Post Labor Day into mid-November, Cape Cape sports an Indian summer glow and is free of long lines, milling crowds and congested traffic.
An exception is Columbus Day weekend, when hundreds of tourists come to luxuriate in the unique combination of peak autumn foliage and stunning ocean views, and second-home owners are enjoying one last weekend before shuttering their summer residences for the winter.
Years ago, “Closed for the Season See You Next Year” signs cropped up right after Labor Day but for quite some time now Indian summer has been a not-quite-so-off-season for the Cape.
It’s a perfect time to savor the glorious warm days, cool evenings and easy access to restaurants, shops and attractions. Visitors can drive leisurely down sun-dappled Route 6A or 28, enjoying the foliage and vistas of saltwater marshes, stopping to explore town centers. It’s a much slower pace than the “in-season” of Memorial Day through Labor Day.
While many attractions and restaurants close after Columbus Day, others remain open, albeit with curtailed hours. But weekends offer special festivals celebrating everything from cranberries to oysters to scallops. And of course the wily New England Yankees continue to attract tourist dollars with holiday festivities for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
A prime advantage of the post-Labor Day visit for the budget conscious – including seniors on fixed income – is the lower lodging rates.
Perusing Craigslist this senior rented a beautiful and comfortable privately owned one-bedroom cottage in Orleans, a five-minute walk from Skaket Beach on Cape Cod Bay for $450 for the week of Oct. 12-19. In-season weekly rate is about $200 higher.
Renters supply their own bed linens and towels and upon leaving take out the garbage, put away the dishes and clean out the refrigerator. But there was no extra charge for cleaning (the going rate is $50 to $75 for a week’s stay at many private rentals) nor were there added taxes.
Nearly all meals were prepared in the fully equipped kitchen (there was also an outdoor gas grill) bringing the total for groceries and a couple of breakfasts and lunches out to a budget-friendly $148.
Restaurants abound in all price ranges. Online research yielded recommendations on the top 10 or 25 in several categories, and this senior didn’t have a miss. One splurge was a nearly $30 lunch – featuring the best lobster roll ever – at the Wild Goose in Chatham.
The weather was glorious. Daytime temperatures were in the mid- to high 60s – two days reached 70 – with overnight lows in the mid-50s to mid-40s. Only one day was overcast and misty.
What to do?
Tennis, golfing, bicycling, surfing, canoeing, kayaking and sport fishery continue. There are tours of cranberry bogs and boat trips to view wildlife including whales and seals. The Cape Cod Central Railroad, which leaves from Hyannis, offers lunch and dinner tours.
Cape Cod is nearly devoid of big box stores and malls, but antique and gift shops, clothing boutiques and bookstores are everywhere. And keep in mind locally operated consignment and thrift shops, whose proceeds benefit charitable projects.
Some stores close for the season after the Columbus Day weekend so bargains can be found, especially on summer items, with discounts ranging between 20 and 50 percent. And the Massachusetts sales tax is just 6.25 percent, a savings for Western New Yorkers.
A lot of bookstores also have “author nights,” a free nighttime entertainment for those who love to read.
Beaches are open for long walks – swimming and surfing for hardy souls – and parking is free, another off-season bonus. Generally, in-season beach fees are $15 daily for a car; $3 for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Off-season, pet owners ignore the “no dogs beyond this point” signs, allowing their canines to race along the sand and frolic in the surf. It’s impossible not to smile at their antics.
Orleans also affords another delightful unique free spectacle: viewing the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean and sunset over Cape Cod Bay.
Low tide at Skaket Beach – and others – exposes sandy flats and shell-filled tidal pools stretching miles out. Nearby Rock Harbor, which hosts one of the New England coastline’s largest sport fishing fleets, is a great spot for bird-watching.
Some other suggested attractions/shops and a side trip:
• Nauset Light Beach, featuring a decommissioned lighthouse, in Eastham. And Chatham Light, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, in Chatham. Periodic tours, including some by the full moon, are offered at many of the Cape’s 14 lighthouses.
• The Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham has short films on the National Seashore, environmental exhibits and views and walks of Nauset Marsh.
• Cape Cod’s Nature Place in Brewster. Exhibits on the Cape’s geology; life of the native Wampanoag people, shore and marsh birds; and sharks. There are also live turtles, saltwater creatures and snakes. A room of comfy armchairs offers a sweeping view of the saltwater marsh. Binoculars are provided for bird-watching. It also has several nature trails.
• The John F. Kennedy Museum in Hyannis, home to the Kennedy compound. For the 50th anniversary of the assassination, the museum has a special photo exhibit of President Kennedy’s last summer on Hyannis in 1963. Videos feature commentary by the late newscaster Walter Cronkite and the president’s late brother Sen. Ted Kennedy.
• The Brewster Store, an old-style general store similar to Vidler’s in East Aurora, on Route 6A in Brewster. Enjoy fresh roasted peanuts and play the nicklelodeon while perusing the aisles and aisles of merchandise.
• Sandwich Glass Museum, 129 Main St., Sandwich. Exhibits of glassware dating to 1825-1885 along with a historical film and daily glass-blowing demonstrations.
Sandwich, the oldest town on the Cape, is chock-a-block with historic buildings, including the Thornton Burgess Museum, dedicated to the children’s author of “Peter Rabbit” stories. And don’t miss a stop at Titcomb’s Bookshop on Route 6A.
• Martha’s Vineyard day trip. In 50 years of traveling to the Cape, I’ve visited Nantucket several times, but this was my first trip to the “other island.”
The least expensive transport is the Steamship Authority ferry out of Woods Hole. The roughly 45-minute crossing costs $8 per adult one way. Park in the authority’s lot, about a 20-minute shuttle bus ride away from the ferry landing, for another $8 for the day, which includes the bus ride there and back.
In the off-season, Martha’s Vineyard – a popular vacation spot for the wealthy and powerful, including some presidents – is blessedly quiet, especially midweek.
Vineyard Haven, where the ferry docks, is easily accessed on foot. But what about nearby villages like Oak Bluffs and Edgartown? Ride a public transit bus; a day pass is $7 and set your own pace.
For those who don’t like do-it-yourself tours, there are narrated excursions by private sightseeing buses for $29 and by van for $45.