We found real value in one of the toniest spots in the United States.
Cape Cod is a tiny spit off Massachusetts, just an hour from Boston, where everything seems endless and open and large. There are massive beaches, gorgeous mansions, endless expanses of blue sky. And the friendliness is larger than life too!
I met my new friend Kelly, a former Cape Cod resident, at a cooking class in Prague. We bonded over a mutual appreciation of all things dumplings and goulash and she gave me invaluable advice for exploring Cape Cod. Thanks to her sage insider's perspective we had an unforgettable trip - plus a long list of activities to consider for next time.
In the spirit of travel friendships, I feel it's only appropriate to pass along our favourite (affordable) Cape Cod recommendations - and I can't wait to hear if you have any to add to the list!
Save: Exploring on foot for free.
The animals of Hyannis
Sharks, bears, lobsters, and giant birds? That's the winning formula for just about every successful trip, isn't it? Hyannis is the perfect Cape Cod spot to indulge your whimsical, silly side and to take in the atmosphere of a beach promenade while walking along the main street. While the shops themselves might have been a bit on the cheesy and overpriced side, their outdoor attractions were wonderfully free and accessible.
The beaches of Cape Cod's north shore.
Cape Cod is synonymous with beautiful beaches and we were happy the region lived up to its reputation. I think the best way to experience them is to grab picnic supplies from some of the shops listed below and head to the shore for a relaxing afternoon. You can find a list and reviews of the different beaches here but we just drove around and dipped down any roads we found interesting. It was a strategy that worked well for us!
Thanks to Kelly's advice, we knew there was only one route to take while exploring the north shore - Highway 6A. Spotted with tiny communities and brimming with cute cafes and plenty of craft stores and antique shops, it makes for a leisurely drive and some good sightseeing. While it rarely comes within sight of the shoreline, 6A offers easy access to many beaches along the way.
Sandwich Mini Golf
If you feel like loosening your purse strings a wee bit, I recommend checking out Sandwich Mini Golf. I like that we had the choice to golf 9, 18, or 36 holes depending on our timeline and budget -and I liked it even more that I triumphed over Ryan.
The cute, classic course occasionally distracted me with some sporadically placed religious symbols and messages - but they also won me over with the cleanest porta-potty I've ever seen. So it curiously all balanced out to be a good visit.
Splurge: Some indulgent cafes
If you're not careful in Cape Cod, nearly every meal you have will be a splurge, whether you want it to be or not. Many restaurants have a captive audience and, as such, the quality and value suffers. (I like to keep the blog a positive space, but if you're interested in some spots to avoid, you can read my personal Trip Advisor reviews here).
Our solution was to indulge at some stunning cafes and imported food stores. It kept prices reasonable and allowed us to partake in some splurges without breaking the bank.
C'est La Vie, Hyannis
Our first discovery was C'est La Vie, a charming bakery and cafe in Hyannis. This is a real French bakery and the friendly staff member we chatted with told us that the recipes came from her French grandmother. You can absolutely taste the difference that comes from their heritage.
Even the most decadent of desserts was not over sweetened. We appreciated that the whipped cream in the strawberry shortcake was genuine, freshly whipped cream without added sugar and that the biscotti was properly balanced, with a sweetness that wasn't cloying. We stopped here every morning to load up on treats and coffee and we were never disappointed.
The Brown Jug, Sandwich
For more savory fare, our choice on Cape Cod was The Brown Jug in the town of Sandwich. This combination of fine food shop, wine emporium, deli, and pizzeria had us whipping our head in every direction. I showed tremendous restraint, leaving with just some fine Spanish olive oil, a container of whole nutmegs, a box of Maldon sea salt, containers of dehydrated mushrooms, a box of cheese straws.... and a slice of pizza.
Speaking of pizza.... If travel has taught me anything, it's that when you see a line of people waiting to buy food that has yet to be brought out, you join it. There was no way I wasn't getting a piece of whatever everyone was lining up for.... no matter what it was! Turns out that The Brown Jug is well known for its thin crust, wood burning oven made pizza and I got the last slice of the inaugural pizza of the morning.
We declared the slim, chewy crust and it's perfectly balanced load of sauce and cheese to be delicious - though if I'm being completely honest, I'm not sure that it was exactly line up worthy. Regardless, it made for a very tasty snack before we moved on to more substantial fare.
Uncommon Cafe and Collections Gallery, Sandwich
I couldn't talk about a town named Sandwich and not include my favourite sandwich shop - even though it is much more of a "steal" than a "save"! Uncommon Cafe has a huge list of gourmet sandwiches and paninis, all at a reasonable cost. My favourite was The Pilgrim, which contained turkey, stuffing, and cranberry mayo. An added bonus was that the staff were so wonderful - they couldn't have been more friendly and helpful.
Never fear, you'll get your 'splurge' moment at a shop just a few doors down from Uncommon Cafe. The Collections Gallery is a BEAUTIFUL shop, stocked with locally made craft and fine arts products from local artisans. The artists take turns staffing the shop, giving visitors a chance to talk about their work and interact with some locals. We had a lovely visit- and walked away with a gorgeous new pottery mug.
Steal: Hostelling International Hyannis
The name "Hyannis" evokes the emotions of yesteryear; a young President with a lively family, rows of elegant beach houses, and -ultimately - old money. Lots and lots of it. But we found a way to sleep a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Kennedy compound, at some decidedly un-presidential prices. If you're looking for accommodations in downtown Hyannis, complete with a waterfront view, a fire pit, and a herb garden, you're going to want to follow in our footsteps and get a steal of a deal at Hostelling International (HI) Hyannis.
The central building of HI Hyannis is a 1910 era "kit house", the Sears Roebuck model. (Yes, once upon a time you actually could order every single item you needed to build your own home from the Sears catalog and it all came in a convenient kit). I'm not sure if all the features of the hostel remain original, but I suspect the spectacular floors might be - you can catch a glimpse of them in our photos.
Our private room featured a double bed (with a single bunk above) and had incredible views of the harbor. I think we actually had the best view of any accommodations in Hyannis - as we were driving through the town I didn't see any other property that could rival our location. Take THAT, presidential royalty!
Like most HI properties, you are responsible for making up your own beds with the provided sheets and, upon check out, bringing your used linens to the laundry basket. These tiny chores are a throwback to the era of original hosteling, where guests would pitch in with chores in order to keep costs low. (Happily, the days of chopping wood for the fireplace and scrubbing toilets have passed!)
Like every other HI property we've ever stayed in, HI Hyannis was scrupulously clean. The building had character in spades, including the aforementioned gorgeous floors, a small sun room, lots of windows, and a cozy lounge. Our room was remarkably quiet - we never heard any sounds from other guests and hardly anything from outside. This is a huge bonus in a hostel. Whatever lumber Sears provided a century ago was clearly a quality product!
Outside, there was plenty of free parking, just for us hostel guests, plus a small herb garden, a clothes line, and a fire pit with seating. Can I just take a moment to say how much I adore free parking? Really! In downtown Hyannis, parking is at least $20 - and easily up to $30 - and that's not for a full day. It was great to never have to worry about squeezing our car into an overpriced, overfilled lot and the savings added up over the course of our visit.
There's two small things I would change about this hostel. One would be to add small shelves or tiny ledges beside the bunks for storing eye glasses and mobile phones and keys. I've seen them before at other properties, where there were tiny half-baskets mounted beside each bunk and they were hugely helpful. We did have a kind of night stand in our room, but it wasn't standard.
We also got a bit confused by breakfast. The hostel offers a basic breakfast of toast and spreads, yogurt, and coffee and also has a full kitchen for preparing your own meals. But it wasn't immediately clear to us where the communal food ended and the personal supplies began. Was the strawberry yogurt that gentleman was eating HIS yogurt or the breakfast yogurt? When the coffee ran out, should we have been refilling it or just informing the staff? This was mostly our fault, as we were too shy to accost yogurt man or snoop around some more, but some small signs would have helped us along.
As a side note: the kitchen has a JUICER. For real! And we even saw someone using it! I'm not sure how a juicer found it's way to a hostel kitchen - what came first: the juicer or the juice obsessed hostel guests? But if you crave a tall, cool glass of neon green celery juice first thing in the morning and you don't mind tracking down your own ingredients, this is the hostel for you ;-)
I always like to remind readers that every hostel has it's own personality and attracts its own unique style of guest. HI properties are usually among the most diverse and welcoming of hostels and HI Hyannis was no exception. We saw young backpackers, a family with two children, and some seniors who (if they'll pardon my boldness), were VERY senior in age. This property was about as far from the stereotypical image of the "party hostel" as you can imagine - which suited us just fine. Did I mention how quiet it was at night? Steal!
Cape Cod is calling you.
Kelly really encouraged me to dig deep and discover the "real" Cape Cod, a place away from the crowds that has its own local spirit. And I'm so glad we did! We had an incredibly rich travel experience - and it didn't break the bank at all.
If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
The $200 Challenge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Our Mini Lake Placid Layover
Portland, Maine's, "Bitter" Sweet Food Scene
Our accommodations were provided by Hostelling International USA and we thank them for their support. As always, all research, writing, and opinions are our own.
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