Escape to Cape Cod Like a Savvy Local: In Fall

Book your visit to the Cape with maximum seasonal smarts.

As you drive over the Sagamore or Bourne bridges, Cape Cod’s two entry points by land, the faint aroma of sunscreen may tickle your olfactory chambers. If so, welcome to summer on the Cape, where tourists pack beaches, play mini golf, cause traffic jams on Route 28 and venture out on day trips to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

And then August winds up. In Massachusetts, Labor Day is the harbinger of fall, when families trade beach chairs for backpacks, No. 2 pencils and iPads. Parents dust off the sand and head back to business meetings. Just like that, the Cape gets quiet and the pervasive scent of UVA/UVB protection drifts away on the breeze.

For those who want to appreciate the natural beauty and coastal charms of Cape Cod at a slower pace, the fall is the very best time to visit.

Sandy Neck Beach
Sandy Neck Beach (©Astoddard73)

Sublime Sandbar

The rocky stretch of Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable sits nearly empty and yet the waters of Cape Cod Bay are still relatively warm.

The low-tide sandbar at Mayflower Beach in Dennis boasts miles of tidal flats where visitors can walk, search out hermit crabs or boost their Instagram cred while wading in crystal clear, shin-deep, lapping waves.

And on the Outer Cape, where days are even quieter, locals surf Coast Guard Beach and Head of the Meadow well into November; these are two of the gems along the Atlantic-facing Cape Cod National Seashore, where the roughest, most challenging surf beats the land. This curve of shoreline reaching to the Cape’s tip features amazing wildlife viewing from beach and dunes; piping plover and gray seals are often spotted.

Hyannis Harbor
Hyannis Harbor (©Leigh Harrington)

Dog Day Afternoons

“Cape Codders will mostly tell you fall is the best time of year,” said Beverly Tilden, a veteran Boston radio broadcaster and marketing strategist who moved to the Cape from Boston in 2000 and has zero regrets about abandoning big city life. “The weather stays fairly mild, the south coast—Falmouth to Harwich—gets the warm currents from the south so the water stays warm enough to swim into October. The beaches empty out before Labor Day, lifeguards go back to school and we can bring our dog to the beach with us.”

In fall, Cape roads are clear, and in Hyannis Port it’s an ideal time to cruise around—although note that the speed limit throughout is a lazy 20 mph—and drool over dream properties. Massive, immaculately kept captain homes have weathered gray shingles, white wooden beam fences, dusty periwinkle-hued hydrangeas and lush lawns where elsewhere on the Cape grass refuses to grow. Low dunes spread to a harbor where dozens of sailboats bob on the waves. Hyannis Port is Kennedy domain.

Falmouth (©Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism)

Artist Shanties

A mile or so away, Hyannis Harbor is a working seaport jammed with fishing boats, but there’s also a creative element that’s cherished by the locals. A series of pastel-painted sheds called “artist shanties” occupy a waterfront promenade. Each features a different Cape artist on a weekly rotation May through October. Enjoy a killer lobster roll on the open-air porch at Black Cat Tavern overlooking it all.

Falmouth Center has the feel of Main Street USA no matter the season, American flags waving in the breeze. Tourists flock here in summer to browse the independent bookstore, tea shops—both the loose bulk and sandwiches-and-service variety—children’s clothing boutique and home-jewelry-apparel-gift mashups. But in fall, you only have to dodge the occasional mom-and-stroller or retired couple reminiscing over authentic French pastries—no really, you’ll feel like you’re in a patisserie in Avignon—at Maison Villatte.

“Falmouth has grown and improved immensely since I moved here,” Tilden said. “The downtown is vibrant. There were very few quality restaurants [then]; now there are many. We still have the fried fish places, but there are more of what I’d describe as ‘Boston quality’ restaurants.”

The rose hips of Woods Hole
The rose hips of Woods Hole (©Leigh Harrington)

Squid Gates and Rose Hips

In Woods Hole, where the weathered shingles of the old Cape meets college town, thanks to the Marine Biology Lab of the University of Chicago, fall has a renewed sense of purpose and pursuit. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service and Northeast Fisheries Science Center also make Woods Hole home. Visitors can watch fishing and scientific vessels sail into and out of port or walk along the promenade and find a tiny swimming beach. Enjoy a warm afternoon in Waterfront Park, a green space studded with a conch shell sculpture, squid gates, wooden benches and dense rose hips overlooking the entrance to Vineyard Sound. Straight ahead is Nonamessett Island and the hazy shores of Martha’s Vineyard to the left.

Fall on the Cape means that no longer must you wait 30 minutes in line for a cone from one of the Cape’s iconic ice cream parlors: divey Four Seas in Centerville; the Sundae School—that tops its sundaes with real Bing cherries—in Dennis Port; Bill & Ben’s in Falmouth with its signature, butter-base lobster meat ice cream.

“After many years of late nights, entertaining, parties and long work days at KISS and WEEI, I find this [slower] pace to be perfect,” Tilden said. “When I come to the city, which is often as I have a granddaughter and family there, it amazes me how busy it is. The pace is so much faster. [Boston] is good for a visit, but I enjoy being here. I can come home from work, pack a cooler with drinks and apps and enjoy a couple of hours on the beach. We do it all the time.”