Fun, sun and history in Provincetown

A view of Provincetown's Race Point beach.
Jaime Vazquez

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.