It’s difficult to describe the charm of Provincetown, the ever-popular gay resort town at the very tip of Cape Cod. Like Key West, it lies at the end of the road, the type of town and find so seductive visitors end up moving there.
Nestled into a narrow strip of land dividing the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Cod Bay, Provincetown shares its setting with giant sand dunes deposited by retreating glaciers 15,000 years ago. The houses are quaint, mostly wood-shingled, and tightly packed together. Narrow streets and lanes crisscross the town, carrying far more pedestrians than cars. The year-around population of 3,500 swells to as much as 50,000 in the summer.
With a reputation as a roguish port town that goes back as far as the Revolutionary War, for many years Provincetown thrived as a fishing village, harvesting whales and massive quantities of cod and other fish, and bringing great wealth to ships’ captains and merchants. A large Portuguese community of fishermen and their families developed here, and although their numbers have dwindled, there is still a fishing industry here.
Artists were attracted to the clear skies and excellent light. Provincetown soon became the largest artist colony in the country by the end of the 19th Century. Gays and lesbians began coming here as tourists in numbers in the 1960’s, although it had long become a welcoming place well before Stonewall for the alternative lifestyles of the artists and writers living and working here.
On the subject of getting here, a variety of transportation options are available, including an approximately 10-hour drive from Washington. But if that’s not your idea of a fun time, you can fly to Boston’s Logan Airport and connect to Cape Air (800-352-0714, www.flycapeair.com) for the 20-minute flight to Provincetown’s airport. Another alternative is the ferry from Boston, selecting either the 90-minute rapid ferry ($59 round trip) or the three-hour conventional ferry ($29 round trip) operated by Bay State Cruise Company (617-748-1428, www.baystatecruises.com). Any way you choose, you’ll be glad you made the trip.
Accommodations in Provincetown range from basic to luxurious. While you can find conventional motels and resort lodgings, P-town is more rightly famous for its host of predominantly gay guesthouses. Room rates noted are for the summer season and drop significantly around the beginning of October.
At the high end of the scale, The Brass Key (67 Bradford St, 800-842-9858, www.brasskey.com, $245-445) offers an attractive environment appealing mostly to gay men. More moderately priced are Carpe Diem (12 Johnson St, 800-487-0132, www.carpediemguesthouse.com, $130-265) predominately men, and Gabriel’s (104 Bradford St., 800-969-2643, www.gabriels.com, $140-160) with a mostly-women clientele.
More affordable accommodations can be found at Dexter’s Inn (6 Conwell St., 888-521-1999, $65-115) and Carl’s Guesthouse (68 Bradford St., 800-348-2275, $69-149).
With dozens of places to consider, you may want to check out the Provincetown Business Guild‘s website at www.ptown.org, an organization of gay and gay-friendly businesses. Web links to its participating members are listed, along with some general information about the establishments. You may also request a gay tourist package from the guild that will be helpful in planning your visit.
With so much national attention on same-sex marriage, a visit to the City Clerk’s office where marriage licenses are issued seems in order. Located in Town Hall in the middle of Provincetown on Commercial Street, this small office has been doing a buzzing business lately.
Since May 14, 2004, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began issuing same-sex marriage licenses, the Provincetown office has granted over 1,040 of the documents. Seems that marriage has become a lot more popular here lately. In all of 2003 this same office issued only 30.
Standing at the counter, Mark and Gary, a couple from Boston who own a home in Provincetown, were just completing the application process and paying the $30 license fee, opting to receive their license to marry in the mail. Their excitement was obvious and both had expressions suggesting they couldn’t believe that within days they’d be holding a marriage license in their hands.
When asked how strictly the office was enforcing the ”intent to reside in Massachusetts” requirement for obtaining such a license, an employee of the Clerk’s office replied that the office depended entirely on the oath that applicants swear at the time of application. When out-of-state applicants later find out how real-estate prices in Provincetown have shot up in recent years, it could certainly be justified if their intention to relocate later falls victim to reality.
Towering over the town is the massive 250-foot Pilgrim Monument, nearly half the height of the Washington Monument, and the tallest all-granite structure in the nation. Arriving in 1907 on the appropriately-named presidential yacht, The Mayflower, Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the tower to commemorate the first landing of the Mayflower pilgrims in Provincetown on November 11, 1620.
A fee of $7 allows you to climb to the top of the monument for unique vistas of the town and cape, as well as visit the very interesting Provincetown Museum at the foot of the tower, which displays a copy of the Mayflower Compact, written aboard ship here in Provincetown.
Paris has its croissants but Provincetown is associated with Portuguese bread — a rustic white loaf similar to French bread but with the addition of milk, said to make the best toast in the world. Pick some up at the Provincetown Portuguese Bakery (299 Commercial St.) along with malassadas, fried dough sprinkled with sugar, a treat with origins in the Azores, the Portuguese islands in the Atlantic.
Good food abounds in Provincetown, but often at big-city prices. That’s why it’s great to find Bayside Betsy’s (177 Commercial St., 508-487-6566) where fine dining comes at moderate prices and in casual surroundings. Don’t miss the award-winning clam chowder, arguably the best in town. Owners Steve and Betsy Melamed have a thriving business catering same-sex weddings too, using the expression ”eat, drink and be married” in their advertising.
The Mews Restaurant and CafÃ© (429 Commercial St. 508-487-1500) offers elegant dining in the East End, a quieter section of town loaded with art galleries. Here you’ll find waterfront dining on two levels featuring fine cuisine with worldwide influences.
For a taste of old Provincetown, don’t pass up the Lobster Pot (321 Commercial St. 508-487-0842) thinking it’s just for tourists. True, you’ll find more day-trippers here than in some other places, but the lobster and other seafood are fresh and delicious, while the views of the waterfront are among the best in town.
Bubala’s (177 Commercial St. 508-487-0773) is popular for its good, moderately-priced food and its street-side patio dining, perfect for people watching in the West End of town. The mussels are fantastic.
Former Washingtonians Carl and Chuck present wonderful cuisine at The Commons Bistro (386 Commercial St. 508-487-0784) where open-air relaxed dining is abundant. The bistro is part of a lovely complex that also includes a 14-bed guesthouse and adjacent cafÃ©.
Biking is a popular pastime in and around Provincetown and several places rent bikes for the hour, day or week. The most centrally located of these is Arnold’s (329 Commercial St. 508-487-0844) which rents a variety of styles as well as offering repairs if you’re traveling with your own bike.
The 8 miles of paved trails outside of town are in generally good condition, but include some fairly challenging hills through the dunes. Drifted sand and steep declines can sometimes require extra caution. A favorite trail takes riders through the ”Beech Forest” on your way to the Race Point Ranger Station. Winding through sand dunes, small wooded areas and past lovely ponds, you’ll marvel at the diversity of nature on the cape.
Navigating along Commercial Street on a bike can be rather challenging since pedestrians rarely use the sidewalks, even on those sections of the narrow street that actually have sidewalks. It’s amazing that cars are still allowed to travel along the street given the volume of pedestrians, and many drivers wisely avoid the street entirely.
A short bike ride, or a very healthy walk from town, delivers you to Herring Cove, a gorgeous stretch of Atlantic coastline, part of the National Seashore that may just charm the pants off of you. While not officially ”clothing optional,” this has certainly become the custom over the years. Park rangers have been known to issue written warnings to nude sunbathers, but their presence on the beaches is very limited. Generally, on those rare occasions when a ranger comes on the beach, word spreads fast and a cover-up ensues.
A great way to see the dunes is Art’s Dune Tours (Standish & Commercial Sts, 508-487-1950) now in its 59th year of providing hour-long drives through beautiful parts of the National Seashore now closed to private vehicles. For $17 per adult ($25 for a two-hour sunset tour) you’ll learn about the history of the dunes and life-saving stations along the Atlantic shore with its more than 3,000 known shipwrecks.
Several firms offer whale-watching cruises that virtually guarantee you’ll see whales during their approximately 3-hour journey. Dolphin Fleet Whalewatching (McMillian Pier, 508-240-3636) offers commentary by experts from the Center for Costal Studies during its excursion, costing $24 per person for adults. On my trip we followed a pair of humpback whales for over an hour as they surfaced for air, spraying water from their blowholes, and diving again to feed in the rich feeding grounds of the Stellwagen Bank, the 800-square-mile marine sanctuary.
Not widely publicized are the Tuesday and Friday walking tours of Provincetown led by two local history buffs. For a mere $5 you’ll learn some very intriguing history of this unusual place. Reservations are suggested (508-487-1310), but not mandatory, for the 2-hour tours leaving Provincetown Museum (at the foot of the monument) at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays, and at 11 a.m. on Fridays from in front of Town Hall.
Feeling indulgent? Luxuriate at Shui Spa (82 Bradford St., inside the historic Crowne Pointe Inn, 508-487-6767). This unisex escape from the bustle of Commercial Street features a soaking tub, sauna and steam room, and offers a variety of massage, facial and grooming options in a tranquil environment. A vitamin C infusion facial, said to help repair and prevent free radical damage from exposure to the sun, left me feeling radiant and relaxed.
Provincetown boasts over 50 art galleries and a still-thriving artist community that’s been going strong for over 100 years. Recognizable names like Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollack and Robert Motherwell have all painted here. Friday evenings are a great time to wander along Commercial Street, especially in the East End, where many galleries have openings of new shows. Also, don’t miss the art exhibitions at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (460 Commercial St., www.paam.org).
What would a gay resort be without shopping? You can spend days exploring the shops and art galleries in Provincetown and then still discover some you haven’t seen. Visit Cerutti’s (373 Commercial St.) for unique gifts, crafts, pottery, and the work of juried glass artists. Turning Point (379 Commercial St.) features an interesting selection of men’s and women’s fashions and accessories. Men will want to check out the fashions at Body Body (315 Commercial St.) and Market (173 Commercial St.).
If you run out of reading material, a good assortment of gay and mainstream literature can be found at Now Voyager (357 Commercial St.) that is both a bookstore and gallery. And you’ll find unusual decorative items from Asia at WA (184 Commercial St.).
To keep up with your gym routine while you’re vacationing, stop by Muscle Beach (35 Bradford St., 508-487-0001), which offers daily and weekly memberships.
There is a vibrant local theater scene, anchored by the new state-of-the-art Provincetown Theater (238 Bradford St., 508-487-9793, www.provincetowntheater.com), home of the Provincetown Theater Company and the Provincetown Repertory Theatre. A rich theatrical tradition exists here, and Eugene O’Neill wrote some of his dramatic masterpieces in Provincetown beginning back in 1914. He won his Pulitzer Prize while living here in 1920.
Many other performance spaces around town offer a wide variety of acts. As an example, recent performers included such well-known personalities as Margaret Cho, Kate Clinton and Lea Delaria, as well as a host of female impersonators.
The long-famous tea dance at The Boatslip (161 Commercial St.) is still going strong from 4-7pm daily for a mostly male crowd. The Pied Bar (193A Commercial St.) offers the ”L Girl T-Dance” on Saturday and Sunday from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. and ”After Tea T-Dance” daily at 6:30 p.m. in case you need another place to stop after the Boat Slip on your way to dinner.
Later at night, there are bars and clubs galore to keep you occupied—but only until 1 a.m., when state law requires all requires all establishments selling alcoholic beverages to close. Until then, try the Atlantic House (4-6 Masonic Place, just off Commercial) which offers three distinct bar environments.
Club Purgatory (Gifford House Inn, 9-11 Carver St.) is a favorite new hot spot featuring a leather dance party every Sunday night. Wave (The Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St.) is the town’s premiere video bar and boasts a 9×9 feet projection screen and 8 large-screen TVs.
Provincetown is the perfect place to escape the sweltering Washington summer, but increasingly is becoming a vacation destination for other seasons as well. Local residents readily gush about how lovely their paradise looks awash in fall colors, blanketed in snow, or erupting with verdant life in the spring.
Whatever the season, or for whatever reason you need an escape, you’ll be welcome in this unique gay and lesbian haven, where diversity has always been celebrated. It’s the way the world should be.