Cape Cod is known as a wonderful vacation spot for good reason: It’s a beautiful oceanside area with miles of unspoiled beaches, hiking trails, ocean vistas, and sand dunes. Also known as home to the Kennedys, “the Cape,” as it is commonly known to locals, has always been a place that has attracted famous novelists, artists, and even presidents.
However, Cape Cod has not become known as a wintertime destination. In the summertime, hordes of vacationers from all corners of New England and beyond invade the area in vast numbers, making it an extremely congested place. But after Labor Day, the beaches, hotels, and restaurants empty out.
October to early April is the Cape’s off-season, and what many don’t know is that the exorbitant prices for accommodations fall precipitously during this time. Despite what the low prices may suggest, there are plenty of things to do in the winter – without the crowds of the summer tourist season.
Cape Cod winters can be fairly mild, with daily temperatures sometimes reaching as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Precipitation is usually a wintery mixture of snow and rain. However, the Cape does get walloped with massive snowstorms occasionally – in these rare instances, you may wish to stick solely to the indoor activities offered in the region. Regardless of what you enjoy – brisk outdoor adventures or staying out of the cold – there are a number of fun excursions you can take with your family.
1. Hiking, Biking & Nature
Cape Cod has more than 100 public walking trails, miles of hiking and biking trails, and 560 miles of coastline. There are some wonderfully scenic places to explore, and winter is just as good a time as any to take advantage of the natural beauty of the area. Even though the weather can be mild this time of year, make sure you are prepared for lower temperatures and the possibility of precipitation.
- Cape Cod Rail Trail. Fully paved with a gravel shoulder for walkers and joggers, the Cape Cod Rail Trail is 22 miles long and goes through several picturesque towns, along beaches and dunes, salt marshes, forests, and other interesting areas. As the name suggests, this trail was once the route of a railroad track, and is an ideal bike path for cyclists of all levels since it has very few inclines. Free parking can be found at several locations along the trail and at the trailhead at Route 134 in South Dennis.
- Cape Cod National Seashore. Whether you want to see a herd of seals sunning themselves on a rugged beach, or curling waves and gently rolling sand dunes, the Cape Cod National Seashore is the place to go. These 40 miles of beaches should be on the top of the list for hikers and nature lovers of all kinds – some parts of the National Seashore are near tiny seaside communities, but there are vast swaths of unspoiled but easily accessible coastline where birds, marine mammals, and other sea life can be seen. Breathtaking cliff-top vistas offer spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean, and are a must-see for photographers. Parking at the National Seashore is plentiful and free in the off-season – try Head of the Meadow Beach or Marconi Beach.
- Nickerson State Park. The trails at Nickerson State Park are well maintained and easily accessible. Nestled among mature forests and hills, you will find several small lakes, or “kettle ponds” as they are known, as they were formed during the last ice age and are very deep. Not a large park, Nickerson is 1,900 acres in size and has 420 campsites. It is closed for camping in the winter, but open for day hikes. Nickerson also has a bicycle path that is eight miles long and connects to the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Daily parking fees are $8 for Massachusetts-licensed vehicles and $10 for out-of-state vehicles.
Before you start your outing, make sure to have a camera handy. Some of the sights you will see are awe-inspiring, and truly capture the essence and beauty of New England.
Cape Cod is known as one of the top cultural centers of Massachusetts. There is an abundance of museums of all types, catering to art enthusiasts, children, history buffs, and nature lovers.
- The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History is a wonderful place to learn about the natural environment of Cape Cod, and is great for kids and adults alike. The museum, located at 869 Main Street in Brewster, is open from 11am until 3pm; however, the days that it is open varies greatly during the wintertime. It is often closed at least two days per week, and as of the 2015-2016 season is closed from December 31st through February 12th (except for special programs). Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for ages 3 through 12, and is free for children under the age of 3.
- Cape Cod Children’s Museum. The Cape Cod Children’s Museum has a lot of “touch and discover” exhibits, including a pirate ship, indoor planetarium, and puppet theater. Located at 577 Great Neck Road, South Mashpee, the museum is open Monday to Friday from 10am to 3pm. On Saturdays, the hours are 10am to 5pm, and on Sundays it is open from 12pm to 5pm. Admission is $8 for ages 1 to 59, and $7 for seniors 60 and older.
- Provincetown Art Association and Museum. PAAM is one of the most popular art museums on the Cape, offering a good selection of exhibits, classes, and lectures. It is located at 460 Commercial Street in Provincetown, and the entrance fee is $10 general admission. Children under 12 are admitted for free. It is open Thursday to Sunday from 12pm to 5pm (these are off-season hours from October to May only).
- Cape Cod Museum of Art. Displaying the works of popular New England artists, the Cape Cod Museum of Art (located at 60 Hope Lane in Dennis) primarily focuses on artwork from famous artists native to Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and the surrounding islands. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors 62 and older, and $5 for ages 13 to 18. Children 12 and under are admitted free. Students 19 and older can get in for $7 with a valid ID. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and on Sunday from 12pm to 5pm. It is closed on Mondays.
- Sandwich Glass Museum. Aside from some interesting and beautiful glass exhibits, a big attraction to the Sandwich Glass Museum is its glassblowing demonstration which takes place every hour on the hour. The museum is at 129 Main Street in the town of Sandwich. The price of admission is $9 for adults, $2 for ages 6 to 14, and free for children under 6. During peak season it is open daily from 9:30am to 5pm – however, from February to March, it is only open Wednesday to Sunday from 9:30am to 4pm. The museum is closed during the entire month of January.
- Nantucket Whaling Museum. The newly restored Nantucket Whaling Museum, located at 13 Broad Street on the island of Nantucket, draws people with exhibits such as a candle factory, the skeleton of a real sperm whale, and other marine artifacts. The admission is $20 for adults, $18 for seniors 65 and older, $18 for students, and $5 for children ages 6 to 17. Children under the age of 6 are admitted for free. It is open daily from 11am to 4pm, but is closed from January 1st to February 13th. Also, a ferry is required to get to the island of Nantucket. One-way ferry fees are $18.50 for adults, $9.50 for ages 5 to 12, and free for children ages 4 and younger.
Remember that some museums may have seasonally adjusted hours, so always call before you go.
3. Woods Hole Science Aquarium
Woods Hole, an area located on the southwest tip of Cape Cod, is located in the town of Falmouth. Here you can find the Woods Hole Science Aquarium, founded in 1875 and the oldest public aquarium in the United States. It features many diverse exhibits including harbor seals, various species of fish, and other marine life found in Atlantic waters. The aquarium also has touch tanks where you can see and gently touch starfish, hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, spider crabs, lobsters, tautogs, and quahogs.
The Woods Hole Science Aquarium is open year-round. It is located at 166 Water Street in Woods Hole and is open from Tuesday to Saturday at 11am to 4pm. Admission is free, though donations are accepted.
4. Cape Cod Beer Tour
Cape Cod Beer, a small brewery located at 1336 Phinney’s Lane in Hyannis, has been in operation since 2004. Starting out from meager beginnings, it has steadily grown and now puts out a maximum annual capacity of 13,000 barrels. A visit to this charming little brewery leaves you with a sense that the workers truly love what they do and take pride in it.
The free tour is a must-see for any beer lover, and for $5 you can sample the beer – that includes five samples consisting of three ounces each. You also get to take home the tasting glass with the Cape Cod Beer logo stamped on it as a souvenir. Tours of Cape Cod Beer are only available once per day at 11am, Monday through Saturday. It is closed on Sundays.
Rich in history, New England is indisputably the best region in the United States to go antiquing, and Cape Cod is no exception. The list below features some good dealers for interesting pieces, as well as contemporary craftwork from local artisans.
- Antique Center of Cape Cod. This is a warehouse of sorts that houses many antique dealers. There are many antiques from New England sources here, but quite a few European pieces as well. Monthly shipments of British imports arriving on schedule make this an intriguing location for antique collectors of all stripes. It is located at 243 Massachusetts 6A in Dennis, and is open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm. On Sundays it is open from 11am to 5pm.
- Antique Asylum. A fairly large shop to explore, Antique Asylum is located in an area known as “Antique Alley” in Bourne where there are 13 antique, vintage, junk, flea, and thrift shops in a three-mile radius. The address is 125 Main Street in Bourne (Buzzards Bay), and the store is open Monday to Saturday from 11am to 5pm. It is closed on Sundays.
- Harwich Antique Center. Harwich Antique Center sells many different types of collectibles and antiques such as coins, furniture, local art, fine art, jewelry, entertainment memorabilia, and nautical items. Located at 10 Route 28 in West Harwich, it is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. The hours on Sunday are from 11am to 5pm.
- Sandwich Antiques Center. An established dealer, Sandwich Antiques Center has a wide variety of articles ranging from furniture to knickknacks. However, unlike many other antique shops, this gallery may be a hard place to strike a bargain. It is located at 131 Massachusetts Route 6A in the town of Sandwich, and is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Sunday hours are from 12pm to 5pm.
- Eldred’s. This location features many diverse pieces to look over. Eldred’s not only displays American antiques, but artifacts from all over the world. The shop is located at 1483 Route 6A in East Dennis, and is open Monday to Friday from 8:30am to 4:30pm. These are off-season hours from November to March only.
- Maps of Antiquity. Maps of Antiquity is a unique shop that deals in antique maps and reproductions. It features more than 4,000 maps, some of which date back to the 1600s. Located at 1409 Main Street (Route 28) in the town of Chatham, Maps of Antiquity is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Sunday hours are from 12pm to 5pm. The store owners request that you call ahead before visiting – the store phone number is (508) 945-1660.
- Continuum Antiques and Collectibles. This dealer specializes in antique lighting. Continuum Antiques and Collectibles has more than 400 restored fixtures and shades from a wide range of classic lamp-makers. It also repairs and restores antique lamps. Continuum’s address is 7 South Orleans Road in Orleans, and it is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 4:30pm, or by appointment.
- Coastal Craft Gallery. A local group of artisans and artists runs this gallery, and everything found there is made by them. Although not a traditional antique shop, the Coastal Craft Gallery does have some interesting paintings, pottery, and other items that are worth a look. It is located at 2 Main Street Square in Orleans, and is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm.
Often, the best places to uncover worthwhile finds are off the beaten path. You never know what you may find in the barn of a farmer displaying a handwritten “sale” sign.
6. Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory Tour
The “wicked good” potato chips made at the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory is among the top-selling brands in the United States. Seeing how these delicious chips are made has become a very popular attraction for visitors to the Cape, as more than 250,000 people drop by to see factory operations every year.
This company opened its doors in 1980 in a small shop in Hyannis. It did not take long for its homemade, kettle-cooked chips to become an area favorite. As word spread, its distribution channels (along with its product line) grew, making Cape Cod Chips what it is today.
The free tour, which is great for all ages, is self-guided, and the hours are 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. The factory is located at 100 Breed’s Hill Road in Hyannis.
7. Cape Cod Canal
The Cape Cod Canal is a long, wide channel that physically separates the Cape from the mainland. To drive to Cape Cod, you have to cross the canal by either the Bourne Bridge or the Sagamore Bridge – therefore, the canal is the first landmark you see when arriving at Cape Cod, and the last you see when leaving.
The Cape Cod Canal is approximately seven miles long and joins Buzzards Bay to Cape Cod Bay, allowing large, oceangoing vessels to circumvent a lengthy route around Cape Cod itself. Built in 1914 by a New York financier named August Belmont – and then expanded by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1928 – the Cape Cod Canal is rich in history. For example, during World War II, it was used by ships to avoid the open ocean thus neutralizing the threat of off-shore German U-boats.
There is a paved bike path on each bank, allowing you to walk along and explore this scenic area. Many visitors love to watch the boats making their way out to sea. If you’re lucky, you may even see one of the large container ships or a naval vessel going by. Make sure to bundle up because this area can get quite windy in the winter.
Reduced Rates & Seasonal Hotel Deals
Even though some Cape Cod hotels close during the winter, many stay open with reduced rates. On average, you can find off-season accommodations at one-third to one-half the price you would find during the summer tourist season. Also, because vacancies are common this time of year, don’t be afraid to ask for a room with an ocean view or negotiate an even lower rate, especially for longer or last-minute stays.
For example, the luxurious Anchor In in Hyannis is rated 4.6 out of 5, or “Outstanding” by Hotels.com, and is available for $129 to $139 per night on weekends ($109 to $119 on weekdays). The same room at the height of the tourist season can go for as high as $299 per night. If you would prefer something more cozy, take a look at The Captain Farris House in South Yarmouth. In the off-season, a room there can be had for as little as $149 per night – but the same room during the summer can cost you $210 per night.
The best winter deals available at the Cape are for cottage rental properties. With a little bit of haggling, you would be surprised at the deals you can get. Sites such as Airbnb and Vrbo, are good places to start, but also take a look at HomeAway and WeNeedaVacation.com. These two websites feature a good number of Cape Cod rentals, with the latter devoted exclusively to rentals on the Cape and surrounding islands.
There is no doubt Cape Cod in the summer is a wonderful destination. However, as more people discover the amount of activities available in the winter, an off-season vacation on the Cape becomes just as attractive. Also, when you consider the reduced prices of accommodations, you have the makings of a fun, affordable, and memorable trip. So next time you are thinking about a winter family vacation, don’t automatically pick up the travel brochure with palm trees on it.
Have you ever considered a wintertime vacation to Cape Cod?