That archetypal tourist, Alexis de Tocqueville, knew that travel isn't a whim of American life - it is American life. If it's summer, chances are we're somewhere else. Somewhere in search of the native. And to prove it, each year would-be visitors desert the shores of Long Island and Connecticut and head off in their cars in search of what some consider the quintessential American experience: summer on Cape Cod.

As this caravan to the cape is bogged down in traffic, vacationers tantalize themselves with what lies ahead: the crack of lobster, and the crunch of the season's first sweet corn. These, along with the gentle slap of the sea, are the sounds and smells of the cape, synonymous with summer itself. Indeed, there are many who simply can't imagine the Fourth of July without sandy toes or Labor Day without a stinging tan. For them, the cape offers a holiday as varied as the counties that patchwork the length of its arm.

Most travelers come to the cape for the lighthouses of Chatham, the clambakes of Brewster. Here, on fog-shrouded mornings, we wander off in search of those knickknacky whatnots that make such perfect sense here but are an utter mystery back home. Later, when the fog burns off, we head for the ocean-warmed beaches of Provincetown or Orleans. Lolling on the beach, in an oil slick of suntan lotion, we curl up with a mystery.

This year, in late August, I headed for Sandwich, poised on the cape's northern bay. But I recommend early September, considered by many to be the most beautiful season on Cape Cod. It's a time when the air shimmers with a hard translucence and the sky vaults heavy over a thinning horizon. September is when the cape settles back to its stark beauty, when lighthouses blink over beaches long emptied of all but tufts of sea grass and a sampling of shells.

Sandwich, the westernmost of the towns dotting Route 6A, is the earliest settled and, at its center, still the least spoiled of cape towns. To visit Sandwich is to be reminded that what draws us yearly to the cape isn't beaches but New England. While we're lured by craggy, wind-swept, dune-driven New England, we're also hooked by its history. Sandwich - with its winding streets, and its widow walks, and the colored glass that bears its name - is New England at its purest.

Old Sandwich is still a community at heart. And it's this we miss elsewhere on the cape. Trading heavily on its past, Sandwich's houses shine with confident simplicity, that hallmark of New England architecture. Its earth is still burrowed for arrowheads. It's the kind of town whose library houses rows of books, their bindings cracked from use, a library that harbors every writer's ideal reader: the 17-year-old boy or 70-year-old spinster long disciplined to curling up with a book on November nights when the rain falls in sheets against windowpanes.

This is the image that flitted across my mind as I crossed the Sagamore Bridge that spans the Cape Cod Canal and pressed along Route 6A. Exiting directly after the bridge, I threaded my way past the leafy privacy of clapboard houses and gravel drives that mark the approach to Sandwich. Nearing the town common, a rectangle of green rimmed by all-white buildings, I parked the car near the colonnaded town hall. Opening the car door, I was hit immediately by the smell of salt and wood, green grass and fresh paint. New England smells.

Whether you visit just for the day or settle in for September, Sandwich is a town worth spending time in. Settled in 1637 by 10 men with a charter from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Sandwich was the first permanent English settlement on Cape Cod. From pre- to post-revolutionary times, its sons - millers and shipbuilders - tamed its cedar swamps and felled the forests that pressed to the shoreline. By 1825 Sandwich marked another historic milestone: It became the site of the famous pressed-glass industry. Ironically, this chapter of Sandwich's history is less in evidence than its pilgrim past.

What abounds is 17th-century Sandwich. The best way to see it is working chronologically forward. Starting at the town hall, walk up Water Street past the Thornton Burgess Museum. Recessed on the right is Hoxie House, a cedar-shingle saltbox. Set on a bluff overlooking Shawme Pond, it's the earliest period house on Cape Cod. The house - dating from 1675, when its first owner, Rev. John Smith, immigrated from England - derives its name from Abraham Hoxie, a whaling captain whose descendants occupied the house from the mid-1800s through the 1950s.

Stepping inside, visitors will think they've stumbled onto the set of ''The Scarlet Letter.'' Instantly we're transported back to Puritan New England. It's where candles sputter as the wind whips through cracks in the diamond-pane windows; where families are asleep by sunset; where the final sounds of night are mumbled prayers, and the occasional, faint drip of mutton-tallow candles.

This is the impression we get standing in the first room. A two-tiered space, it exposes an upper loft, where half of Rev. Smith's 13 children slept. The bottom portion of the room, an all-pine entry buttressed by oak beams, opens into the keeping room. Its walls festooned with sprigs of bayberry, this is where the family gathered. Dominating the tiny space is a deep-recessed brick hearth, a beehive oven tunneled in its right side. Clustered around the hearth are original cooking utensils: a gridiron, toaster, and ''spider'' frying pan.

Unlike the adjacent ''great room,'' used only for formal occasions, the keeping room is intimate in feel. Its handsome period furniture - a circular table, a settle bench, and a hutch lined with pewter plates - assures this. The gateleg table and Jacobean chairs in the great room are decidedly more elegant, but the furniture in the keeping room and the upstairs bedroom gives us a clearer sense of the families who lived here.

If Hoxie House shows us how 17th-century families lived, then Dexter's Mill at the foot of Water Street tells us how they worked. As we approach the mill that abuts Shawme Pond, we can hear the click of its water wheel. The mill, built in 1640, is a two-story operation that's been restored to its original design. It grinds corn with a buhrstone, feeds the meal into a pine hopper, and is driven by a cypress wheel affixed to an oak drive wheel. Last year alone, the mill produced 25 tons of cornmeal.

It's a leap across the common - as well as across two centuries - to the Sandwich Glass Museum at the corner of Tupper Road. Here visitors can see how Sandwich residents made their living from 1825 till 1888, when the glass factories shut down over labor disputes. The museum, well represented by furniture spanning several centuries, is primarily a showcase for the lacy pressed glass the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company produced. Now valuable antiques, the glass panels were the first intended for mass production.

Two other museums nearby show other sides of Sandwich's artisan community. The first, the Yesteryear Doll Museum, housed in the First Parish Meeting House on Main Street, is a stunning collection of 19th-century (and earlier) dolls. Children will love this museum, as they will the Thornton Burgess Museum on Water Street. Burgess, the author of ''Peter Cottontail'' and the ''Mother West Wind'' books, incorporated the wildlife he saw from his window into his children's books.

The Briar Patch Trails that snake from Burgess's home around Shawme Pond make for a relaxing walk before popping in the car and making the three-quarter-mile trip to Heritage Plantation. Here, on the corner of Grave and Pine Streets, sprawls 76 acres of Americana: a military museum, a Shaker barn, a museum of folk arts, and every conceivable facet of early-American life. Most spectacular, though, are the grounds themselves. Boasting more than 1,000 varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers, the gardens are crowned by the rhododendrons that Charles Dexter hybridized during his tenure here.

Before popping back to Sandwich center, it's worth making the trip to East Sandwich to see the Nye Homestead on Old Country Road. Built in 1669 by Benjamin Nye, the well-preserved home is replete with period furniture used by six generations of Nyes. The Steven Wing Fort House on Spring Hill Road is another period house worth seeing. Its early occupants were among the first Quakers who settled Sandwich. Their meeting house is the oldest continuous Quaker Meeting House in America and should also be seen.

With all this to see in Sandwich, it's worth putting aside some unmarked time to stroll its streets, observe its houses, thread its trails, and then think of heading for the shore nearby. After all, if you've come to Sandwich, you've come to do it all - but in your own quiet time. That's why you picked Sandwich.

Practical Information:

All homes and museums mentioned in this article are open until mid-October. The Sandwich Glass Museum is open weekdays, 9:30-4, through December 21, thereafter by appointment. Most museums charge a modest admission. For further information, call the Sandwich Historical Society at (617) 888-0251.

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