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Cape Cod Has Waters to "Wet" Every Appetite

by Bill O'Neill

The phrase “Cape Cod” often conjures images of white sand beaches and rolling ocean waves. But there’s much more than the sea when it comes to the Cape’s beaches.

With more than 150 public beaches – from tiny ponds to the vast stretches of the Cape Cod National Seashore – there is a patch of sand beside the water that appeals to just about any taste.

The warmer water of the Cape’s southern shores, from Falmouth to Chatham, is perfect for floating peacefully on a summer day. The water on the north-side beaches along Cape Cod Bay is cooler, but refreshing for those who don’t mind a mild jolt on entering the water. Some Cape beaches attract surfers or windsurfers and kiteboarders. There are plenty of choices for those who prefer fresh water. If you have a kayak, canoe, sailboat or powerboat, you can find your own swimming hole by exploring the Cape’s many rivers.

Southern shores: Water temperatures at the beaches that border Buzzards Bay and Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds hit a refreshing mid- to upper 70s in the summer – about 10 degrees warmer than you’ll find at beaches along Cape Cod Bay or on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Outer Cape. Monument Beach in Bourne overlooks the southwest entrance of the Cape Cod Canal. Falmouth has more miles of coastline than any other Cape town. Falmouth’s Vineyard Sound beaches – including Surf Drive Beach and Falmouth Heights Beach – are among the Cape’s most inviting. Old Silver Beach in Falmouth, Dowses Beach in Osterville, Sea Gull Beach in Yarmouth and West Dennis Beach are among the beaches consistently popular with families. Craigville Beach in Centerville is popular with the teenagers and college students.

Don’t expect to see rolling dunes at the south-side beaches. The sand has a gradual slope from the parking lots to the water’s edge. There can be a steep drop once you enter water, so non-swimmers should wade very close to shore. The mild waves provide a challenge for beginning swimmers. The waters on south-side beaches are calm enough that several triathlons are held each year at Craigville Beach in Centerville.

National treasure: Stretching along the entire Outer Cape, from Chatham to Provincetown, the Cape Cod National Seashore protects 27,000 acres. Created by legislation signed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Cape Cod National Seashore includes 40 miles of shoreline and undeveloped uplands, bogs and forests. In 2004 and 2007, Coast Guard Beach in North Eastham made the list of 10 best beaches in the United States compiled by Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach.” Sunsets at west-facing Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown are among the Cape’s finest. Other Seashore-operated beaches are Nauset Light Beach in North Eastham, Marconi Beach in South Wellfleet, Head of the Meadow Beach in North Truro and Race Point Beach in Provincetown.

The scenery here is postcard-perfect, as eroded sand cliffs form a backdrop to the beaches. While the cliffs make for great scenery, they also make the beaches more difficult to reach. Whatever beach gear you carry down from the parking lot you’ll have to carry back uphill. The choppy water is no place for non-swimmers, but those who are comfortable in the water can have a blast bodysurfing in the swells. If there are signs warning of rip tides, be extra careful. The currents can pull you far from shore (if you swim perpendicular to the pull, rather than against it, you should be fine; beaches are closed when there’s a particularly strong rip tide).

Mass. appeal: Less well-known than the National Seashore are the Cape’s two state-owned beaches. Scusset Beach State Reservation is in Sandwich, but the entrance road is in Bourne. The reservation consists of 380 acres that include long stretches of sand along Cape Cod Bay and ample parking. Since Scusset borders the northeast section of the Cape Cod Canal, it attracts boat watchers and shore fishermen, along with swimmers and sun worshipers. South Cape Beach State Park in Mashpee, with its 423 acres, has boardwalks and nature trails. That’s in addition to a mile-long beach that offers hikers a chance to stretch their legs in all seasons while enjoying a spectacular ocean view. As a south-side beach, South Cape features warm water temperatures and moderate surf.

Beauty on the bay: The bended-arm shape of Cape Cod encloses Cape Cod Bay. Water here is chillier than at south-side beaches, but the views are spectacular, with the curves of the shore stretching for miles to your left and right. Because the bayside beaches are protected from the current of the Atlantic, the waves here are quite small, making these beaches ideal for youngsters getting acquainted with ocean swimming. In Sandwich, Town Neck Beach, Town Beach and East Sandwich Beach provide a look at Cape Cod Canal’s ship traffic, as well as sweeping views of the bay. A boardwalk near Town Beach crosses Mill Creek, offering a close-up look at the marshes. Six-mile-long Sandy Neck in West Barnstable attracts shore fishermen, hikers and off-road-vehicle drivers. Yarmouth’s Grays Beach has a boardwalk and a fan club of sunset watchers. The Dennis bay beachesMayflower, Corporation and Cold Storage – are family favorites. Paines Creek, Robbins Hill, Saint’s Landing and the other Brewster beaches provide a unique treat: tidal flats that stretch out almost endlessly at low tide. Walking across the acres of wet sand is one of Cape Cod’s most refreshing activities. Farther out on the Cape, bayside beaches include First Encounter Beach in Eastham, Indian Neck Beach in Wellfleet and Ryder Beach in Truro.

Get physical: Kalmus Beach in Hyannis is known as one of the best windsurfing and kitesurfing spots in the Northeast. Old Silver Beach in Falmouth and Pleasant Bay in Chatham are among other popular spots for windsurfers. Surfers – that’s just plain surfing without the sail – gather at Nauset Beach in Orleans, Coast Guard and Light House Beaches in Eastham, and Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. Fall storms in the southern Atlantic sometimes create challenging waves that attract surfers from New England and beyond. Campers, whether in a tent or an RV, and day-trippers can enjoy a tidal-fed saltwater swimming hole at Bourne Scenic Park.

A touch of history: Keyes Beach in Hyannisoffers a glimpse across the water of the Kennedy family compound. From Eugenia Fortes Beach in Hyannisport you can see Sen. Edward Kennedy’s beautiful sailboat Mya at anchor during the summer months. One of Bourne’s beaches features its own presidential history: Grover Cleveland vacationed near Gray Gables Beach in the 1880s and ’90s. That was before the construction of the Cape Cod Canal. Beachgoers at Gray Gables Beach can now watch ships enter and exit the southwest end of the canal. A marker at First Encounter Beach in Eastham notes the spot where Native Americans and Pilgrim explorers exchanged arrows and gunshots in 1620. (No one was hurt.)

Fresh daily: Some folks enjoy salt in the air more than salt in the water. For them, the Cape has plenty of lakes and ponds to choose from. The largest, Wequaquet Lake, in Centerville, has a town beach and a landing area that’s used by small powerboats. Several rowing groups use the lake for crew practice, and during particularly cold winters ice sailors will zip across the lake’s frozen surface. Grews Pond, surrounded by Goodwill Park, is within a mile of downtown Falmouth. Nickerson State Park in Brewster has four ponds with public beaches. Great Pond, Long Pond and Gull Pond in Wellfleet have small parking areas, which ensures a bit of peace and quiet while you enjoy lounging at a pond surrounded by the woods of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The Cape is spotted with hundreds of kettle holes, miniature ponds formed when glaciers created Cape Cod about 23,000 years ago. Some are too small to have names; others are large enough to serve as neighborhood swimming holes.

Paddle power:
It’s hard to go anywhere on the Cape without seeing a car with a roof rack for a canoe or kayak. Paddlers enjoy poking about on the Pocassett River in Bourne, the Bass River – which serves as part of the border between Dennis and Yarmouth – the Herring River in West Harwich – an excellent spot for bird-watching – and the Pamet River in Truro. Exploring the Nauset Marsh, accessible via boat landings in Orleans and Eastham, can fill a day. For shorter trips, try paddling through the marshes of Scorton Creek in Sandwich or near Barnstable Harbor.

Resident beach stickers for town-owned beaches range from $10 to $25. Daily and seasonal passes for state and national beaches are available. For town-by-town sticker information and descriptions, photographs and video of every beach on cape cod go to

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