By Sandy MacDonald
For a century or more before Pilgrims dropped anchor off what is now Provincetown, roving seamen sought refuge in the natural harbor at the curled tip of Cape Cod. The would-be colonists tarried only long enough to do some laundry (and damage to the native population), before moving on in search of greener pastures. The untamed outland (Thoreau, wearing his curmudgeonly travel writer hat, would later laud it as “this wild rank place”) was left to observe its own customs and laws – the foremost being lawlessness. For a time, the makeshift community went by the name of “Helltown,” and the uptight colonists of the mainland knew better than to meddle. In a sense, their grudging tolerance set the stage for what remains a community in a state of constant creative anarchy – and, seemingly, permanent party.
Except in the off-season, when the revelers head home to resume their regular lives, and the wintering-over population – about one-tenth the summer norm – hunker down to attend to their own.
Peace in P’town
Once the bumptious hordes depart, Provincetown can be a place of surpassing beauty and peace. You can stroll down Commercial Street (where a scattering of stores, galleries, and restaurants remain open) without enduring the usual jostle. If you opt to bike the rolling paths that enlace the Cape Cod National Seashore, you’re likely to find yourself careening along alone in the mist. Still, camaraderie remains within easy reach, and if what you have in mind is a low-key folie à deux, sans audience — there’s no place more romantic.
The Provincetown Chamber’s Winter Guide can tell you – warn you? – about what’s still accessible. The Pilgrim Monument, for instance, invites an invigorating climb (at least until December 1), earning you lunch at Napi’s, an artsy-gustatory haven celebrating its 40th anniversary. You can check out the holdings at the Provincetown Art Association & Museum, celebrating a century of endeavor, and at least two venerable top galleries – Berta Walker and Julie Heller – will welcome you by appointment or chance.
Reviving an Oldie
Of course, if you stay at a decorative-arts trove like Land’s End Inn – a shingled 1904 beauty perched on a hilltop at the far west end of town – you may have little need of aesthetic stimulation. The place is packed with the finds of the original owner, Boston haberdasher and “single gentleman” Charles Lothrop Higgins, plus the further acquisitions of longtime innkeeper David Schoolman, who established a trust to maintain the collection in perpetuity. Taking over the inn at the turn of this century, local hotelier Michael MacIntyre gave the contents a much-needed edit, and the latest proprietors, Stan and Eva Sikorski, have added cosmopolitan polish. If you can, nab the cupola’d Bay Tower Room, with its 360-degree views of the harbor and breakwater (walkable, if you’re hardy, to the spit of sand harboring the Long Point lighthouse). Any of the 18 rooms, though, is an experience in immersive luxe, calme et volupté.
Bountiful breakfast excepted, you’ll need to tear yourself away in search of sustenance – the best bet being The Mews in the East End. It’s another oldie (converted from a stable 50 years ago), but reliably au courant in terms of culinary trends.
One note of warning: If it’s peace and privacy you seek, maybe plan to forgo Provincetown’s Holly Folly weekend in early December. It’s like the town’s last let’s-party gasp, featuring a full roster of fun events, including Drag Bingo, a Boston Gay Men’s Chorus performance, and other community-building activities. Better yet, do show up for the follies – and then linger a while afterward, to savor Provincetown’s stark beauty in relative solitude.
About Sandy MacDonald
Sandy Macdonald is a theatre critic and travel writer; details at sandymacdonald.com