Cape Cod is beloved by Northeasterners on vacation, to say nothing of the many people who fly in from all over the world, to experience some Norman Rockwell-hits-the-beach charm when the days get long and the sun stays hot. But Cape Cod – that is to say most of the parts of it that you may want to visit – has a tourism problem. There are too many people, too many cute B&B's, too many general stores where you can buy homemade candy, rubber sharks, and souvenir T-shirts. The crowd issue is especially acute around Hyannis, where the Kennedys live, and further east, toward Brewster and Yarmouth.
We don't recommend avoiding the Cape altogether – although you will experience traffic with a lovely Los Angeles quality on weekends. We just prefer to head past the cutesy areas of the south and western Cape and drive right up to the northeastern section, just south of the tip, on the protected national seashore. The name of the place is Wellfleet (you may recognize the name from seeing its superior oysters on the menus of great restaurants), and it's still a wooded wonderland of rustic homes, fresh and saltwater ponds, a laid-back harbor-and-ocean town – albeit popular with discerning tourists for art and antique galleries – as well as magnificent 150-foot-high sand-cliff beaches.
But don't just take our word for it. The place has served as inspiration and sanctuary for some of the finest writers, including Thoreau, Edmund Wilson (the critic who mentored F. Scott Fitzgerald and frequently welcomed visitors like Auden and Dos Passos), John Cheever, The New Yorker's Philip Hamburger, and many other masters of narrative. (Vonnegut lived nearby in Barnstable, but we won't hold that against him.)
We love Wellfleet's simplicity, even if our favorite stretch of sand veers toward the popular. It's called Cahoon Hollow Beach, and it backs up to those epic sand cliffs you must climb down. Once you're at the water's edge, you are literally so far east that the sun is at your back, and it's not uncommon for people to sit with a view of the cliff behind you. Sure, a shark or two has been seen in this refreshingly chilly water, but more have been seen in the manicured and mannered Chatham to the south, and the water here is rougher, rendering it ideal for a body – or a surfboard. Luckily, you don't have to venture far for refreshments, either. At the top of the cliff, where you parked your car, lives a famous restaurant and bar called The Beachcomber, where you must eat fried whole belly clams (or some shellfish) and drink a summer ale, lest the magic of the place with its bustling outdoor deck, impassioned Red Sox fans, and haphazard nature fail to appeal to you.
Wellfleet's not about luxury hotels, which is part of why we love it, and it's most common to rent yourself a cottage in the area, either through HomeAway or at the Wellfleet Colony, a collection of Bauhaus-inspired homes where the writers Lionel Trilling and Bernard Malamud retreated from their urbane, literary lives. Wellfleet is unapologetic about its intellectual history, but it lacks pretensions, and that's likely what provided solace to so many notable minds, to say nothing of the many doctors and academics who continue to seek out the place. What the town can promise you is rest, a sense of escape that will reboot you anew. That's why everyone, including the Pilgrims, first came to the Cape.