Live

Watch CBSN Live

Fun, sun and history in Provincetown

CBSNews.com's David Hancock reports from Provincetown, the historic town at the outermost end of Cape Cod.



Many years ago in Torrance, Calif., my fifth-grade class put on a Thanksgiving pageant. We did a Pilgrims and Indians skit; I remember I wore a white shirt and black pants with a square buckle made of cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil. We brought in corn and pumpkins and other foods that paralleled the Pilgrims' first feast in the New World. I think there were cupcakes, too.

Like Proust nibbling his madeleines, I found myself remembering things long past on a recent trip to Provincetown, Mass., a tiny town at the end of Cape Cod. Amid the monuments, weathered gravestones and clapboard houses, I searched my mind for bits of Thanksgiving lore from my childhood.

After checking into our motel, my friend Jaime and I rode our bicycles to the Pilgrim Monument, a granite tower in the center of town. A plaque at its base lists the names of the Mayflower Pilgrims who made their first landing in the new world at Provincetown in 1620. I got excited looking at the names - Miles Standish, John Alden, Priscilla Mullens, William Bradford. They were real people, not just names in a history book or lovelorn characters in a Longfellow poem!

Provincetown, or "Ptown" for short, has a lot to offer on many levels - shopping, art galleries, fresh seafood, flowers everywhere and quaint Cape Cod homes. But I think what stays with me most is the sense of history crammed into the narrow streets and wooden Cape Cod houses. And not just pilgrim history - Henry David Thoreau, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, journalist Jack Reed (remember the Warren Beatty movie "Reds") and others have added their names and talent to the lore of Provincetown.

Cemetery On A Hill

provincetown-hancock-cemetery-620.jpg
The Pilgrim Monument towers above all, including Provincetown's old cemetery. CBS/David Hancock

I had assumed Provincetown, by virtue of its narrow peninsula nature, would be flat. It's actually fairly hilly - more on that later. At the top of Provincetown's tallest hill is an old cemetery, with gravestones dating back to the early 1700s. Although the Mayflower Pilgrims touched ground in Provincetown in 1620, they stayed only a few weeks before settling in Plymouth. Provincetown was not actually settled until the next century.

provincetown-hancock-cemetery.jpg
CBS/David Hancock

I love old cemeteries. Show me a crumbling headstone and a few lines of engraved verse and I'm transported back in time.

What was life like for Capt. Thomas Sparks, 1805-95, buried with his four wives: Hannah, 1808-33; Anna, 1808-36; Lurana, 1819-62; and Lydia, 1816-90. There are four babies buried along with Captain Sparks and his wives. So many babies in the cemetery, babies and young wives; it speaks of the strife of childbirth, influenza and hard New England winters.

I love gravestone epitaphs; the way the language gives you a feel for days gone by. Like these stately lines for Rebecca P. Swift, "departed this life in 1876 at 70 years".

Why lament the Christians dying
Why indulge in tears or gloom
Calmly in her Lord's dying
She has met the opening tomb

And why did G. B. Smith, buried in 1874, have a life-sized statue of a large dog placed on his grave?

Beaches, Biking

If you're at all inclined to bicycling, than that's the way to go in Provincetown. Parking is scarce, and the town's main drag, Commercial Street, is laden with pedestrians night and day. And although Ptown is only three miles long, the foot mileage back and forth can add up quickly.

Depending on the season, bikes rent for about $20 a day or $50 a week. Best to rent or bring a cheapie; one of my friends had a nice bike stole in Ptown. My friend Jaime has two bikes that we brought with us: a fancy Cannondale V-500 that he bought (used!) for $1,300; and a battered brown 10-speed that his neighbor gave him for free. He calls them Lady D and Ugly Betty. I tried to ride Ugly Betty but found that I had forgotten how to shift gears. That's my story, anyway. With his typical graciousness, Jaime let me ride Lady D, which has shock absorbers and a very easy-to-use numbered gear dial on her handlebar.

provincetown-vazquez-sailboats.jpg
Jaime Vazquez

After a six-hour drive from New York City and several hours of biking Friday, Jaime and I crashed early Friday night. We stayed at the Surfside Hotel, a perfectly average motel with pool, cable, continental breakfast and free parking for $200 a night in-season. Provincetown has a plethora of guesthouses, but I quickly got overwhelmed trying to sort through them on the Internet. Here are some places to start online: Provincetown.com and bedandbreakfast.com

On Saturday morning we set out for Race Point Beach, which was about five miles from our hotel through Ptown and then a beautiful bike path through the piney woods.

Bikers beware: If you, like many Americans, are overweight and out of shape, it can be easy to overdo it on the bike - particularly if it is a hot steamy day and you are unprepared for the various hills in town and on the Race Point Trail. Even as you gloat inwardly about being at the seashore on a stiflingly muggy weekend, you might, hypothetically, start to feel a little sick from all the exertion. Bring water, and don't be too proud to jump off your bike and walk it uphill.

Heat exhaustion aside, Race Point beach is gorgeous: Sand dunes lead down to a vista of blue water and sailboats. The water is stunningly cold, even in August, but refreshing.

Shops, Galleries, Restaurants, Gay Bars

provincetown-hancock-street.jpg
CBS/David Hancock

Provincetown has the usual T-shirt and curio shops, as well as art galleries. Neither Jaime nor I was in much of a shopping, art mode for our Ptown weekend. We also passed on the many tours - $33 for a three-hour whale watching jaunt, sand dune expeditions, lobster junkets, sailing, etc. There's plenty to do.

I did enjoy one store, Marine Specialities Co., a kitschy Army-Navy supply store that sold French berets, pocket knifes, seashell sculptures, used American Airlines crockery, gas masks and $75 wedding dresses.

Dining was fair to good. On our first night we ate at Enzo's, an Italian restaurant in the $20-a-plate range. It was good, but I was miffed about our appetizer: roasted figs with gorgonzola cheese. For $13, we received two grape-sized figs cut in half. That comes to $3.25 a fig half. I always feel like someone in the kitchen is laughing when I get a microscopic appetizer. Saturday we ate at Bubala's On The Bay, where I had dry chicken breasts in pomegranate sauce and Jaime had tasty baked tofu. Our best dining was Sunday night at Lorraine's, a New York Times pick that featured good Mexican and American food.

Its long history of writers, playwrights and actors helps account for Provincetown's status as a gay mecca. The city's main Commercial Street can be roughly divided down the middle - gay to the west, straight to the east. Rainbow flags and bare-chested boys with dogs abound. Jaime and I saw a handful of gay demi-celebs on the street: butch comic and singer Lea Delaria; conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan, who said he was just in for the week; comedian Leslie Jordan, who played Karen's pint-sized nemesis on "Will And Grace"; and shirtless porn star Jeff Stryker exhorting passersby to attend his "cabaret show."

provincetown-vazquez-santa.jpg
Jaime Vazquez

We asked Miss Richfield, a sassy drag queen in a nifty red Santa Claus miniskirt, what she liked about Ptown.

"CBS News, huh? And they couldn't give you a better camera than that?" she quipped before reflecting on the allure of Ptown's main Commercial Street.

"It's the only place on earth where everyone funnels into one place. The gays, the straights, the handsome, the not-so ..." she said. "I've been to a lot of places, Fort Lauderdale, Key West, it's the only place like that."

My Favorite Things; And "A Spit Of Sand"

One of my many favorite things on this first trek to Ptown was to marvel at the array of flowers. Enormous sunflowers everywhere; huge hibiscus; petunias and poppies; flowers in manicured window boxes or growing loose and wild in front yards.

After looking at a placard of Cape Cod wildlife, Jaime and I designated a mascot for our trip: the semipalmated sandpiper. "That's a hell of a name for that little bird,'' said Jaime.

At night the buskers come out on Commercial Street, and it's a mixed bag. We passed an opera singer regaling passersby and a pair of folk singers from Montreal. A muscled young man strummed his guitar and sang "American Pie." An old man played serene New Age music on an electric piano, prompting a catty comment from a passerby: "Did I just die?"

After dinner one night, Jaime and I enjoyed bolas de berlim, custard-filled donuts from The Portuguese Bakery. Ptown became home to a community of Portuguese who worked in the fleets.

Returning to the bike, it was just very pleasant to go in and out of the side streets, marveling at this view or that. The August air at night is perfect for just a T-shirt - cool but not too cool.

On the far west end of Commercial Street, I spoke with a homeowner working in his front yard. I was curious what it was like to actually live in Provincetown. He said not that many people actually do; the majority come for the summer and leave their houses empty for the winter.

provincetown-hancock-house.jpg
CBS/David Hancock

"It's a different place than it used to be. Not that many people are living here full time,'' said Joe Connolly, a courtroom illustrator from Boston. Connolly has lived in Ptown for 30 years, and his Cape Cod home dates back to 1790 (it says so on a plaque). He declined to guess what his house was worth, but said the two-story house next door had just sold for $1.4 million.

Connolly had his own idea of what makes Provincetown popular.

"It's something psychological about its location on a spit of sand. People like to go to the farthest, outermost point because it's there. If you go to a mountain, you want to go to the top."

And, he added, people like the town's easy, anything-goes attitude.

"Provincetown has a tradition of being beyond the pale."


By David Hancock