In Nancy’s Cape Cod family vacation overview, she made the point that when it comes to water, you have choices: relatively warm bays as well as friskier beaches. My family has enjoyed both, sometimes during a single morning. The bays, as Nancy suggests, won’t freeze your toes off. And once everyone gets time in the water you can head to a beach and seashell hunt without feeling like you’re depriving anyone if the ocean’s too chilly for a swim.
But here’s the thing: All bodies of water make me restless, and I’m guilty of trying to yank my kids off many a beach while they’re still having fun. Fortunately, I don’t ever have to sell Cape Cod’s non-water-related activities too hard.
Here are five of our favorite things to do on Cape Cod
Don’t spend too much time trying to explain to your brood that you’re heading back to the year 1627, in part because it’s fun to watch the Pilgrims at outdoor museum Plimoth Plantation mess with their heads. The actors never break character and will patiently field your kids’ questions about what life “is” like in the 17th century. As you kick up dust and move through the cramped dwellings you may even forget you’re strolling through a re-enactment – until you come upon real descendants of the Wampanoag Indians who will speak from a present-day perspective about how the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims got along way back when.
The plantation overall provides many pleasant assaults on your senses – from different accents to unusual cooking smells – that your kids probably won’t realize they’re learning something unless you bring it up. Budget at least a couple hours for this one.
Heritage Museums & Gardens
How could you not love a town called Sandwich, especially when it’s got a museum as versatile as the Heritage Museums & Gardens? Even if gardens don’t pack appeal for your kids, budget about two hours for what else is here, including a working carousel and a history exhibit with antique toys. Our favorite spot here is the reproduction Shaker barn housing antique cars, some of which your kids will be allowed to touch and, in the case of a 1913 Ford Model T, sit in for an inevitable photo op.
Green Briar Nature Center & Jam Kitchen
East of Sandwich in the not-so-curiously-named town of East Sandwich is the Green Briar Nature Center & Jam Kitchen. We seldom spend more than an hour here but during your first time you might want to linger on the nature trails and check out the actual briar patch that inspired Thornton Burgess to write about Peter Cottontail and his other characters.
If you’re on the lookout for authentic Cape souvenirs, people really do make jam here. And if you time it right you could even take a family jam workshop. Gooseberry and cranberry-peach are two quintessential Cape flavors worth taking home.
National Marine Fisheries Service Aquarium
The National Marine Fisheries Service Aquarium in Woods Hole is another activity that probably won’t take more than an hour, but it’s very long on memorable finds, including a blue lobster, very rare in the world of crustaceans. There are several touch tanks where your kids can gently feel how the texture of a horseshoe crab’s shell differs from that of a spider or hermit crab. If you don’t catch them on the way in, you’ll want to say hi to the seals that live out by the museum’s entrance.
Art’s Dune Tours
You could do a lot worse than limit your non-water related activities to those four things, especially since you won’t have to drive any farther than the upper part of the Cape to do them all. However, my favorite family-friendly activity is not only situated way over on the outer reaches of the Cape, but it’s near water: Art’s Dune Tours in Provincetown.
As you might expect, the one-hour tour is sometimes bumpy, but you’ll be in a relatively comfy Suburban as you motor through dunes and along the shore. Among other fascinating tidbits, you’ll hear the story of the dune shacks, where greats like Eugene O’Neill found their muses. My family took this tour on a gorgeous but windy day, and at one point we were permitted to stand atop one of the sandy dunes. The site of my family huddled together in their tightly-tied hooded sweatshirts against the surreal backdrop of the dunes was a priceless moment, part of an experience we’re not likely to forget.
For more trip-planning information, check out the Cape Cod Travel Guide at ShermansTravel.com.
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