Sand, Sun and Saltwater Taffy

For generations of Americans, Cape Cod and the Islands say summer vacation.

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One of my favorite things to do is lay on a beach in August with my eyes closed and listen…to the sound of the surf, to kids building sand castles, to the seagulls. I love that drowsy, half-awake state that only happens to me on a sunny beach, lulled into a semi-conscious stupor by the smell of suntan lotion and the drone of lighthearted conversations nearby. It brings back a flood of childhood memories-simpler times, when lunches of sandy hotdogs and Hi-C were gourmet vacation reprieves from our usually healthy fare, and hours of playing in the surf brought blue lips and deep sleep before the summer sky had begun to darken.

Nowhere is more evocative of family summer vacation memories than Cape Cod and the Islands. For landlubbers, the geography of the Cape requires piling into a car for the ride around the bent arm of the peninsula. From Bourne, at the armpit of the Cape, to Provincetown at the curled fist, the whole appendage is comprised of 15 towns (and many more villages) as well as 600 miles of coastline. The drive out the Cape can be bumper-tobumper in the summer, but the road is lined with seafood shops, seafood restaurants, motels, and souvenir stores that have a certain beach-vacation nostalgic charm.

Arrive by boat and you bypass these more honky-tonk aspects of the Cape and come ashore much like the pilgrims did back in 1620 in Provincetown. That's right, even the Pilgrims vacationed here. They spent five weeks on Cape Cod's tip before they moved on to their final destination, Plymouth.

Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, and Sandwich are considered the Upper Cape. Woods Hole, with its world-famous Oceanographic Institute and ferry service to beautiful Martha's Vineyard is here. The Mid-Cape includes Barnstable, Yarmouth, and Dennis. The commercial center of the Cape is here, but it's also an area of beautiful beaches. Hyannis Port, summer home of the Kennedys, is a village that's part of Barnstable. Ferry service to Nantucket runs from Hyannis and, even if you're not going out to the historic whaling island, you might want to stop at the dock for fantastic belly clams from Baxter's.

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The Lower Cape is where you'll find the gorgeous, Atlantic- facing beaches that make up the Cape Cod National Seashore. Sure, they're amongst America's most popular for the age-old joy of sunbathing and body-surfing. But in the summer, there are also ranger-guided activities that will teach you how to shellfish, paddle a canoe, or surfcast. There are also programs for yoga on the beach, campfire nights, lighthouse tours, and stargazing.

Truro and Provincetown, the two towns at the end of the Cape, have long been summer retreats for artists and writers, so they're great spots to take in a show or visit a gallery.

The 22-mile-long Cape Cod Rail Trail through the towns of Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet provides a wonderful way to check out the Cape. It's paved, fairly flat, and well marked, with room to accommodate runners and walkers, too.

If you want more up-close and personal time with the flora and fauna, Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has 1,100 acres of salt marsh, sandy beach, woodland, and ponds that have created a bird watcher's paradise. There are five miles of scenic trails to explore here, as well as a butterfly and hummingbird garden.

Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard are the two best-known of the region's islands. Nantucket, once the whaling capital of the world, is farthest out and it's still centered on a cobblestone street and shingled houses that exude a historic primness. The land beyond the many stunning beaches is low and rolling, covered with moors and cranberry bogs. Despite the summer crowds, a trip to Nantucket always feels like stepping back in time.

Martha's Vineyard is larger, and even its landscape feels more open. There are a handful of different towns on the island, each with a distinctive character of its own, but all are charming. There's also more variety in the island's landscape-open fields, hills, ancient trees. Both islands are lovely, so the only way to know your favorite is to visit them both.

Most Cape Cod towns and both Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard offer whale-watching cruises, as well as day-fishing trips, but they all offer sunshine, happy memories, and-of course, saltwater taffy.