Cape Cod: Great Beaches, Bad Restaurants
Last week, we took a fun little vacation to Cape Cod. We left Sunday and returned Thursday, but because the drive takes a whole day -- it’s nominally ~7 hours, but longer if you include a few bathroom breaks and a meal stop -- we really only spent 3 days there.
Our plan was to camp, because we like that and we’re used to camping at the Jersey shore. But the campground doesn’t let you check in after 9 PM, so we had to stay in a hotel the first night. The brand-name hotels were all around $200 per night, so I tried to find something cheaper, and found Cape Point Hotel for $135. It turned out to be pretty terrible: the hallway to our room and our room itself had a strange gross smell; the air conditioner continually turned itself off and on despite being set to stay on; the handle on the toilet fell off when you touched it; and, as we checked out, the woman at the desk didn’t even ask how our stay was. I assume she already knew.
On Cape Cod you have the bay on the north shore, the sound on the south shore, the ocean on the east shore, and then you have lots of huge inland ponds. On the first day we checked into the campground around 1 PM, set up camp, and then walked the ~1 mile to the bay. But it was low tide when we arrived there at around 3 PM, and low tide on Cape Cod Bay means you need to walk about three-quarters of a mile to get to water that’s more than ankle-deep. It was neat to see, especially the dozen or so boats that were anchored and sitting on dry land due to the low tide, and the water was quite warm, probably 75F or slightly warmer. And it was nice and uncrowded, with perhaps 100 people spread across the one square mile or so of beach and bay.
But I really wanted to get into some real ocean water that was cool and deep enough to swim in. On the second day, we mapped a bike ride across the peninsula to Nantucket Sound. Starting at our campground in Brewster, it was a short 1.5 mile ride on route 137 to Underpass Road, where we picked up a bike path that goes almost right across most of the peninsula. We got off the path at Lothrop Ave and took that to Earle Road, which led us right to Earle Road Beach. It’s a small beach, probably not even a football field long, but we arrived around 10 AM and there were only 3 or 4 other groups there. It had decent waves despite technically being the sound and not the ocean, and the water temperature was perfect, probably about 73-75F. As a longtime Jersey shore beachgoer, I loved how soft and shell-free the sand was, and how clean the water was. After an hour or so, we biked back across the cape to our campsite. The ride was 8.5 miles each way, which took us about 50 minutes, so it was a good ride -- and it was neat to pass several of the huge ponds along the way. We’ll definitely have to swim in some of those next time.
Later in the day we drove up the cape, in search of sand dunes and a nice ocean-side beach, which we eventually found (thanks to Brian’s navigational help) in Wellfleet. At this particular beach the parking area is about 75 feet above sea level, so you have to take one of two steep diagonal trails down the face of the sand dune to get to the beach. It was late in the day when we arrived, so we didn’t swim, but I did walk into the water up to my shins, and it was cold. The water was nice and turquois, though, as you can see in the satellite view, so I think we’ll probably make a point to swim here on our next trip.
On our third and final day, we rented kayaks from The Chatham Kayak Company. The fancy name contrasts with the extremely informal (in a good way) nature of the operation: you drive to the end of Barn Hill Road, make a hard left just before the parking lot, and Anne or John emerges from a shack to take your information and put you into a kayak. They’re right on the water of Oyster Pond River, so you’re into the water and ready to go pretty quickly. We headed towards Stage Harbor, then went out the small channel into the sound (or technically, I guess it’s Sequetucket Harbor at that location). We went about 2 miles, not quite making it to the ocean, but we did get into some waves, and in fact I capsized my kayak on one of them. This turned out to be a good thing, because I lost our only water bottle when I flipped, which meant that we had to head back; and we ended up with pretty decent sunburn after the ~2.5 hour trip as it was, so we’d’ve been in bad shape if we stayed out much longer. Here’s the route we took:
The kayak trip was the highlight of the vacation, though. We’ve kayaked a few times before, but never on open water like that. It was really neat to be able to just go wherever you wanted, and to stop at beaches which were inaccessible except by boat and therefore totally devoid of people. Not having kayaked much before, I forgot that there’s actually a lot of room in the boat for stuff like water bottles, extra sunblock, etc; had I realized that, I would have brought a backpack with enough supplies to turn it into a half day’s adventure.
The nice water, beaches, and bike trails on Cape Cod are unfortunately beset by countless restaurants -- bad restaurants -- which were the downside of an otherwise awesome trip.
On the first morning, we ate breakfast at Hearth ’n Kettle. This place looks promising: nice on the outside and country-style on the inside, like a less fake version of Cracker Barrel or Bob Evans. But once seated, we had a longish wait before our waitress noticed us and took our orders. My omelette was made of something other than natural eggs; I’ve never knowingly eaten "egg beaters" or anything like that, but that’s what I thought of -- it was slightly rubbery, perfectly smooth on top, and just unnatural. The "home fries" were new potatoes that were just halved and deep fried, rather than cut up and pan-fried. But that stuff is minor compared to what happened when the waitress brought out the tray of food for the table across from us. She accidentally knocked a piece of toast off a plate and onto the surface of the tray, then grabbed it with her bare hand, fumbled it a few times and generally just smooshed it around on the dirty tray surface, and then placed it back onto the plate. This happened right next to us and away from the table where the food was going, so they probably didn’t see it; Kim and I just watched in horror.
Before the trip, I spent a fair bit of time researching restaurants on Fodor’s and TripAdvisor. The #1 Cape Cod restaurant on TripAdvisor is Moby Dick’s, and after reading the reviews, it seemed like a safe bet. When we arrived there was a long line with an hour-long wait, but it ended up being only a half an hour due to some people bailing out early. We were seated in what appears to be the only section in the whole place, which is basically a screened-in deck with powerful overhead fans blowing right on you and your food. (I do recall being asked whether we wanted to choose where we sit, or take the first available table; this was after our long wait to get in, so we opted for first available, but I assume that perhaps this means there actually is another section, which is hopefully more indoors and nicer.) I had never had a lobster roll before, and since they’re all the hype on Cape Cod, and since I love lobster, I decided to try one. It wasn’t bad, but was certainly nothing special; and I gather that they’re supposed to be cold, but I guess I just don’t care for cold lobster. The bread/roll was just barely toasted, and it was overall pretty small, I’d guess 8-10 ounces. The presentation certainly left something to be desired (see photo below). So on the whole, Moby Dick’s wasn’t terrible, but was not especially good either. I doubt we’ll go back.
In the mornings, I made a campfire and roasted up some bratwurst and sausage; these were by far the best meals I had on Cape Cod:
Our next meal out was at Carmine’s in Chatham. This is a pizza shop, and I thought the pizza was decent, though nowhere near as good as Mack and Manco or Grotto. Kim wasn’t crazy about it. However, considering that I am apparently a pizza snob, the fact that I think Carmine’s is OK might actually be a decent compliment for them. I wouldn’t mind getting pizza here again. The one downside was that there’s no bathroom, which means nowhere to wash your hands; you have to walk out the back of the building, around a corner past another building, and across a parking lot to get to public restrooms (they were nice restrooms though).
Another restaurant that had good reviews was The Paddock, so we went there on our second night. This place looks nice and fancy; it doesn’t have a dress code, but they do the full table sets with proper silverware and plate layouts, wine glasses, etc. They served pre-meal bread with dipping oil, which I love, and this particular oil also had some kind of tomato-based herb mixture under it, and it was amazing. My salad was also quite good, and my meal -- peppercorn-encrusted swordfish -- was really good too. However, it was more like peppercorn-conquered swordfish -- not a bad thing in my book -- which made it really spicy, and I finished my tiny-wine-glass portion of Coke in no time. I couldn’t continue to eat it without more beverage; and Kim was also at an impasse with her meal at this point. But after delivering our meals, our waitress abandoned us for at least 15 minutes (Kim thinks it was even longer), during which time we watched her yakking it up with various other patrons across the room. When she finally returned, and found us sitting there staring at our plates, she asked something like, "Oh, are you not enjoying your meals?" I said no, we’re waiting for refills on our drinks, to which she replied "Oh, we don’t do refills here; but maybe I could bring you new ones?" So she chose to interpret my request as a wish to have those specific glasses refilled, rather than the obvious interpretation which is we need more to drink. She made it seem like there was something wrong with me, as if additional drink is an unusual request, and she never apologized for disappearing for most of our meal. To top it all off, she charged us for the extra drinks, at $4.50 each -- for soda!
Our final Cape Cod restaurant stop was at JT’s Seafood Restaurant. The sign by the road for this place is fancy, making it seem like this will be an at least somewhat fancy restaurant. But when you get inside, it’s set up like a cafeteria. There’s a big board on the wall with those slidey plastic letters; this is the menu. You order and pay for your food, then go sit down and wait for them to bring it to you. The place seemed decently clean, but the decor was just... ridiculous. The dining room is half tables, half booths, with the booths on a raised level; the walls were white and mostly bare; the music was... I don’t remember except that it was bad. I can’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with the layout and decor, but it just didn’t make sense; things didn’t go together, and it kind of seems like it was someone’s house that they just put some booths and tables into. All of that is subjective so maybe it’s not entirely fair, but Kim and I both just got a weird vibe from the setup. The real problem, though, was that the lobster I ordered came on a paper plate. With a piece of corn-on-the-cob and a biscuit on top of the lobster. And plastic silverware. You have to take everything except the lobster off the plate to start working on the lobster, and of course lobster is a big mess with tons of water coming out of it, which quickly turned the paper plate into a disaster. And the lobster was $20, which isn’t hugely expensive, but I had thought that lobster was supposed to be so cheap in New England.
IHOP, Save Us!
Fortunately, Cape Cod does have a bunch of good chain restaurants. On our way out of town on Thursday morning, we got breakfast at IHOP, and it was wonderful. And we had previously gotten dinner at Outback Steakhouse on the way to Cape Cod, about halfway into the trip; I got tilapia covered in mushrooms and crab meat, which was wonderful, and Kim got ribs -- Outback was great, as it consistently is. And on the cape we did see an Olive Garden, a Pizzeria Uno, and a Friday’s, all of which we like and are usually very good. We should have cut our losses after the first or second disappointing local restaurant, but I wanted to believe we could find something good. But at least we know for next time: pack more campfire food, and eat out at the known-good restaurants.
While researching restaurants before the trip, I did come across an article titled "On Cape Cod, Desperately Seeking Seafood" in the Washington Post; I guess I just didn’t want to believe it:
Quoting The Washington Post:
I presumed the crowds happily standing in line to order were there for the food.
I presumed wrong. The fried clams were indistinguishable from the onion rings, which tasted remarkably like the fried shrimp. After a few bites I felt as if I had rubbed a bowl of grease onto my face.
"You don’t come to the Cape to eat," my husband explained, polishing off his french fries, or were they clam strips? [...]
You have to seek [good food] out, to distinguish by trial and error the few spots that are good from the many that are adequate or worse.
And that’s the problem: Cape Cod is basically wall-to-wall restaurants, and -- in that author’s experience, and ours -- few of those restaurants are good.