12 Things You Can Only Do on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket
From exploring the world’s only authenticated pirate treasure to watching future Major League Baseball players in action, here are 15 activities, experiences and landmarks that you can only find in this coastal slice of Americana.
1. Retrace the footsteps of the Pilgrims in the New World
The Pilgrims did land at Plymouth Rock, but they arrived on Cape Cod first—and in 2020, Cape Cod will join Plymouth in celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing in the New World. Today, visitors can tour 30+ historical landmarks tied to this important piece of history, including Provincetown’s Pilgrim Monument, which commemorates the historic landing, and First Encounter Beach, where the Wampanoag tribe and Pilgrims met for the first time.
Famously shot on Martha’s Vineyard, filming of the 1975 flick Jaws included a stretch of beach that connects Edgartown to Oak Bluffs. At the center of this beach sits the Jaws Bridge. Although jumping from the bridge is technically not permitted, that doesn’t deter thrill-seekers of all ages eager to dive, twirl and plunge into the Atlantic.
3. Take home your own Nantucket lightship basket
Perhaps nothing is more distinctively and undeniably Nantucket than the Nantucket lightship basket, an art form developed and perfected by crewmen aboard 19th century lightships—floating lighthouses which illuminated the Nantucket South Shoals, a notorious shipwreck site. More about this unique piece of Nantucket nautical history can be found at the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum; there, visitors can purchase an authentic lightship basket as the ultimate souvenir.
That’s right, the only authenticated pirate treasure in the world is located on Cape Cod, and is on display at the Whydah Pirate Museum. The Whydah sank in 1717, after the ship—at that time commanded by pirate Sam Bellamy—was wrecked in a storm off the Cape. According to legend, Bellamy had been on his way back to see love interest Maria Hallett, the “the Witch of Wellfleet.” What isn’t folklore is that the Whydah was carrying not only its own treasures, but also that of 50 ships taken by the pirates before their demise.
In August 1841, the Nantucket Atheneum hosted Nantucket’s first Anti-Slavery Convention, at which a young Frederick Douglass delivered a moving speech. That speech would become part of history – and launch Douglass’ legacy as a national leader of the abolitionist movement. These days, the Nantucket Atheneum remains a vital community hub.
6. Watch future Major League Baseball players in action
Did you know that Cape Cod is home to the premier amateur baseball league in the country? Established in 1885, the Cape Cod Baseball League does not charge admission to any of its 44 regular season games; just bring a blanket and enjoy one of Cape Cod’s best summer evening traditions. As the league boasts more than 300 alumni currently playing in the MLB – and was the launching pad for such MLB Hall of Famers as Thurman Munson– you never know which future all-stars might be playing at the local fields.
7. Compete in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby
For nearly 75 years, the Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby has drawn folks from all over to try their luck in one of the largest, oldest, and most prestigious fishing tournaments in the country. First held in 1946, this Vineyard tradition bring together over 2,000 anglers annually to fish and experience all the Island has to offer. In 2019, the Derby will be held Sept. 15-Oct. 19, with registration available at local tack shops for the duration of the event—and yes, beginners are welcome!
Nantucket is home to not one, but two astronomical observatories where one can gaze at the stars and sky above. Both are part of the Maria Mitchell Association—named after the Nantucket native who would go on to become the first American female astronomer. Whether or not there’s a meteor shower that coincides with your trip to the island, the observatories are one of the most unique ways to capture the island’s beauty.
9. Delve into the Kennedy family’s Cape Cod connection
It should be no surprise that one of America’s most iconic families was closely tied to one of the country’s most iconic vacation destinations. In fact, the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port remain one of the most famous presidential residences of all time. The JFK Hyannis Museum is a multimedia exhibit depicting the life and times of President John F. Kennedy and his family spent on Cape Cod. After touring the museum, continue along the Kennedy Legacy Trail. a 1.6-mile collection of spots key to the family’s history.
Founded in 1989, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail includes 30 different locations throughout the island that celebrate the contributions, history, and culture of African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard. Stops along the trail include local African American gospel churches, and the Shearer Cottage, the first African American-owned guest house on Martha’s Vineyard. The cottage was famously listed in the original Green Book, which inspired the Academy Award-winning movie.
11. Tour the oldest functioning mill in the country
Located on Nantucket, the Old Mill holds the record for being the oldest functioning mill in the country. First built in 1746 by local sailor Nathan Wilbur, it is the only surviving mill of five that once stood on Nantucket. In fact, the Old Mill itself almost didn’t survive, as it was originally sold in 1828 for firewood. Thankfully, instead of taking the mill apart, new owner Jared Gardner restored it to working condition. Today, visitors can tour both the interior and exterior of the mill, meet the millers, and learn more about the corn milling process.
12. Light up the night at Grand Illumination
Locals and visitors alike adore Grand Illumination, an island tradition since 1869. Held on the third Wednesday night in August, Grand Illumination was designed to welcome the Massachusetts governor to Martha’s Vineyard. Today, the sight of hundreds of colorful Japanese lanterns casting a glow over Oak Bluffs’ whimsical gingerbread cottages has become—for many—a summer staple. On August 14, 2019, Martha’s Vineyard will celebrate 150 years of this beloved annual event.
This post is funded, in part, by the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism.