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The beaches of the Hamptons, New York’s most chichi weekend retreat, are like nowhere else in the world. Sure, the sand’s bleached and beautiful, and the surf’s nice too. But it’s the people parade that counts most: actors, anchors, and moguls — media celebrities all — dressed to the hilt, cell phones in hand, come to see and be seen, impress and be impressed. But the question arises: does anyone ever go swimming there? It’s a question you’ll never have to ask at Cape Cod, where the ocean temperature is often a brisk 55 degrees even in the middle of summer, yet the waters are crowded with people of all ages. You won’t see a lot of celebrities at the Cape, but you will have the time of your life. Welcome to the Un-Hamptons. Cape Cod is, above all, about beaches — some of the most pristine, white sandy beaches in America. The sheer variety is extraordinary: here a soft and sandy beach (Coast Guard); there, just up the way, a rocky, wild one (Nauset); all of them topped off with rugged, windswept dunes. And while almost every town on the Cape has a municipal beach or two, much of the best shoreline belongs to the Cape Cod National Seashore, which runs all the way from Chatham to Provincetown. Admission is free, though the National Park Service charges a nominal fee (a mere $20 gets you a year’s pass) for parking in its car lots and offers free shuttle service to the beaches. But if you’re staying close enough to the shore, you can always walk over or take your bike. (The Cape is famous for its bike trails, and bicycle rental agencies abound.) There aren’t any hot dog stands on the National Seashore — the beaches are kept immaculately clean — but you can always pack a hamper and carry it along. A late afternoon would be just fine with the surf roaring in the background. And there’s nothing more beautiful than a walk along the National Seashore on a warm summer’s night. The Cape, despite a heavy summer and weekend influx of tourists, remains largely unspoiled. The sheer length of beachfront virtually guarantees as much. But between beach and cove (don’t ignore those coves — the water is warmer, the waves are milder, and the swimming is good) there’s the road, where congestion is the order of the day. U.S. 6 — most of it two-lane traffic — is the main artery running up and down Cape Cod. On weekends it can be pretty slow going. While there’s no shortage of B&Bs and motels, most visitors to the Cape choose to rent cottages. Rentals at the Cape begin on Saturday afternoons and run through Saturday mornings, for one or two weeks at a time. The most desirable cottages are often booked months in advance, but cancellations do occur. For names and numbers of local realtors, check with the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce (Tel. 888-332-2732) in Hyannis, Mass. Once you do get settled in, you’ll find that the pleasure of an extended visit here isn’t limited to the beaches. Wellfleet and Provincetown, Mass., are both famous for their art galleries, and P-town, as it’s known locally, offers a wealth of good restaurants to choose from. At Provincetown you can also book whale-watching cruises. These usually take about five hours, and most are led by well-informed marine scientist guides. The payoff: the virtually guaranteed sight of a whale — or even a school of whales — cavorting in the ocean. The Cape, though, isn’t just about excitement. It’s also about reflection. No wonder, then, that generations of America’s greatest writers — from Henry David Thoreau to Eugene O’Neill and Edmund Wilson — have been attracted to it. The painter Edward Hopper summered at the Cape for almost 40 years (1930-67). Many of his best paintings are set here, with a favorite subject being Highland Light, also known as Cape Cod Light. The oldest lighthouse on the Cape, it’s located in the little village of Truro, Mass., about halfway between Wellfleet and Provincetown. Gazing up at Highland Light, the words that come to mind are majestic and serene — like the Cape itself. GETTING THERE Cape Cod is about a 90-minute drive east of Boston (or a five-hour drive from New York). From Friday afternoon through Sunday evening, traffic is usually heavy. Major bottlenecks are the two bridges, Bourne and Sagamore, which connect the Cape to the mainland. There are also regularly scheduled flights into the Cape’s two main airports, Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis (Tel. 508-775-2020) and Provincetown Municipal Airport in Provincetown (Tel. 508-487-0241). The most important carrier is Cape Air (Tel. 508-771-6944 or 800-352-0714), with direct flights from Boston.

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