Friday, September 24, 2010

Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard

We left you in our last blog post about to land in Provincetown, at the far tip of Cape Cod.  The Cape and the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard are all products of the last continental glaciers that descended over New England and other northerly parts of the US.  In moving south through New England the glaciers scoured the rocky Appalachian Mountains, carrying off large amounts of it as boulders, rocks and sand.  When the glaciers stopped advancing they dropped their load like conveyor belts, and these sandy outposts resulted.  Accordingly, they have fairly similar fauna, flora and topography to each other.  Of course humans have introduced their own imprint on the land, and the islands, being islands, have developed somewhat differently than the mainland -- more about that further along.

One of the things that surprised us was the extent to which the Cape and the islands were forested, particularly with pines and oaks.  Here is a little piece of the forest ending just short of some sand dunes near Provincetown at Race Point.  That's the old Life Saving Station peeking up behind the dunes, a forerunner of the Coast Guard where men were stationed, ready to row out to sea in lifeboats when ships ran aground, which they did with some regularity given the tricky currents and shallow seas around the Cape.  Race Point itself has a nice beach, which these folks are enjoying on Labor Day before heading back to the workaday world.

Which brings up a point about our timing.  We had planned to do a trip like this two years ago, in reverse, as we headed north toward Canada -- but in July.  No could do.  The prices for lodging were outrageous.  But Labor Day is really a great divide, and the Provincetown room we rented for $79 on Labor Day evening was $159 the previous night, and perhaps for the previous 90+ nights since Memorial Day.  Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard were not cheap even after Labor Day, but not high enough to make us gasp for air.  We grimaced a bit, but argued to ourselves that we'll probably only do this once, so what the heck . . . !  In fact, the ferries stay the same price throughout the season, and it's not a cheap price.  The ten ferries we took over the next 14 days added up to $510 for the two of us and our tandem.  But that "well, just this once" argument won this mental battle as well.

As we worked our way south along the Cape we stopped at a beautiful spot where the National Park Service has set up a visitor center, Salt Pond.  New England generally and the Cape and islands especially are full of "kettle ponds," roughly circular bodies of water formed when a chunk of the receding glacier made a deep imprint in the land that gradually became a pond as it melted.  Some of the shallower ones filled with decaying organic material and became bogs that made the Cape famous for cranberries.  This one happened to be so close to the ocean that a large wave finally breached it and it became a sort of tidal lagoon.  We hiked partway around it and also to a nearby bog to get a feel for the land.  A two-mile bike path starts at the visitor center and took us on our tandem to an even larger salt marsh just behind a barrier beach just out of view to the left.

We spent a second night on the Cape at Chatam, the bend in the elbow of the Cape, then on to Hyannis.  The older of our readers will recognize this as the location of the famous Kennedy Family Compound.  Others of our readers will probably react more to the news that Hyannis is now home to a Trader Joe's, the first one we've encountered since leaving Seattle 3 months ago.  Needless to say, we dropped a few dollars there as well as on the ferries and at the motels.  In any event, at Hyannis we picked up the third of our ferries, yet another fast catamaran, the MV Iyanough.  The ferry pulls into Nantucket Town, the largest community on the island and the only port.  You can see the port behind the white railing leading to the lighthouse that marks the entrance to the port, which we visited by bike the next day.

Nantucket is a very interesting place.  It's exceedingly scenic, exceedingly historic, exceedingly rich.  We were astonished at the number of jewelry stores in Nantucket Town, and we're not talking costume jewelry or strings of sea shells.  We found it pretty much impossible to find a restaurant meal that wouldn't hit $50 for the two of us, with no extras like appys, drinks or dessert.  But gosh, the streets are lined with homes ranging from cute to just downright gorgeous in their simplicity!  Here are some shots on two of the side streets:

Then there's the old windmill (the rest of the wooden support for the sails was taken down a few days earlier when Hurricane Earl was about to swing past the island, where the winds did top 40 mph), and the oldest house on Nantucket, the Jethro Coffin House built in 1686.

We found a great location for our two-night stay, the Hawthorn House, built in 1849.  Around the corner were flower-garlanded shops by day, transformed into attractive streets to stroll down and window-shop after dinner at night.

As you can see in the last picture above, part of Nantucket Town is cobbled.  We didn't even think of biking on these things --we'll leave that to crazy European bike racers, who do it routinely in their spring rides -- but couldn't help but notice how interesting the streets seemed to become when they were cobbled.  Here are several of our favorite shots:

If there's one thing even more extravagant than taking the ferry to Nantucket, it's taking a ferry there with a car.  Makes Washington's car ferries seem like a bargain.  Not to mention the fact that you sometimes have to book a few months in advance to get the date and time you want!  But with our bike, we had mobility, and we took advantage of it.  Nantucket's not a large island -- although it's almost exactly twice the square mileage of Manhattan Island, it's only about 90% as large as San Juan Island or Orcas Island in NW Washington -- and getting around by bike is easy as they've built nice bike trails parallel to almost all the main roads leading out of Nantucket Town, which is right in the center of the island.  We explored the beach at Madaket at the western edge, but absolutely adored the cute homes in Siasconset, called 'Sconset by the locals, at the eastern edge of the island.  They are deceptively old, given how well-kept they appear, most dating from the 1700s and early 1800's. 

Two final things are worth mentioning about Nantucket.  The entire island is an historic district, meaning that every building put up on Nantucket must be approved by a committee.  You don't see modern architecture on Nantucket, but then you don't see ugly buildings either.  Yes, there is a remarkable homogeneity that does not necessarily appeal to everyone, but the folks who control things there appear to like it very much. 

The other thing has to do with the look of everything else that's not man-made, i.e. nature itself.  There's quite a bit of it.  Of course islands always have their vistas of the ocean, but Nantucket also has a lot of vistas of greenery as well, thanks to several organizations.  Two that stand out are the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and the Nantucket Island Land Bank.  The former controls over 25% of the land on the island, the latter almost 10% and growing.  The Conservation Foundation consists of land donated by individuals or purchased by donations.  The Land Bank was created by the voters, and is financed by a 2% fee added to most real estate transactions.  With other smaller organizations and government agencies also protecting land, almost 50% of the island is protected forever from development.  It's a remarkable accomplishment for a place as desireable as Nantucket!  You can see some of this open land beyond the golf course at 'Sconset in the photo below, and we've attached a map to the right that shows in more detail what's protected as of earlier this year -- everything in light or dark blue (foundations) or in dark brown (government).  So take your time getting here, it's not going to change much between now and when you arrive!

We saw a lot in our 48 hours on Nantucket, including one last view of it as we left on our way to Martha's Vineyard, our next stop.  Obviously, this is a part of the island that the conservancy people are not likely to be looking at any time soon . . .
Martha's Vineyard has many similarities to Nantucket but important differences.  It's almost twice the size as Nantucket and at 7 miles from Cape Cod, is well within sight compared to its neighbor, which cannot be seen from the mainland.  It's large enough to have a number of communities, each with distinct characters.  What we noticed more on the Vineyard than on the Cape or on Nantucket (though they were present there in less noticeable manifestations) were the stone walls.  New England is famous for them, attractive as well as an effective way for farmers to clear their land of all those rocks the glaciers brought down, and have an inexpensive wall to boot!  The most impressive ones of course are those that use no mortar, and we passed some great ones.  Now the glacier occasionally brought some really large rocks --  no problem, just incorporate them into the wall!

With three nights to explore the Vineyard, we got out to quite a bit of the island down those charming narrow roads.  It looks pretty daunting, but the drivers were very courteous, and we never felt endangered riding roads like these -- cars just waited to pass, and gave us lots of room.

Once again we hit the westernmost and easternmost points, Gay Head and Edgartown.  The town of Gay Head, named after this "gaily colored" cliff, officially changed its name to Aquinnah in 1998.  Whether that was politically expedient or politically incorrect, we'll leave for others to decide.  Edgartown was the most attractive town on the Vineyard in many ways, but after having taken photos of so much of Nantucket, which is more attractive still, the only thing that got us to pull out the camera was this serene lighthouse just north of town, guarding the waterway that separates Edgartown from Chappaquiddick Island in the distance.

Well, no trip to Martha's Vineyard is complete without some time spent wandering through Oak Bluffs.  In the 1830s, a time of great religious enthusiasm sometimes called the Great Awakening, evangelical ministers started conducting camp meetings here.  These became increasingly popular, attracting thousands by the 1860s.  Some folks had been storing tents here from year to year, and in the 1860s many of those folks started putting up small cottages instead.  Today the Oak Bluffs Campground Association contains hundreds of these small charmers, full of color and detail.  We spent a delightful hour wandering around slack-jawed at all the architectural pastries around us.  Ooooh, look at that one!  Hey, check out the gingerbread molding on this other one!
The campground area became so popular, other developers started building nearby on larger lots.  Here are a few in that area that caught our eye:

Well, after 7 nights on the Cape, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, it was time to move on.  We'll tell you about the next 6 ferries and the rest of our island adventures on Block Island, the eastern end of Long Island and on tiny Shelter Island in our next post.

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