In many beach towns, dunes serve as hilly sand-stages for memories. But in the case of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Cape Cod's northernmost town, set on the protected National Seashore, a three-mile stretch of dramatically tall, wind-sculpted dunes offered the isolation and solace that some of our nation's best writers and artists sought in order to create world-changing work. In the 19th century, small dune shacks without electricity and running water were built on this sand, now called the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District. They were originally intended as shelter for life-saving personnel. But in the 1920s, the lifeguards had more choices, and playwright Eugene O'Neill bought one of the shacks in order to spend summers there with his wife. Poet Harry Kemp soon joined his community as the resident of another shack. And, as years passed, the shacks were passed down from one artist to another, offering temporary respite to Willem de Kooning, E.E. Cummings, Jackson Pollock, Norman Mailer, and Jack Kerouac. The area was also used as a set for the first 'Thomas Crown Affair' film made in 1968. Today, it's still possible to stay in two of the shacks – you must apply for a short "residency" through a Provincetown arts organization – but we prefer to take a 4x4 tour of the dunes from the only company that has the license to traipse about this protected area: Art's Dunes Tours, which has been in business since 1946. Art's tours, which explain the history of the once-forested dunes and its protected shacks, are otherworldly drives up and down the ever-changing inclines that offer plenty of chances to get out on foot and take exceptional photographs.
We prefer the two-hour sunset trip, which includes a beachside lobster bake with chowder or Portuguese kale soup that Art's team preps for your group as you watch the waves crash on a secluded patch of sand. The tours aren't about physical exertion or risky adventure, per se – although significant endurance is required to hike here, and you could easily get lost if you wanted to. We're just passionate about the strong sense of calm that overcomes you as you spend this time off the grid, learning about the nature that surrounds you and hearing stories of how it sheltered and inspired so many of our most admired people.
More Information: Two-hour sunset tour: $43 for adults, $25 for children under 11. Tours leave from the center of Provincetown; artsdunetours.com; 508-487-1950.