For thousands of years, people have been drawn to the abundant fishing grounds of deep Provincetown Harbor. After the Pilgrims established Plymouth Colony opposite Provincetown on Cape Cod Bay, the harbor took on a new role as an international port and, in the nineteenth century, as an important berth for commercial fishing and whaling ships.
Today, Provincetown, Massachusetts is better known as a summer resort town than as a fishing grounds or an international port. During the summer, the town, which visitors can reach easily by a short ferry ride, plane or drive from Boston, is usually the busiest and the liveliest spot on the entire island.
Here are some landmarks for your day trip to Provincetown:
The Pilgrim Monument, a 252-foot stone tower in downtown Provincetown, commemorates the Mayflower’s first landing on Cape Cod. The monument’s architect, Willard T. Sears, based the monument on the fourteenth-century Torre delMangia in Italy. Sears, who was born in New Bedford and lived in Boston, designed many prominent buildings in New England, including the Old South Church on Copley Square and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Commercial Street in Provincetown is a three-mile stretch of road that hugs the dark blue waters of Provincetown Harbor. This scenic street connects the quiet residences and art galleries of the East End with the busy bed and breakfasts, shops, and restaurants of the West End. The lively street, filled with a diverse group of locals and visitors, is the heart of downtown Provincetown.
Every day during the summer, hundreds of people step off ferries from Boston and onto the 1,450-foot MacMillan Pier in Provincetown Harbor. According to estimates by the Department of Public Works, about 100,000 people visit Provincetown via the MacMillan Pier every year. While many visitors only see the wharf in passing, it has a rich history and a culture all of its own.
At the Whydah Pirate Museumin Provincetown, visitors can view the remains of the Whydah pirate ship. These remains including collections of coins and pewter plates from the wreck, as well as the bell (inscribed “Whydah”) that helped positively identify the ship in 1984. The museum also includes exhibits on the unique social structure of pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy.
To keep ships off of the shoals, Provincetown erected the Race Point Light in 1816. Perched on the very tip of the Cape Cod peninsula, this lighthouse was an isolated outpost located in “sandy desolation,” as one early visitor put it. To reach Provincetown, the lighthouse keepers and their families had to walk two miles in soft sand. On horseback, the trip took more than an hour.
Herring Cove Beach is a popular destination for families and tourists, but it wasn’t always the summer retreat it is now. In the 1880s, fishermen established a winter whaling settlement on the beach, where it was easier to find fish in cold weather. They called the settlement Helltown, either for the hellish working condition or the “helling” of the raucous sailors who lived there.
Race Point Beach is located in Provincetown, on the very tip of the Cape Cod peninsula. Race Point is named for the strong crosscurrent or “race” that brings water from the Atlantic Ocean into Cape Cod Bay. While everyone can enjoy the soft sand and gentle shallows of Race Point Beach, only expert swimmers will be able to navigate the strong currents offshore.
The Cape Cod National Seashore consists of nearly 45,000 acres of protected land along the eastern shore of Cape Cod. The preserve spans woodlands, ponds, and beaches in Chatham, Eastham, Orleans, Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet and covers much of the area that the Pilgrims explored in 1620 and 1621 after anchoring the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor.
The Cape Cod Provincelands Trail is scenic 5.45-mile loop that takes bicyclists, joggers, and skaters over sandy dunes, in between saltwater kettle ponds, and through a shady beach forest. On this paved bike path, visitors can experience the diverse landscape and unique ecosystems of the outer cape, while taking in spectacular views of Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
InBeech Forest, catch a glimpse of what Cape Cod looked like when the Mayflower landed in the early seventeenth century. At that time, much of the Cape was covered in pine-oak forests and groves of hickory, red maple, birch, and beech trees. Over the next two hundred years, settlers cleared most of these forests to make room for houses, gardens, and animal pastures.