THE INFO BELOW is probably good for any season but winter, but I’m convinced the next few weeks — the final week of August into the very last week of September — are golden.
Summer crowds diminish as kids go back to school, temperatures are comfortably warm in the day and comfortably cool at night, and prices drop as businesses try to stretch their high season just a bit longer. A mid-week arrival should see rates even lower.
Where to stay
I’d be willing to bet that Provincetown has more inns and B&Bs per capita than any other town in the US, but budget travelers should check out the Harbor Hotel, a 1950s-style “motor inn” on the waterfront that’s been recently renovated and modernized with bright pastels and retro-kitsch décor.
Rooms are basic (bed, chair, flat-screen TV, spartan bathrooms) but large and you’re not likely to find anything at a better price, especially since the hotel is running a fall special that starts September 6, when room rates will be calculated based on the day’s temperature (e.g., if it’s 70 degrees, your room will be $70).
Stays include a continental breakfast (fruit, cereal, coffee). There’s a restaurant on-site, as well as a lounge headed up by a bartender with an extra heavy pouring hand. The outdoor fire pit is a big draw for guests and seasonal workers, who drop by for drinks at night. The local shuttle (free!) stops right in front of the hotel, though you could bike or walk to the town center a mile away.
698 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA / 800-422-4224
Where to eat
Grab breakfast at Cafe Maria; it’s more low-key than The Coffee Pot, which has a prominent spot in the tourist-trappy town center. Grilled tortillas and breakfast sandwiches can be ordered to go or eaten at the shop’s outdoor tables; $6-$7. Cash only.
277 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA / 508-487-9116
As long as it’s not Wednesday (the owners’ beach day), stop for lunch at Mima’s Deli, a Cuban joint on Race Point Road, which leads to the National Seashore’s Province Lands Visitors Center.
Sandwiches, wraps, and hot meals (ropa vieja, picadillo, steak smothered in onions) are served here, either to eat in or packaged to carry with you to Race Point Beach. Cash only.
43 Race Point Road, Provincetown, MA / 508-413-9549
The restaurant specializes in local, organic food, and though it has the Cape Cod requisites featured on almost every area menu — lobster, Wellfleet oysters, fish — it also has beef, chicken, and vegetables… and mighty fine (if overpriced) cocktails.
133 Bradford Street, Provincetown, MA / 508-487-0106
What to do
You can’t get much closer to America’s historical roots than Provincetown; this is where the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact in 1620 (and where the Native American Nauset tribe lived since long before that).
Though the Pilgrims ultimately settled across the bay in Plymouth (where almost every business has some Pilgrim-y name — even the gas station is named Mayflower), they are commemorated in Provincetown by the largest man-made all granite structure in the United States, the Pilgrim Monument.
You can’t miss it — it sits on top of a hill and juts more than 250 feet into the air. The monument and its museum are open throughout September. Admission is $7 for adults. Parking costs more than that ($10), so try to find a meter elsewhere or come by bike or foot.
If you happen to be in town on a Thursday, drive out to the Old Harbor Life Saving Station at Race Point Beach, where National Park Service staff dressed in period clothing reenact the breeches buoy-style of rescue every week at 6PM.
Though the station was decommissioned in 1944, it once played an important role in rescuing survivors of shipwrecks, which were common in the area, called the Graveyard of the Atlantic because of its many sand bars.
For $5 you can see the reenactment and visit the life saving station afterward. Stick around for the sunset; according to one local guide, this is the only beach in the United States from which you can see sunrise and sunset.
Plenty to do, if the weather holds. Provincetown is bike-friendly, and you can cycle through the town’s center or pedal out to the National Seashore, which has four bike trails varying in length, degree of difficulty, and scenery. Check rental options here.
Another popular activity is whale watching, but if you’re content with seeing a whale’s spout through binoculars rather than paying upwards of $30 to get a closer peek from a boat, then save your money and stop at one of the National Seashore’s visitors centers. Their decks have full harbor views and rangers are happy to give you loaner binoculars.
To spot whale activity, search for the whale viewing boats (typically two or three boats clustered in a single area), then look at the bow. Generally, you’ll see spouts in that area; if you’re lucky, you may also see a whale surface.
Drivers with 4WD can purchase a permit to drive across Race Point, which has a variety of dune types, including the crater-shaped parabolics. Remember to let some air out of your tires (down to 11psi) before you hit sand. This time of year, it can feel pretty wild and solitary out there — in the best way — especially if you avoid dune tour company caravans.
Of course, that tour company caravan is your only option without your own wheels. Just be aware that they don’t provide much time (if any) to stop and take photos. Also, the quality of your dunes tour will depend entirely on the personality and knowledge of your guide.
The water in front of Harbor Hotel is good for kiteboarding, popular with locals without being too crowded. Watch out for long sandbars running perpendicular to the shore during low tide, and check out current local intel on Masskiting, an active online bulletin board/chat room about kiteboarding in the state.
On your way out
Stop at the Cape Cod Highland Lighthouse in Truro; this is the only lighthouse in the area you can drive to (others are accessible by foot). For $4, you can buy a ticket that gives you entry to the top of the lighthouse.
If you’re in town on September 12-13, you might want to visit at night instead, when the lighthouse staff offers a nighttime, full moon tour.
[Editor’s note: Julie’s stay at the Harbor Hotel was comped.]