If you want to visit Wellfleet by water, you need to know your tides. The harbor, tucked between Great Island and Indian Neck, is a collection of shifting bars and channels that, at low water, can test even the best navigator. The town itself is quintessential Cape Cod: gray-shingled cottages set along winding streets, views of long sandy beaches and scenic salt marsh, the air redolent with the smell of salt air and fried seafood.
Wellfleet is also a working harbor, home to roughly 100 oystermen and a handful of commercial draggers. Oystering has long been an industry here, thanks to the area’s fertile ecosystem, and the local shellfishermen can be seen tending their extensive grants in the harbor at low tide.
Visiting boaters can either launch at the town ramp or arrange for a slip or a mooring at the marina, which offers a wide range of amenities. Wellfleet has clearly made a mission of attracting more seasonal and transient boaters.
During the height of summer, Wellfleet’s streets are alive with shoppers perusing the local boutiques and bookstores. Coffee shops buzz with caffeinated conversation, and the family-friendly beaches teem with happily screeching kids.
A nationally registered historic district, Wellfleet Center boasts buildings that date back to the late 1700s, well before the town’s transformation into first a thriving commercial port and then a bustling tourist destination. The center’s shops and galleries, about a 10-minute walk down Commercial Street from the harbor, are high-end, but welcoming.
Inside the gray-shingle and clapboard shops, one can find a trove of designer clothing, used books, jewelry and gifts. Local artists display creative metal sculptures, pottery and colorful seascapes at several galleries. On bulletin boards, signs advertising free Shakespeare at Baker’s Field and yoga on the beach hang opposite the show times for the Wellfleet Drive-In.
After Labor Day, things quiet down, although September and October can be a wonderful time to visit. Each October the town takes a break to celebrate its most famous product during OysterFest. Just when you thought the crowds had left Cape Cod for the off-season, they come flooding back by the tens of thousands to gorge on oysters and microbrews and listen to live music. The local oystermen enjoy a bit of adulation before the long winter months of solitary work. However, a mindful visitor will quickly understand that shellfishing is at the heart of Wellfleet, even during the height of summer.
Wellfleet is also a great place to see the Cape at its natural best. Almost 60 percent of Wellfleet is protected land. On the east side of the bay, the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Lieutenant Island offers miles of trails for viewing osprey and blue herons amid sprawling salt marsh. The pristine marsh and tidal flats surrounding Lieutenant Island are also home to one of the largest and northermost populations of diamondback terrapins on the East Coast.
Heading west, you can beach your boat or hike for miles out to Great Island—part of a barrier beach extending south from the mainland—where sand dunes, pitch-pine forest and unbroken beach offer peace and quiet off the beaten path. Just be sure to inspect yourself for ticks after a hike in the woods.
Keep hiking south and you’ll arrive at Jeremy Point, reachable by foot only at low tide. Boaters, especially kayakers, have the best access to this spit of sand. You can drop anchor or simply beach your vessel on the harbor side, then hop out to swim in the surf, build sandcastles or simply relax. Just be sure to keep an eye on the tide or you may end up staying longer than you had planned.