Cape Cod is a long sweeping limb, a flexed arm of land punching outwards and upwards into the Atlantic. If you look on the map it has all the appearance of a hand reaching out into the vast ocean to flip a precocious finger at America's former colonial master far across the water. It is no surprise that the peninsular has a colorful and fascinating history, as this was the most reachable spot for early European settlers who first landed here on these sandy beaches back in the 16th century. Later the whaling industry flourished then spectacularly failed when whale oil was usurped and replaced as the source of energy to light their houses and streets by that awful, ground-breaking petroleum and Edison's spark of genius, electricity.
Today Cape Cod has become a brand in itself. Like all successful brands it has those two essential factors - a clearly defined individuality (its USP or Unique Selling Point as we washed-up marketing men used to say) and, crucially, consistency. Think Cape Cod and you think quaint villages, totemic lighthouses, superb seafood and the countless summer homes of the wealthy New England elite. And it hasn't changed much in a hundred years.
In truth, it isn't really a peninsular at all, having being cut off from the mainland by the building of the wide Cape Cod Canal, hewn out between 1909 and 1914, and still used by dolphins and the occasional whale as well as the pleasure craft that pass through. A tour makes an interesting drive. The bit of the arm of Cape Cod from the shoulder to the elbow is woody and lush while the forearm up to the bleached fist that is Provincetown is largely sandy and sparse, taken over by wind-blown sand-dunes.
The best way to experience it all is to take the road from Wood's Hole and Falmouth at the south-west end (bottom left) to Provincetown at the north-east tip (top right) 70 miles away. It will take you through some unique seaside scenery and a handful of notable towns, with resonant British names like Yarmouth, Harwich, Chatham and Truro. Of these, Chatham is by far the best place to visit. The elegant Main Street is packed with colorful and creative shops and restaurants, watched over by a serene white church, a veritable logo of old New England. On the edge of town you will find the unmissable Shore Road, which is lined with the fabulous summer retreats of the wealthy Bostonians. Here you will also find the Chatham Lighthouse, one of the finest in the region, standing high and proud, flashing its warning beacon across the sea while the fishing boats land their catches at the nearby pier, which, by the way, has a brilliant, ramshackle fish market. But it is Provincetown, or P-town as it is colloquially called, that is the tourist mecca, a quaint, bustling, gay (very gay) village on a sandy bay that is abuzz with technicolor characters. We had been here before but, inevitably, it has got more camp, more eccentric and more fun as modern attitudes change and the wacky becomes the norm. It is a perfect first cousin of our home town of Key West, but from the classier, wealthier side of the family, so we felt perfectly at home.
Horseshoe crabs on the beach near Yarmouth
P-town main drag
P-town men's shirt shop
A sign of the times
THE KENNEDY LEGEND
It is hard to think of Cape Cod without thinking of the Kennedys. So we were excited to visit Hyannis, simply because of the whole mystical JFK connection. For it is here that the Kennedy Compound sits quietly and secretly and it is from here that the whole Camelot myth emerged. The entrance to 50 Marchant Avenue (the postal address of this illustrious enclave) is at the end of a short lane in Hyannisport, heralded on your arrival not by medieval Arthurian soldiers but by rather modest signs simply telling you to go no further. Naturally, for us this is taken as an open invitation to go just a bit further but it isn't long before secret service watchdogs challenge your advance and persuade you that a hasty retreat is the best policy.
There are a clutch of homes to house the dynastic Kennedy clan and the first one you can see is that of Ethel Kennedy, the kindly widow of Robert who was shot dead by assassin Sirhan Sirhan, a 24 year old Palestinian, while taking a convenient exit through the kitchens of an LA hotel after a rally on June 5, 1968. She vowed never to remarry - and never did, but was comforted for many years by the affable Andy Williams. This is just another example of the extraordinary Kennedy saga, an on-going tale where triumph and tragedy are close bedfellows. Hauntingly close.
Entrance to the Kennedy Compound
Ethel Kennedy's home
The compound is where the Kennedy clan unite, under the spiritual guidance of the late family elder, Joseph who bought the property back in 1926 having rented a summer cottage here for two years prior. Joseph had made his fortune as a businessman, making squillions from reorganizing Hollywood studios and distributing scotch whisky. He was also a successful politician (he was a one-time US Ambassador to Britain).
The most loved and celebrated occupant was Joseph's second-born son John F. Kennedy, or Jack as he was known (his first, Joseph Jr was killed in action during World War II). Born in 1917, Jack grew up to be a swashbuckling, sporty, scholastic, handsome, witty, rich and very randy (as they say in the UK) golden boy, destined to become the 35th President of the United States. In the center of Hyannis is an imposing building housing a museum dedicated to his memory, with a statue of a relaxed but pensive JFK appropriately dressed in his Cape Cod off-duty garb and barefoot. However, the museum contents are a huge disappointment, being just a shrine-like gallery of four rooms with large sugary-sweet black and white romanticized photos which serve only to eulogize and perpetuate the glossy romantic image of his early life and his marriage to Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, his charismatic and iconic wife. The story in pictures begins with happy childhood days, playing. swimming and boating at the Cape Cod retreat. It advances to the celebrity marriage and dwells, rightly, on the Camelot days of his tenure in the White House. His tragic death, one of the landmark moments of the twentieth century, goes almost unmentioned, as (unsurprisingly) does his notorious serial philandering which today would have the irritating over-vocal #MeToo movement screaming their anti-men heads off, in protestations screeching a higher pitch than normal. For, in reality, JFK was a Lothario of Olympic proportion, a true and relentless swordsman, making Donald Trump look like a blushing choirboy. Coincidentally, while Trump had his Stormy Daniels debacle, JFK had (literally), in his early days, his own Tempest Storm, aka Annie Blanche Banks, a stripper working at the Casino Royale in Washington. When he married Jackie, not much changed but the largely male Press corps in those days looked the other way. He had a string of casual affairs with countless women but Jackie maintained her poise, had another cigarette and held the whole thing together. Like Lady Di, she had had a troubled, but privileged, upbringing but grew up to be the fashion icon of her age, had the heartache of seeing her parents divorced (she was 11, Diana was 8 when her parents divorced) mostly because of her father's alcoholism. Each was destined to marry one of the most influential and most photographed men of their time and both, one way and another, were to embrace, in different forms, brutal death in the back seat of a car. Jacqueline was 34 when JFK was horrendously shot next to her in the back of a limousine in Dallas, Lady Di was 36 when she died cruelly in the back of her limousine in a Paris tunnel. But Jackie was a battler and the whole Camelot imagery was very much her creation after the assassination. Ironically, it was her genius in raising her husband up to King Arthur status that supplanted his hard-headed, Cold War political legacy with a colorful showbizzy, glossy legend of a liberal idealist, a myth that is kept alive in the museum.
Cape Cod is, above all else, where the New England chattering classes come to play. The houses are the stars here, magnificent vacation homes, all clad in those defining cedar shingle tiles with expensively planted and well-maintained gardens. It is a beautiful place to visits and explore, but it is the islands that have the most irresistible draw.
It takes just 30 minutes in the car ferry from Woods Hole to get to Oak Bluffs, the popular harbor town that greets the tens of thousands of tourists that visit every year. The island's 15,000 local population swells to over 150,000 in the summer and it is a special favorite with brides and grooms, second only to Las Vegas in the number of weddings it holds.
Oak Bluffs itself has that whole seaside vacation feel, full of T-shirts and little chintzy gifts. It is far from upmarket but it does have one of the greatest American curios that make this country so fascinating.
The Wesleyan Grove was a camp-ground for Methodist zealots in the mid-1800s. These religious pilgrims literally pitched their tents here by the hundred and gathered around a central tabernacle to release their god-fearing fervor. Soon tents were to be replaced by pre-fabricated small, delicate houses, all of similar size and lay-out surrounding the tabernacle in this wonderful encampment. The land is still owned by the church but the little dolls houses have mostly been handed down through the generations, or some have acquired new owners. Today many of the 315 wooden homes have been 'funked up' with bright colors and it is like immersing yourself in a fairy-tale to stroll amongst them. Essential visiting.
However, if you follow the money, big money, you will soon arrive at Edgartown on the east coast. This is where the truly wealthy have those fabulous homes and it is by far the most upscale town on the island. It was once a major whaling port and the historic houses built by the very rich ships' captains have been taken over and superbly preserved by the Bostonian meg-rich.
It overlooks the island of Chappaquiddick, accessible by a small three-car ferry, and remembered for all the wrong reasons. Edward Kennedy, the youngest of the children, was on the verge of fulfilling another Kennedy destiny to become President exactly 50 years ago, when tragedy snatched triumph from his hands.
He left a very private party of just six male friends (five married) and six single female guests, all in their twenties and all of whom had served on brother Robert's 1968 presidential campaign. They had been at the Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta and a small, hidden-away cottage had been rented for the very private evening gathering. The rest is history. On that night of Friday, July 18, 1969, Edward's presidential hopes sank with the Oldsmobile Delmont 88 that he was driving when it went off the wooden Dike Bridge into the tidal Pocha Pond with his ill-fated passenger Mary-Jo Kopechne strapped inside. There is little to add to the story that has become another Kennedy legend.
At the other end of the island is the dramatic Gay Head, with its receding Bluffs (or cliffs) still (just) holding up a magnificent lighthouse which has already been moved once to escape the erosion of the promontory that is being eaten away at a staggering rate of 3ft a year.
Nearby, at the south-west end of the island is the former home of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a 340-acre estate with her four bedroomed farm house, a comparatively modest abode that she had had built for her. It has also a swimming pool and guest lodge, all overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It all very much reflected Jackie's private but adventurous and romantic spirit. She even built a sumptuous tree-house for her grand-children. Her daughter Caroline has just put it on the market for $65 million.
The entrance to Jackie Kennedy's home in Aquinnah
Jackie Kennedy's house
Menesha is a tiny fishing village at the very end of the island. It is most famous for its role in the Steven Spielberg buttock-clinching movie Jaws, which was filmed on the island in 1975. It has both a beautiful working harbor and a long sandy beach, making it an ideal rest-up point for lunch at its minuscule fish market. Incidentally, part of the success of this hyper-tense blockbuster was caused by the early malfunction of the three electric sharks they had built. The designers had developed them in fresh water but once they were immersed in salt water, they fut-futted to a standstill. So Spielberg, filming in unseasonably bad weather, had to shoot the early scenes with no sharks, and miraculously made the submerged, unseen menace even more terrifying for the audience.
Martha's Vineyard left us, to be honest, slightly underwhelmed but perhaps we had made that old traveller's mistake of having a case of over-expectation.
This wonderful small island, however, is a completely different kettle of Atlantic cod. There are two ways of getting there. The slow, traditional ferry takes two hours to make the 30 mile crossing while the pricey, faster streamlined ferry zips you over in just an hour. You arrive at Nantucket Town, a truly fabulous little place with cobbled streets, picturesque cedar-shingle cottages and upscale shops and bars. The island is a third of the size of its big sister Martha and has an official local population of just over 10,000. It seems to us there are only three ways you can live here: to be the fifth or sixth generation of locals, to take on seasonal work (a phalanx of Salvadoran or Jamaican immigrants keep the hotels running and a bevy of East Europeans serve cocktails at the bars) or to buy a house. But to buy a house you have to be rich ... very rich ... as rich as Croesus. The average price of a single family home here is $2.5 million - that's more than the Hamptons where the average is a mere $2.1 million. Nantucket is where the New England mega-rich throw off their Armani suits and shiny brogues for their Bermuda shorts and boat shoes to go to the yacht club or one of the local golf clubs, both of which take years and a bankful of money to join.
Nantucket Town is just delightful. One of the best places we have visited in our two-plus years of exploration. Once one of the world's major whaling hubs, the fisherman's cottages and large captain's houses with their 'widow's walk' lookouts on their roofs create an idyllic, movie-set environment. The cobbled, tree-lined Main Street has all the feel of an old English county town. Its New England church, with its white spire reaching up toward the maker, completes the picture. Put it on the bucket-list.
(Below) A few miles away you will find Siasconset, pronounced Sconset, a small village made up of old fishing 'shacks', some dating back three hundred years.