At the Ocean’s Edge

A Natural Tour of Cape Cod

It was low tide on Cape Cod, and coastal naturalist Dick Hilmer was getting his feet wet a half mile off the Brewster shoreline. "Cape Cod was formed by glaciers 18,000 years ago," he told his small audience of journalists. "A mile-high sheet of ice moved down from the top of the world, and as it dropped rocks they formed the Cape. As the glacier went north, a mile and a half of sand dropped into Cape Cod Bay."

Dick Hilmer meets the public.© Jim Motavalli

And that is why current visitors to the Cape can walk so far out on the tidal flats at low tide, and stroll along 40 miles of sandy beaches that are now part of the U.S. National Seashore. As we walked, Hilmer pointed out the life all around us, from strands of sea lettuce to hermit crabs to periwinkles. The kids picked up razor clams, quahogs and other ephemera, some if it delightfully alive.

Red tide (Alexandrium fundyense) on the Cape and north as far as Isle au Haut in Maine played havoc with many of these filter feeders in 2005. It was the most widespread outbreak since 1972. Red tide produces a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in the tissue of bivalves, and while it doesn’t harm its host it can cause paralysis or respiratory problems for seafood fans. Many clam, oyster and mussel beds were shut down as a result. It’s unclear what causes the phenomenon.

An Evolving Resort

Cape Cod extends 65 miles out into the Atlantic, making its tip the easternmost point in the U.S. It’s shaped like a bending arm, and it covers 399 square miles with 15 distinct towns. Brewster is in the Lower Cape, on the bay side of the Cape’s elbow. It’s home to Ocean Edge, a rambling resort hotel that employs Hilmer to teach visitors about the natural history of the region.

Ocean Edge was originally a lavish private home owned by the Nickerson family. Built in 1890 and then rebuilt after a 1906 fire, the Renaissance Revival and Gothic building (which served as a seminary for 50 years) hosted lavish parties and balls. But now it throws its doors open to vacationing families.

Ocean Edge has its own 18-hole golf course (being renovated by Nicklaus Design), bike trails, tennis courts, swimming pools and private beach (where clambakes are held). The 335-room facility is undergoing a $5 million improvement project this year, with the aim of making it attractive to visitors in the "shoulder" seasons around the high months of July and August. Two-day "Explore" hotel packages, including a pair of whale watch tickets and breakfast are $464 to $664, depending on the season.

The late spring and early fall "off season" are indeed lovely times to visit Cape Cod, whether you stay at a large hotel like Ocean Edge, a bed and breakfast, or one of the many (but pricey) rental properties. Prices start around $80 a night, but go much higher.

You probably won’t be able to swim in May or early June, but you"ll have the compensation of much-reduced waits in the restaurants and traffic congestion on the roads. High summer is great, too, but don’t expect the kind of quiet and solitude Henry David Thoreau experienced in the 1850s.

The Bike and the Whale

Bicycles are popular warm weather transportation on Cape Cod, with rails to trails pathways and general bike friendliness in the sizable towns. The Cape is from one to 20 miles wide, so you’re never that far from an ocean breeze on a good day hike.

At one time the Nickersons" estate encompassed 1,200 acres, but after Roland Nickerson died his widow donated the 800-acre game preserve to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and it is now Nickerson State Park. The park has its own paved and dirt trails through the woods, and if you hike through you"ll pass eight freshwater kettle ponds along the way.

Also in Brewster is the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, which has three trails through uplands, salt marshes and beech groves. And if that’s not enough for you, Brewster is host to yet another 800 acres of conservation land, Punkhorn Parklands, with 45 miles of trails.

Finally, a trip to the Cape wouldn’t be complete without watching the whales, most commonly humpbacks but also large finbacks, smallish minkes and even endangered right whales (which are not approachable). A dozen operators will take you out to see these marine mammals in the feeding grounds of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.