February 3, 2016
All’s Well in Wellfleet
For true Cape Cod ambiance in a friendly, laidback setting, plot a course for the all-welcoming town of Wellfleet.By Rob Duca; Photography by Tom Richardson
Few Cape Cod towns boast a more attractive harbor than Wellfleet, sheltered as it is from Cape Cod Bay by the long arm of Great Island. Adding to its charms are world-class fishing, spectacular natural surroundings, great paddling waters and a host of shops and restaurants within easy walking distance of the waterfront.
For daytrippers and transient boaters, the only game in town as far as slips and moorings are concerned is the town-managed marina at the head of the harbor. Not to worry, as Wellfleet extends a warm welcome to visiting mariners. The marina features 200 slips, 12 of them reserved for transient boats up to 45 feet. Transient moorings are available for boats up to 55 feet, and dinghies are available free of charge if you need one. The marina also offers electric and water, pump-out and a fuel dock.
Trailer-boaters can take advantage of the state launch facility, also at the town marina. Rebuilt in 2008, it features floats and ample parking. Most trailerable boats can be launched here, save for during the hour on either side of low tide. There is a $10 daily fee to launch and park.
Watch the Tides
If there’s one drawback to visiting Wellfleet by boat, it’s the harbor’s shallow water and shifting channels. In other words, you’d better know the tides and keep an eye on your chart and the channel markers when coming or going.
“As long as they dredge the harbor, there isn’t a problem,” says longtime boater and fisherman Jeff Smith, who ran a charter-fishing business on the Outer Cape for more than a decade. “If you have a very large or deep-draft boat, you might be restricted for about an hour at low tide.”
Speaking of low tide, many Wellfleet visitors are curious about the scores of black, plastic cages littering the local mud flats. These are oyster grow-out bags, and they support a booming shellfish industry that helps keep Wellfleet a legitimate working harbor. Each October, the town pays tribute to these important bivalves during its annual Oysterfest event.
A Beach of One’s Own
For paddlers and those with shallow-draft boats, there are additional opportunities for fun and adventure. These folks can beach their craft on the backside of Great Island, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, after which they can explore the island (once the site of a colonial-era tavern) or make their way to the pristine beach fronting Cape Cod Bay. Be aware of the dropping tide when making such a visit, or you may end up spending more time on dry land than you planned.
The expansive marshes surrounding the mouth of the Herring River behind Great Island are also ideal for kayaking and paddleboarding, and are a great spot to collect horseshoe crab shells and observe shorebirds and waterfowl. Just be sure to plan your trip on either side of greenhead fly season, which typically runs from late June through July.
More great paddling is available up inside Duck Creek and south of the harbor around Lieutenant Island. When visiting the latter spot, keep your eyes peeled for diamondback terrapins, as the surrounding tidal creeks and flats are home to the northernmost population of these rare, elusive estuarine turtles.
If you wish to learn more about the Outer Cape’s natural wonders, visit the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, which showcases the local beaches, woodlands, salt marshes, and ponds in a 1,100-acre setting. Visitors can take a bird walk led by a naturalist or a guided tour of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Natural attractions aside, many boaters love Wellfleet for its village scene. Within minutes of tying up at the marina for a $10-per-hour fee, you can be enjoying lunch at the Bookstore Restaurant or savoring fried clams from a rooftop deck while listening to live music at the Pearl. Both establishments are steps from Wellfleet’s pier and marina. From there, a 15-minute walk brings you to the center of town.
Art galleries, clothing stores and ice cream shops beckon all the way to Main Street, where more unique and diverse establishments await. Once in the center of town, you might check out the Lighthouse for breakfast or Winslow’s Tavern for an upscale dinner.
Home of Hopper
If you’re in the market for original art, you’ve come to the right place, as Wellfleet has been home to a thriving artists community since the early 20th Century. This is where celebrated American painter Edward Hopper created some of his most famous works, including “Cape Cod Sunset,” “Corn Hill” and “Seven A.M.” His painting “October on Cape Cod” sold at auction two years ago for $9.6 million. Two-hour tours of the houses Hopper painted in Wellfleet and neighboring Truro begin at the harbor parking lot. They are held twice daily in the summer and feature 30 Hopper sites.
Cape Cod’s musical arts are well represented, too. The Wellfleet Preservation Hall on Main Street has a full schedule of events throughout the season. Live jazz and folk music, along with independent documentary films, are presented in this renovated former church. The WPH also holds Zumba and yoga classes, if you’re so inclined. For first-rate theater, stop by the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and its Julie Harris Stage, a mile or so from the center of Wellfleet. This impressive theater is renowned for its year-round productions of classic and modern plays, opera, film screenings, and children’s performances. More live theater and screenings of avant-garde films can be enjoyed at the intimate Harbor Stage, just steps from the waterfront.
But Wellfleet’s entertainment options extend to less highbrow fare. Although it’s not close to the harbor, the Wellfleet Drive-In is one of the last of its kind in the country and a local summer institution dating back to 1957. It’ll make you feel as though you’ve been transported back in time, when life was less complicated. A drive-in theater will do that. Then again, so will just about everything in Wellfleet.
Welfleet At A Glance
Dockage & Moorings
- (508) 349-0320
The only option for transient dockage and moorings. Services include electric and water, pump-out, gas and diesel. Short-term tie-up is available for $10 per hour. Reservations are recommended, especially in summer.
- A large anchorage with good holding ground is located west of GC “11,” north of Smalley Bar and east of Great Island, in 7 to 20 feet of water. Before anchoring, consider the 10-foot tidal range.
- The public boat launch on Wellfleet Harbor features floats and plenty of parking for trailers. Most boats can be launched here except for the hour or two on either side of low tide. $10 daily fee.
Boat & Kayak Rental
- (508) 349-6417
Sailboat and powerboat rental at the town marina. Full- and half-day rates available.
Boathouse Fish Market
- (508) 349-7377
Fresh, local seafood at the town marina. Also sells chilled appetizers, boiled lobsters, clambakes, and heat-and-serve meals.
- (508) 349-2810
Great spot for local seafood, fruit, and vegetables.
- (508) 349-0011;
Inspired gallery across from the town pier. Carries funky, original, nautical-themed art produced by creative local minds.
- (508) 349-6417
Tackle, bait, souvenirs, clothing and books, right on the harbor.
- (703) 628-2787
Four unique gift, art and clothing stores, a mile from the harbor.
- (508) 255-3876
Personally designed, handmade contemporary women’s clothing.
- (508) 349-9451
Interesting gifts and home items, including beautiful jewelry, artwork and furnishings.
Where to Eat
- (508) 349-0404
A Wellfleet institution on the harbor. Serves decadent fried seafood, lobster rolls, chowder and steamers, plus vegetarian entrées and burritos.
- (508) 349-2999
Good food, drinks, live music and awesome views of Wellfleet Harbor from its upper deck.
- (508) 349-3455
Great place to chat up the locals and watch a game while dining on some of the freshest seafood Cape Cod can dish up.
- (508) 349-6333
Excellent sushi, local oysters and creative dishes such as cracker-crusted bluefish, grilled oysters with absinthe, and halibut in saffron lobster broth.
- (508) 349-3154
Good food, a short walk from the waterfront.
- (508) 349-1600
French bakery and bistro off Route 6.
Things to See & Do
Great Island Trail
- Visiting boaters can kayak, take a taxi or bike to the Great Island Trail (part of the Cape Cod National Seashore), which leads past sprawling salt marsh, through sand dunes, and provides access to remote beaches along Great Island. The trail entrance is a couple of miles down Chequesset Neck Road from Mayo Beach.
- (508) 349-7176
Old-time drive-in movie theater and mini-golf course.
- (508) 349-1800
Hosts live jazz and folk performances, along with independent documentary films, in a renovated former church.
- (508) 349-2615
Follow extensive trails through salt marsh habitat, barrier beaches, and pine woodlands, each attracting a wide array of wildlife. Also features an award-winning “green” nature center with numerous interactive exhibits and aquariums.
- (508) 349-9428
Great theater, dance, opera, music and film.