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Guidebook Cape Cod ~ Provincetown

Beach Forest Trail, Race Point Road. This one-mile self-guided trail is a shaded path which circles a shallow freshwater pond whose surface is a sea of water lilies and then heads into the woods. Shifting dunes encroach on the forest, where usually many turtles sun themselves in the bright spots.

Art’s Dune Tours, Commercial and Standish Streets. This is, really, the only way to experience the magic of Provincetown’s spectacular dunes. There is an excellent narration during the tour and photo stops on request. See the famous ‘dune shacks,’ flora and fauna of this surreal and unforgettable area.

The Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center, MacMillan Wharf. In 1984, Cape Codder Barry Clifford made news when he discovered the 17th century pirate ship Whydah 1,500 feet off Wellfleet’s coast. Only partially excavated, it has already yielded more than 100,000 artifacts including 10,000 gold and silver coins and its namesake bell. Visitors can observe the reclamation work and ask questions of the scientists and scholars at work in addition to the many interpretive exhibits. Closed January-March.

Province Lands Visitor Center, Race Point Road. Features an observation deck overlooking 360° of the surrounding heath and moors, a theater where informative introductory films are shown and rangers are available to answer questions. There are hiking, cycling and horse trails.

Provincetown Dunes: just west of Truro/Provincetown line. These wondrous dunes are not only fun to explore, but make for dramatic and memorable photographs.

Provincetown Dune Shacks: Provincetown, at they very tip of Cape Cod, is home to 17 rustic "dune shacks" within the Province Lands 'dunescape.' These dune shacks were originally erected by the Life Saving Service—precursor to the Coast Guard—as shelters for seamen. This group of dune shacks was built during the late 19th century along a three-mile stretch of mountainous dunes and alternating valleys of scrub pine from Race Point to High Head in Truro. It is a rare and beautiful terrain, incredible dunes anchored by a thin layer of beach grass. which remains effectively undeveloped.

These shacks have no electricity, no running water, no toilets, no modern conveniences whatsoever. They are located within the dunes and are desolate and lonely. It is believed that such a Spartan environment provides inspiration for artists and writers.

The shacks were later summer hideaways and artistic retreats for painters, poets, writers, socialites and vagabonds who wanted or needed a place to get away from it all. In the 1930s and 1940s, artists from Provincetown, enamored with the promise of quiet summers by the beach, reclaimed these shacks for their own use. Most notably, Eugene O'Neill, who launched his career in Provincetown in 1916, bought the old Peaked Hill Life Saving Station and lived there for a number of years with his wife, Agnes Boulton. O'Neill's home was thus the anchor of the sudden arts community, which sprung up in the dunes in the early decades of the 20th century. O'Neill's shack (which was a veritable palace compared to its neighbors) was host to some of the greatest minds of its day: novelist John Dos Passos, critic Edmund Wilson, and fellow playwright Susan Glaspell were among its regular visitors. O'Neill authored several of his best works here including Anna Christie (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1921). His presence among the dunes along with fellow artists, such as Harry kemp, self-titled 'poet of the dunes,' who wrote exhaustively of this habitat's ethereal beauty, and Hazel Hawthorne-Werner, who authored The Salt House (1929), an account of her adventures in the dunes, earned the shacks a place in the National Register of Historic Places. This appellation will preserve their existence and use for future generations. In the 21st century, as part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, Province Lands continue as a place of unequalled beauty and remoteness.

There are a number of shacks managed by nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to serve the traditional uses of the shacks by providing artistic and community residencies. Both the Peaked Hill Bars Trust and the Provincetown Community Compact, which runs C-Scape, have stationed hundreds of those who would have otherwise been unable to experience the unique and rare dunescape.

The dune district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Seventeen of the shacks here have been the property of the National Park Service since 1961; one is privately owned. In the years since it acquired the shacks, the park service has developed long-term leasing agreements with a variety of tenants. It also leases shacks to two local arts organizations: the Provincetown Community Compact, a nonprofit group, and the Peaked Hill Trust, a preservation organization devoted to the dunes. Since 1996 these groups have operated the Artist-in-Residence program here, which provides shacks to artists for brief residencies during the summer.

The Community Compact said it receives dozens of applications each year for three three-week residencies at the property it leases, the C-Scape Shack. A panel, which includes artists, reviews each applicant's submission, which must include a résumé, five slides of work and a statement describing how a stay will enhance the artist's production. The selected artists pay on a sliding scale; the neediest receives a grant.

The compact also offers one-week residencies in the C-Scape shack from April to October. Occupants, who do not have to be artists, are chosen by lottery and pay various rental amounts per week. The Peaked Hill Trust's program, the Outer Cape Artists in Residency Consortium, is open to artists who apply for one of six two-week summer stays in the shack the trust leases, known as the Margo-Gelb, for Boris Margo and the painter Jan Gelb. Those interested in leasing one of the off-season weeks are chosen by lottery, with preference granted to those who have joined the trust.

Peaked Hill Trust is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and management of dune shacks located within the Cape Cod National Seashore. Four of the shacks are available to artists and writers who receive residencies through a lottery system. Some notable tenants include Jack Kerouac, e.e. Cummings, Eugene O'Neill, Norman Mailer and Jackson Pollack. For information on membership or information about the dune shacks, contact P.O. Box 1705, Provincetown, MA, 02657. 1 (508) 487-3635.

Provincetown Art Association & Museum, 460 Commercial Street. With a membership of 1,200 and a collection of more than 2,000 important works of American and contemporary art, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum was founded in 1914. The PAAM is dedicated to promoting and cultivating the practice and appreciation of all branches of the fine arts, to assemble and maintain in the Town of Provincetown a collection of works of art, to hold exhibitions, and to promote education of the public in the arts through forums, concerts, and similar activities. PAAM includes works by Charles Hawthorne and many 20th century artists. There is a museum shop, art classes are offered as are concerts, lectures and films. Open extended season and weekends in winter.

Provincetown Heritage Museum, 356 Commercial Street. Originally built as a Methodist church, the building is now an art gallery and museum featuring marine and Victorian artifacts, antique fire equipment and the world’s largest half-scale indoor schooner model of the Rose Dorothea.

MacMillan Wharf, Route 6A and Lopes Wharf. This is the maritime ‘heart’ of Provincetown, with boat rentals, a fishing fleet of more than 50 vessels (landing approximately 10 million pounds of fish) and venue for the annual Blessing of the Fleet. The Wharf was named after Commander Donald B. MacMillan, who accompanied Admiral Perry to the north pole.

Seth Nickerson House, 72 Commercial Street. Built by ship’s carpenters using some materials from shipwrecks, this is the oldest standing house on Cape Cod and is an excellent example of pre-1750 Cape architecture.

Oldest Cemetery in Provincetown, Winthrop Street. Four Mayflower passengers who died during the Pilgrims’ brief stopover in Provincetown are buried here.

Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, Pole Hill Road. The 252-foot granite Monument was modeled after the larger Torre del Mangia bell tower in Siena, Italy and is the tallest all-granite structure in the United States. The Monument commemorates the Pilgrim’s first landing in the New World at Provincetown. The entire structure was built of granite blocks brought to the Cape from Stonington, Maine. Visitors reach the top through a series of 60 ramps and 116 steps and are rewarded with an incredible panorama of Provincetown and, on clear days, as far as Boston and the Bridges. President Theodore Roosevelt attended the laying of the cornerstone in 1907 and President William Howard Taft dedicated the structure on August 5, 1910. It remains one of the most impressive public monuments in the United States. The plaque at the base of the Monument, carved in bas relief by sculptor Cyrus Dalin, commemorates the signing of the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown Harbor. It is from this historic document, signed during the Pilgrims five-week stay in Provincetown, that the fullness of America’s liberties would eventually emerge. The Provincetown Museum features maritime, natural history, Provincetown history and Cape Cod exhibits and collections of arctic explorer Donald MacMillan. Open year round.

Old Harbor Lifesaving Station. Race Point is now home to the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station that once protected the shores of Chatham. Built in 1898, it was one of 13 stations that lined the outer Cape beaches from Provincetown to Monomoy Point until the Lifesaving Service became part of the Coast Guard in 1914. The Old Harbor Station was decommissioned in 1944 and sold off to private interests. It was acquired by the National Park Service in 1973 and moved up the coast on a barge in the winter of 1978, just ahead of the devastating Blizzard of '78. Now it rests at Race Point overlooking the Atlantic. Its boat room contains a surf boat and various lifesaving apparatus. The station is open to visitors during July and August from 3 to 5 PM daily and 6 to 8 PM Thursday during the Lifesaving drill presentation. Race Point Road (508) 487-1256 www.nps.gov/caco

Whale Watching: Because Provincetown is close to the Stellwagen Bank, whale feeding grounds, many whale watch cruises depart from the town’s MacMillan Wharf. Several operators offer such cruises between April and October usually with morning, afternoon and sunset cruises lasting three to four hours. Some operators provide commentary from scientists from the Center for Coastal Studies who accompany the cruise while capturing data.

Whale watching is a $1 billion industry in the United States. In New England, 36 companies operate whale-watching excursions. Provincetown is home to two whale-watch companies with a total of five boats; another company runs out of Barnstable Harbor. Provincetown officials say whale watching is the top draw for motor-coach tours, which bring in about 500 to 600 groups a year. The industry has seen at least 12 percent more customers per year since 1991. Stellwagen Bank, a large marine sanctuary north of Provincetown, draws about 1.5 million people each year from various ports. People come to see right, fin, minke and humpback whales. Estimates indicate they generate more than $50 million annually in direct and indirect spending for local economies.


Cape Cod Area Guides: Previous Page ] Climate ] Arts and Culture ] Geography ] Golfing ] History ] Trivia ] Barnstable ] Bourne ] Brewster ] Chatham ] Dennis ] Eastham ] Falmouth ] Harwich ] Mashpee ] Orleans ] [ Provincetown ] Sandwich ] Truro ] Wellfleet ] Yarmouth ]

Information and photos submitted by:

Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce
Routes 6 & 132, PO Box 790
Hyannis, MA  02601
508-362-3225 | Website | Email


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