We have a bunch of well-traveled friends. It's a particular pleasure to enjoy an unexpected meeting in a surprising place. Newport, Rhode Island, is home to the Naval War College where our friend David was attending a seminar, allowing us to spend a happy day first exploring the city, then settling down for a wide-ranging conversation.
Before we even reached Newport we had a Naval Experience - in Battleship Cove, Fall River, a battleship (the U.S.S. Massachusetts, what else), a destroyer, a Russian corvette, a submarine and a PT-boat are tied up for tourists; even though we missed a closer view, we took advantage of a photo-op. We grabbed lunch in Tiverton, a working-class maritime community, advertising Portuguese-American food, but where one special was Polish Plate. However, the Battleship Cove, Fall River Polish Plate included cabbage, cabbage soup, and pierogis stuffed with cabbage, yet they were out of cabbage, so if we wanted the Polish Plate it would have been just the kielbasy! Also we had the last cup of the chicken barley soup. The moral is that when the restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday, and you arrive on Monday, you'd better not hope for much.
As we drove towards Newport, we thought about its history in the seventeenth century, as a hotbed of religious dissent from the unbending strictures of Puritanism. An 8th great grandmother, Tase, or Tacy, Cooper, born and educated in England, convinced her husband Samuel Hubbard that children should not be baptised until they believed, and that the sabbath was the seventh day, not the first. Samuel gets the credit in the history books for being one of the founders of the Seventh-Day Baptist Church, but he acknowledges in his diary it was Tase's idea. Back then Newport was generally a-twitter with all of the arguments and "disputations" the various preachers and elders engaged in, and Rhode Island women like Tase and of course Anne Hutchinson took an active part in the debate. Sometime we'll return to Newport with days to spend at the Historical Society and library and prowling the Common Burial Ground.
This day we drove around and gawked at the Gilded Age mansions of the nineteenth-century robber barons. They had arrived financially, and wanted the elegant estates to prove it. A drive down Bellevue Avenue made our eyes pop open as each architectural statement was out-stated by the next! We've done a few tours of stately homes here and there, which seems to have satisfied our appetites. There were plenty of people climbing off tour buses to walk through these summer palaces -- evidently here, as for the stately homes of England as well, the tourist trade is necessary to pay the taxes! The Breakers, Vanderbilt's mansion
In the heart of the mansion district, near Vanderbilt's "The Breakers," we found that Salve Regina University has evidently enabled the owners of huge taxable mansions to realize a sizeable charitable deduction, providing a variety of splendid campus buildings! So now college students can enjoy the elegance once the exclusive property of the upper crust.
Leaving Bellevue Avenue, we twisted along Ocean Drive, enjoying the more recent waterfront estates, and ended up at Fort Adams, overlooking the magnificent harbor, where technologically advanced sailboats confer much more status than power-driven yachts. As we gazed at those huge, sleek racing boats, we envied our friend Larry who had a chance, with a small group from a cruise ship, to sail for a day on an ocean-going racer.
The next day we circumnavigated Cape Cod, and found a lot more variety than we had expected. The season has not started; some beach parking lots were closed off, south shore motels were offering $27.50 per person off-season rates, many ice cream shops had not opened. It was Tuesday, before the end of the school year here, so the traffic was bearable -- but barely so. Imagine trying to drive out highway 6A all the way to Provincetown and then back on highway 28 to Woods Hole all in one day in the high summer season. It would be impossible!
We imagined lonely windswept beaches, where Eugene O'Neill and his buddies boozed endlessly and wrote Great Works, while Peggy Lee was singing about "Old Cape Cod" -- wrong!
In Sandwich and Barnstable we saw one Cape Cod Cottage after another, with weather-beaten shingles and informal flower gardens. Every house, it seemed, had an elegant wooden sign with gold lettering proclaiming some small business -- antiques, gifts, arts and crafts, real estate. These towns have Newport racing yachts somehow come up with a kind of zoning which allows small businesses run out of houses but avoids ugly strip malls. Meanwhile the road twists and turns. Most of this country was developed years ago, and the homes have a picturesque weatherbeaten appearance.
In this neighborhood we got to joking about all the expensive places to go. Not only was there fine dining; there was fine lodging, fine furniture, fine art, etc. Nobody was selling anything plain and ordinary! Here there were no hotels or motels, but fine and fashionable B&Bs and lovely guest lodges.
As we got further out, the Cape became more egalitarian. The holiday interest seemed to switch from shopping to enjoying the beach and the summer breezes. There's a Boston-Cape Cod Bikeway, and cyclists aplenty.
On the map large parts of the Cape are colored green, marked in red as part of the CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE, but we were surprised to see how many of the driveways through the national parkland had Private No Trespassing Or Even Turning Around signs! Evidently this is one of those National Park projects in which eventually the land will become public.
The Cape Cod dunes are as pretty as any we've seen, with fine sand and lovely green bushes. As we neared Provincetown, the beach was plastered with small summer cottages. We couldn't believe the six-figure prices advertised, but evidently the tip of the Cape is in high demand.
Nearing Provincetown we found Pilgrim Lake and Mayflower Heights. The Pilgrims stopped here before proceeding on to Plymouth, and many of the local business people appear to have hitched on to the magic words. In Provincetown itself is a huge bronze bas relief heroically depicting the landing on the Cape. The township of Mashpee, on the south shore, was evidently one of the "praying villages" where the Indians lived in houses and read the bible.
Modern Provincetown reminded us a little of Key West, another town at the end of a road. The streets were narrow and nearly impassable, full of souvenir shops, restaurants, snack shops, walkers, babies in strollers, little kids, gay couples, old ladies, dogs, cars, tour buses, bicyclists, old men in motorized wheelchairs, kite flyers, ice cream eaters, joggers, people with cameras. A traditional Cape Cod cottage
We followed the South Shore going back. It was more modern and much more crowded than the North Shore. It also seemed to us as if the Protestants go to the North Shore and the Catholics to the South Shore. Here are big shopping centers, Irish bars, Italian restaurants, and, of course, Hyannisport with its Kennedys. But the road just couldn't handle the traffic, and we had to wait for two or three cycles of each traffic light.
Finally we got to Falmouth where the traffic thinned out, and proceeded to Woods Hole. This is the stepping-off point for Martha's Vineyard, and the home of some elegant oceanfront mansions, including one which is owned by the National Academy of Sciences, and where Bob spent a happy eight weeks in the summer of 1964, doing hard mathematics and enjoying the scenery. We drove in to take a snapshot, and the memories returned. Conference attendees were out on the lawn taking an afternoon coffee break.
We could have - perhaps should have - wandered the back roads along Buzzards Bay, but we were too tired, so we returned to highway 28, which becomes a freeway and funnels traffic onto I-495.
Just as we found through our explorations up the Atlantic Coast, Cape Cod is no longer the lonely remote seaside escape. Today the Cape is a thriving industy of tourism which adds a powerful wallop to the Massachusetts economy. It looks like a delightful place for a summer vacation, but our advice would be to do as little driving as possible!