafood stands. There are plenty of restaurants, but if your accommodations have a kitchen, there's nothing better than the fresh seafood you can cook yourself. The day's menu largely depends on the day's catch. Vacationers won't want to shop for a lot of spices and condiments, but the good news is that a great home-cooked meal on the Cape requires little more than lemon for the fish and a side dish of corn on the cob.
in Brewster. This is a "joint," or as the owners call it, a shack, if there ever was one. It's not fancy, the food is not gourmet, yet I've never made a trip to the Cape without a pit stop here for a good juicy burger, crispy-yet-slightly greasy fries and a milkshake.
. This amateur league, established in 1885, shows off baseball in that wholesome, idyllic way that reminds you why it's America's favorite pastime. The games, which move from town to town, are played by people who are on the field because they love the game, not because they're being paid millions. The crowd -- a mix of locals and tourists -- is enthusiastic. The food is supplied by one organization or another trying to make a few bucks.
Cape Cod National Seashore. A total of 43,608 acres of salt marshes, freshwater kettle ponds, uplands and a great diversity of species make up the national seashore park to explore all over the Cape. But park headquarters - including the official tourist center - is in Wellfleet, where 61 percent of the town consists of the seashore park. There are hikes here for all abilities, as well as the 1,000-acre Massachusetts Audubon Society Wildlife Sanctuary.
. It's hard to get tired of the pristine beaches, but if you do, there's another option for nature lovers. Nickerson State Park in Brewster consists of 1,900 acres of woods right in between the Cape's sandy shores. There's not a sand dune or salty marsh in sight. Camping, bicycling, canoeing and catch-and-release fishing are all ways to spend the day.