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For those who only visit the cape and islands in the summer, you may imagine that a Cape Cod winter resembles something out of a zombie film — the sky is overcast and shopping carts skitter across the parking lot of a closed grocery store. And yes, while much of the infrastructure does close down, nothing has been abandoned. Day trippers, tourists, and “summer people” have cleared out, but the hearty locals and smart off-season travelers remain. With the population deflated, the cape and islands are extra enjoyable. Picture this: all those wide open beaches to yourself, and all the free parking you could ever desire. Talk about a way to refresh and restore. Below, you’ll find our curated guide to a Cape Cod winter with special picks from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket thrown in for good measure.
The Outer Cape (the end of the arm from Orleans to Provincetown) puts on a particularly gorgeous natural show during winter. The bulk of the National Seashore is laid out here and the beaches have been virtually untouched by development since the president preserved them in the 1960’s (thanks again, JFK!). Walk along the wind-smoothed sand, collect sea glass to take home, and relish the majesty of having the massive Atlantic Ocean right there by your side.
Winter can be hard everywhere, including the Cape and Islands, so year-round businesses like to lighten things up with winter specials and new releases. Cisco Brewers of Nantucket is open year-round and will often drop a new craft brew mid-February to help keep the mood up.
One of the many well-kept secrets that native cape codders are born with is the layman’s shellfishing permit. Many towns like Truro allow residents to get small-time shellfishing permits in the winter and then open up the town harbor flats for folks to dig for clams or pick oysters. Cape Cod shellfish is some of the best in the world, and slurping down a salty oyster when it’s just a few hours out of the mud is pure ambrosia.
Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod all have recently renovated public bike paths that make town-to-beach-to-bar cruising extra easy. In the summer months, though, these bike paths can become just as backed up as the Sagamore bridge. In winter, their miles and miles of smoothed pavement are clear of any other riders. Soak in the freedom as you speed along uninterrupted by manic families and teens reenacting Fast and Furious. When you get hungry, stop in at one of the perfectly placed pathside cafes for some water and a blueberry-cranberry “cape codder” muffin.
Spots that you would usually rush by on the way to the beach tend to stand out in the cold. That hole-in-the wall bakery? That cozy bookshop? This time of year, they call out to you from the
roadside, and since you have no suntanning agenda, you can spend ample time perusing the shelves and sampling the wares.
Don’t forget that Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut also have coasts that slow down around December. If you’re into tours and road trips, we suggest an epic winter's quest through beach towns of New England.