By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
Driving east on Cape Cod along U.S. Route 6 and bearing off toward Chatham, I kept scanning the surroundings for anything familiar.
It had been 42 years since my only visit to the charming town at the elbow of the cape.
As memorable as those 10 days staying with college friends who were working there in the summer of 1975 seemed, nothing really looked like I remembered it. It was the most perplexing case of jamais vu.
The flipside of the more commonly cited déjà vu, jamais vu refers to the odd sense of unfamiliarity with a situation or place one has experienced before.
Though somewhat disconcerting, the lesson for travel is that returning to a place can mean discovering it anew.
Places change, memory deceives. No matter. Chatham remains the quintessential old-school Cape Cod fishing village. Looking for a picturesque, New England seashore setting, this is it. That ambience and classic New England style makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Cape.
My first time in Chatham wasn’t as a tourist. I was a college kid bunking on a sleeping bag on the floor in the downstairs of an old house my friends were renting.
While they were at work, I’d hang out at the beach, go for a run, then stop at the fish market to watch returning boats unload their day’s catch. I’d take some back to the house to cook, and we’d eat it within hours of when it was caught.
Chatham is still a hub of commercial fishing, one of the few left on Cape Cod. But they don’t catch cod anymore. If you eat cod on the Cape, it was likely caught off Iceland.
Lobster is still a local delicacy, and there are plenty of places to find it. More on that later.
On my return to Chatham in May, 2017, Fran and I stayed at Queen Anne Inn, a block off Main Street and a major upgrade from the sleeping bag of 1975. There are numerous quaint inns around Chatham. Chatham Bars Inn is the most luxurious and best situated overlooking the ocean, and priced accordingly.
I recommend Queen Anne Inn for comfort and friendly accommodations in an historic setting. The Victorian structure dates to the 1840s, originally as a parish house. It has enjoyed a renaissance since falling on hard times in the 1970s.
Although undergoing modernization, some of the furniture and artwork has remained with the inn though much of its history. All the rooms are decorated with antiques from the Outer Cape and Nantucket.
They offer home-cooked breakfast and lunch as well as a daily social hour from 5-6 p.m. with wine, cocktails, cheese and fruit.
We found the Queen Anne Inn through a Groupon deal, made more economical with for a stay prior to Memorial Day.
This is the quandary about visiting Cape Cod. There is a lot more going on from June through August, but prices and crowds spike during those months.
The town has about 6,800 year-round residents, with the population swelling to more than 22,000 in season. When the tourists and temporary residents converge, traffic congestion can be overbearing, particularly on summer Saturdays.
Among the long-standing summertime traditions that remain, which I experienced in 1975, are the free band concerts on Friday nights at Kate Gould Park on Main Street and Cape Cod League baseball. The latter draws many of the nation’s best college players, and more than 1,000 have gone on to play in the major leagues, including 50 on roster of teams the reached the 2017 MLB playoffs.
Bounded on three sides by water and blessed with 66 miles of shoreline, Chatham’s biggest attraction is its beaches. That is where the biggest change from my previous visit stood out, the ominous signs warning: “Great white sharks live in these waters.”
Ironically, 1975 was the summer of “Jaws,” set in a New England beach town (most of it was filmed across the sound at Martha’s Vineyard), yet there was no wariness about sharks around Chatham that summer, no posted warnings. The biggest concern was about not getting caught too far from shore on shallow sand bars by the rapidly incoming tide.
The big difference is that gray seals and harbor seals have made a strong comeback during the past 40 years due to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Seals had become scarce in the early ’70s due to hunting.
As seals returned to Chatham by the thousands, white sharks that prey on them began popping up in the surrounding waters. They first attracted attention during Labor Day Weekend in 2009 when a marine biologist tagged five of them.
The sharks have become more prevalent in the years since. In August 2017, two of the beaches were temporarily closed after a 12-foot shark was spotted in the harbor eating a seal.
Monomoy Island, an 8 mile-long strip of sand extending south from Chatham is now regarded as the center of great white shark activity on the East Coast.
While this might seem a nightmare scenario for a beach resort town, the influx of scary sharks has been a boon to tourism in Chatham. When media reports of shark sightings spike, bus-loads of tourists begin showing up at Lighthouse Beach hoping to spot a fin or a great white making a meal of a seal.
Even the head of the Chamber of Commerce has referred to Chatham as Shark City in media reports. Souvenir shops are loaded with various shark items and the town now holds an annual Sharks in the Park event.
Day trip to Provincetown
One of the advantages of Chatham is its location at the elbow of the Cape makes it a convenient jumping off point. Provincetown, at the tip, is only 35 miles away (about an hour’s drive), and a day trip for a whale watch excursion is a must.
There are plenty of shops, restaurants and bars along Commercial Street to visit before or after a whale watch excursion.
If looking for a memento that is authentic to the area, stop by Wampum Etc. Creative Jewelry. The store offers an array of attractive wampum jewelry; wampum, made from the quahog clam, was used as adornment and currency in American Indian culture for thousands of years.
Just outside Provincetown, Race Point Beach is one of the most acclaimed beaches on Cape Cod. Preserved as part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, it stretches far and wide, and has trails for hiking and biking through rugged dunes.
Whales can sometimes be seen breaching close to shore, especially in the spring. Frolicking seals are abundant throughout the summer. Consequently, great white sharks are regularly spotted near seal activity.
On the drive back to Chatham, Highland Lighthouse (27 Highland Light Road) in North Truro is a scenic and historic stop. The oldest and tallest lighthouse on Cape Cod and still active, it is a popular spot for weddings, marriage proposals or just a memorable photo opportunity. On a late afternoon visit prior to Memorial Day, it was a picturesque and quiet setting, the only activity a foursome playing through on the adjacent golf course.
Places to enjoy the area’s favorite delicacy are scattered throughout the Cape. If you can only choose one, make it the Lobster Pot in the heart of Provincetown (321 Commercial St.), a short walk from the wharf. Trip Advisor lists it No. 2 among 281 restaurants featuring lobster on Cape Cod. Anthony Bourdain began his cooking career there.
The Lobster Pot has been in operation since 1943. It has a classic look with red neon lighting the bright, white exterior. The building is narrow and deep, leading to two dining rooms offering spectacular views of the harbor.
Start with the lobster bisque. From there it’s tough to go wrong with any choice on the menu. Naturally, there are lobster rolls and plenty of options for steamed lobster. The lobster ravioli is outstanding; though listed as an appetizer, combined with the bisque it’s ample for lunch.
The Lobster Claw Restaurant is a prime choice closer to Chatham, on Route 6A in Orleans. Cute and cozy, it has been cited by Cape Cod Life for best lobster roll and best family restaurant. Pricy, but deals are regularly offered on Groupon.
In Chatham, the lobster rolls at Chatham Pier Fish Market are always fresh and highly acclaimed. The pier is where, during my 1975 stay in Chatham, I made frequent stops in the afternoon to watch the commercial fishermen unload their catch and select some of it for dinner. Crowds still gather for the same purpose daily during the season.
Road to Chatham
Take the Mid-Cape Highway (Route 6) to Exit 11, and follow 137 South to Route 28, turning left to Chatham or right to South Chatham.