Cape Cod's Saltboxes and Salt Marshes

Sandwich, Mass., founded in 1637, abounds with lore, museums, beaches

IF you think Cape Cod is just a place to lie on the beach in the summer, you don't know what you're missing.

The Cape is a far more profound place than just sun and fun. Yes, it has great ocean, bay, and even fresh-water beaches. But it's also a collection of quiet and quaint historic villages. It's a huge wildlife refuge, a fine place to watch shore birds, wildfowl, and whales. It boasts miles and miles of paved bike trails. And it holds its own as a landmark in the nation's literary history.

Sandwich, Mass., in many ways is typical. The oldest town on the Cape, it was founded in 1637 by Pilgrims from the Plymouth Colony. The town center is about as picturesque as you can get: a large mill pond with a restored 1654 grist mill; white and steepled First Church of Christ, built in 1830 with a spire designed by English architect Christopher Wren; and a host of historic homes under spreading shade trees.

The town is one of the first you encounter after crossing the Sagamore Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal and lies along Route 6A, one of my favorite parts of the Cape. Running along the canal and Cape Cod Bay from the Bourne rotary to Orleans, 6A has a rural feel as it passes through several town centers and salt marshes. The road is beautifully shaded and dotted with old homes, small shops, B&B's, and restaurants.

Across from Sandwich's Dexter Grist mill, which is open to the public and grinds corn daily in the summer, is the Sandwich Glass Museum. Blessed with an abundance of the necessary raw material - sand - Sandwich boasted one of the country's largest glassworks in the 19th century. (The works also imported sand from New Jersey.) The museum has a fascinating collection of various types of glass manufactured at the works and the myriad of household objects made from them. The museum is open year-round.

Up Water Street in the opposite direction past the mill are two notable historic houses: Hoxie House is a restored 1635 New England saltbox; it looks the way such houses did before New Englanders started painting everything white.

Next door is Eldred House, built in 1756. It now contains the Thornton W. Burgess Museum. Burgess, descendent of a Cape sea captain, wrote the Peter Rabbit stories. On exhibit in the little house are copies of Burgess's writings, original Harrison Cady illustrations of his characters (the two collaborated for several decades), and what today would be called ''tie-ins.''

Burgess was one of several famous writers in whom the Cape inspired an intense interest in nature - others include Henry David Thoreau, whose ''Cape Cod'' recounts his walk along the entire outer beach; and Henry Beston, whose ''The Outermost House'' influenced an entire generation of nature writers. Not far from the Burgess museum are the Green Briar Nature Center and the Old Briar Patch Trail, which still promote Burgess's love of the natural world.

But Burgess was also a salesman extraordinaire - the mementoes on exhibit run the gamut from Peter Rabbitl lunch tins to mugs, plates, and spoons. The creators of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers might have studied his example.

The nearby Heritage Plantation is not to be missed. The 76 acres of landscaped grounds include several original varieties of rhododendron bred by Charles Dexter, the property's original owner. The several buildings on the grounds contain collections originally begun by Josiah Lilly III, of pharmaceutical fame. A replica of a Shaker round barn contains a large collection of antique automobiles, including a Dusenberg built for Gary Cooper. Another building contains an original, working, hand-carved carousel, a collection of Currier and Ives prints, Cape Cod crafts, and household furniture and objects from Pilgrim days.

The best time to visit the plantation is early June, when thousands of rhododendrons are in bloom, but the garden is always worth a visit, since the many varieties of plants there bloom throughout the summer. The plantation is open from May to October.

Much of Sandwich is within walking distance, but if you want to range farther afield, you can rent bicycles and ride the bike path along the nearby canal.

This waterway, which turned the Cape into an island, opened in 1914; the Army Corps of Engineers took it over in 1928. It provided a shortcut for vessels going along the Atlantic seaboard, but more important, it meant they didn't have to navigate the treacherous shoals along the outer Cape, the graveyard of hundreds of ships over the centuries. The bike path is nice and flat and about 6.5 miles long; it ends very near the Town Neck Beach.

Behind the beach's dunes is a huge tidal marsh crossed by a long boardwalk. My wife and I enjoy watching the rare least terns that nest on the beach and fish in the marsh, where a pair of ospreys lives on a raised platform in the middle of the salt-grass.

Also worth noting: Doll-lovers should check out the Yesteryears Doll and Miniature Museum, which contains exhibits of dolls, dollhouses, and miniatures covering three centuries. It's housed in a former church built in 1833.

History and antique buffs will enjoy the Wing Fort House, built in 1641 and occupied by the Wing family until 1942. Many of the rooms contain original 17th-century antiques.

* Cape sites often have very different winter and summer hours. In the off-season, consult a guidebook or call ahead for the hours of the location you wish to visit.

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