The Land's End in Massachusetts

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Provincetown, MA, is colorful, even outrageously so. In addition to being home to art, pilgrim history, and the largest seashore in the US, the town's Land's End Inn is the perfect place to stay.

Photography by the authors

The tail end of a New England winter has drifted into relatively warm spring. Where to drive now? Into Maine or south to our cherished Cape Cod? We’re anxious to escape what has been the Northeast’s coldest winter in decades.

We head south to the very end of the Cape: Provincetown

The shop sign is right: there’s a lot more tolerance here for alternative lifestyles than in Kansas. Such houses. Such sand dunes.

Provincetown is colorful, even outrageously so, and in your face. But it is fun—and as tolerant of others as any in this nation could ever hope to be. But it does hide one of its lights under a bushel: its Colonial history.

Ask any American kid about the Pilgrim Fathers and you’ll possibly hear something about Plymouth Rock and probably something about the First Thanksgiving but likely little about the pilgrims’ 5 weeks in Provincetown before they moved on to their final destination.

The permanent display is on the Mayflower. The pilgrims lived here for 5 weeks before going on to Plymouth. A rotating display on whaling covers it in fascinating depth.

The Pilgrim Monument, the largest granite structure in the United States, stands 252 feet tall and you can climb the stairs to the top if you want the challenge. The monument was founded in 1892, Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in 1907 and it opened in 1910.

The story of the Mayflower is its permanent collection. One hopes its tribute to whaling will become permanent, too. At the end of whaling in the late 1850s only 3 ports were sending ships to sea: San Francisco, New Bedford, and Provincetown.

The Town Hall was built in 1885. It is guarded by the bronze statue of the Word War I American soldier: The Doughboy by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson (1871-1932).

The Art Association presented its first exhibition here in 1915 to celebrate how Charles Hawthorne created his Cape Cod School of Art when he established his art colony. More than 30 paintings by local artists hang on the Town Hall walls, not unlike government walls in small Italian towns.

A stone tribute to the famous 1907 victory of the local schooner Rose Dorothea in the Lipton Cup tells passersby, wrongly, the cup is on display within the Town Hall; however, it is on show at the Public Library a 3-minute walk away. The story of the Rose Dorothea may seem like Trivial Pursuit to many readers, but Provincetown is a place with a great maritime pride. A century ago Sir Thomas Lipton was more famous for yacht racing than he was for selling his tea, so we feel compelled to find the Public Library.

Statues are easy to find in town. This one (top) is called, guess what? Tourists

“The library will be easy to find,” says a local grinning at us. “Just look for the statue Tourists!”

We see why he’s grinning in a few minutes. The bronze donated in 1976 by Austrian sculptor Chaim Gross (1904-1991) doesn’t exactly flatter those of us who visit this city. But before entering the library, go around the corner to the left and survey the sculpture in the front yard of the house there. You will have no trouble knowing which house!

Lipton Cup. Rose Dorothea

The Lipton race was from Provincetown to Boston and was won by the Rose Dorothea even though it lost its foretop mast in the last leg of the race. The ship was later sold to a Newfoundland company sailing salt to Portugal, but in 1917 it was sunk by a German U-Boat. Inside the library students work at computers beside a half-scale replica of the famous ship.

Home of the oldest continuous art colony in America.

Farther along Commercial Street, celebrating a century of art, stands the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Even if art is not your thing, you should check it out: It is, after all, the home of the oldest continuous art colony in America.

A colorful town. Nothing too outrageous.

The streets of Provincetown are colorful enough to be seen as their own art gallery. Several walking tours are available online.

You can walk the dunes and the beaches in Provincetown, also. But you can take a dune tour, too, with the firm that started it all: Art’s Dune Tours, now run by Rob Costa, the son of founder Art Costa.

Art started the company in 1946 with a 1936 Ford Woody; a plaque showing it is on the wall of the Dune Tour door at Washington Avenue. Thirteen dune tour operators have come and gone since Art stated his Dune Tours, the only surviving tour operator in Provincetown.

“How did it survive?” we ask.

“My father’s passion,” says Rob.

Dune Shacks. The photo bottom right is of a government building.

The 1850 Massachusetts Humane Society merged with the Life Saving Service and, in turn, merged with the US Coast Guard in 1950. There have been more than 3,000 shipwrecks off the shores of Cape Cod. Seventy-five percent of Provincetown is the Cape Cod National Sea Shore. It stretches over 44,000 acres on the Cape with 4,000 acres in town here. It’s the first protected seashore and the largest in the United States.

A little known part of dune history concerns the 19 historic dune shacks on the seashore that, at an earlier time, were part of 19th century efforts to save shipwrecked sailors: rough dwellings that would provide comfort and provisions for frozen wet mariners whose ships had sunk. The shacks later became part of a compact between Provincetown and organizations providing them as “Artists and Writers Residencies.” You can apply for a residency here or here.

Cool! When Tennessee Williams was writing A Streetcar Named Desire in his dune shack, Marlon Brando walked over the dunes to audition for his part!

We have family who often come to Provincetown. Their dining rules seem simple: if you’re downtown, you’re near the inexpensive parking on the wharf ($6 for 24 hours with in-and-out privileges), but, more important, you are right beside the famous Lobster Pot. Perfect! But if you want something more elegant, pay a cab fare (presently $6 per person one way) and go to the other end of Commercial Street to the Provincetown Mews. It’s perfect also!

Land’s End Inn: You can avoid the steps by finding its special car park.

The same family members have a house on the coast of Cape Cod but sometimes want something different. They’ve tried several B&Bs in Provincetown, but, ultimately, have returned 6 times to their favorite: the Land’s End Inn perched on one of the few elevated spots on the cape with a superb view of the coast line below.

Land’s End Inn: A wild fox gave birth to her litter below the inn. The mother fox is friendly!

At the time of our visit a fox had just given birth to a litter, and although the mother fox kept a wary lookout for guests, her pups wandered fairly casually around the inn’s front yard—begging to be photographed.

Land’s End Inn: a cornucopia of American Victoriana.

The foxes were easy to photograph but the inn’s inside isn’t so easy. The interior is gorgeous, the sort of place where you really want to sit down amongst all the eclectic Victoriana and study its beauty. Like most upscale B&Bs, it offers a great breakfast and easy access to snacks and wine.

The rooms are fascinating, all with different personalities reflecting the original owners’ tastes and travels. The Moroccan room really gives off that country’s ambiance—and we were in that country about 9 months ago—but the cathedral ceiling, to our eye, looks so like the style the Pilgrims achieved in their homes when they used ship’s carpenters to construct the woodwork.

Land’s End Inn: All the rooms—and the lights—are different.

When the sun comes up the interior light becomes almost incandescent and the furniture and artifacts are seen in all their glory. The innkeepers, Stan and Eva Sikorski, have their own stories to tell as interesting as the inn’s. Both are Polish originally. Stan came from San Francisco to Princeton to meet a cousin in America he hadn't seen for 30 years. He was on his way to Red Bank, NJ. He was given his cousin’s address and knocked on the door. The woman who came to the door was Eva. They introduced themselves. He never reached Red Bank!

Did he know right there that she was the one?

“Eva knew,” he says, “but men are dumber. I proposed to her in 2 weeks!”

Eva was a schoolteacher who taught biology and art. She loved Provincetown, which is actually the birthplace of American Fine and Performing Art. Stan came from technology management.

“I had no idea what hospitality was all about,” he says. “Now I know it’s about making people comfortable and helping them to get away from their regular routines.”

They came every year to Provincetown looking for an inn to buy. They ignored the Land’s End Inn as it was twice their budget.

How does he judge success? There’s the obvious, he says, such as days booked, weddings held (20 to 30 a year) and revenue. But for Stan, success is more than those things, more than even reviews on travel sites like Trip Advisor, where the reviews are mostly 5 stars.

“We see our success when guests come back, many several times a year,” he says. “When we get compliments—a lot for different reasons. For example, we had an October wedding in the sunset and a crane flew by and circled overhead. The couple kept thanking us as if we’d arranged it. Another time, a guest came back with her mother’s ashes and asked us to help her walk into the surf, up to her chest, to scatter her ashes. Then there was the appreciation we got from a guest with cancer; he needed a microwave to heat his medications. I went out and found a store in town that sold microwaves. We call it service!”

“We always had houses where we could entertain and there really isn’t much difference between having guests in your home and in your inn,” Eva says. “It isn’t even work. It’s something I actually enjoy doing.”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.