Surrender to the Charisma of Cape Cod

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All photos: Leah Shafer
Cedar shake shingles for siding is a classic look for cottages all over Cape Cod. They are left unpainted and turn from light tan to a weathered gray over time. Clapboard siding is also commonly seen on Cape Cod cottages. All photos: Leah Shafer

Cape Cod has historic roots in American history, one of the earliest places the Pilgrims settled, later becoming a thriving fishing, whaling, and trading area.

But the romantic mythos of the Cape took off during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, much of which was based out of the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port. JFK gave his acceptance speech there after winning the 1960 election, and returned frequently during his presidency. The Kennedy’s Camelot and Cape Cod are inextricably linked in the American imagination.

Today, the year-round population of 220,000 swells during summer months, when many thousands flock to Cape Cod for relaxation and resorts. It stretches from Provincetown in the northeast to Woods Hole in the southwest, and each of the 15 towns has its own individual character and hallmarks.

The sunset at low tide from our vacation house near Oster in Cape Cod.
The sunset at low tide from our vacation house near Orleans in Cape Cod. Stunning.

Cape Cod still maintains a charming, maritime feel, with almost 560 miles of wide, sandy coastline (including the gorgeous Cape Cod National Seashore), and house after house with weathered cedar shake shingle siding and colorful flowers that thrive in the temperate summer climate.

I just returned from a week’s vacation in Cape Cod, where we stayed in a classic shingle-style Cape beach house near Orleans on the inner bay. My fiancé’s family has vacationed there since the 1970s, and I joined them last year for the first time. As someone who spent her childhood summers in Galveston, Cape Cod was an enchanting experience, from windy afternoons walking by the seagrass along the shoreline to driving along winding roads with lush vegetation. The whole week we were there, the temperature never rose above 71 degrees.

Candy just wrote about the Cape for Grand Vie Magazine (read it here), and we both are delighted with the region and intrigued by the real estate market there. As Realtor Paul Grover of Robert Paul Properties in Osterville told her, 68 percent of his buyers were from Boston and its suburbs in 2013, and lots are empty-nesters.

But contrary to popular belief, Cape Cod is not just a haven for the rich and famous. As I discovered, there’s a range of housing available, with many beauties available for under $400,000 (I photographed 14 houses I’d consider classic Cape Cod cottage style that you can see throughout this post).

Cape CodOf course, luxury properties are plentiful (where else would Martha Stewart, Barack Obama, Taylor Swift, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Harry Connick Jr. stay?). For example, for $2 million, you can buy the 2,620-square-foot waterfront home at 20 Bay Shore Rd. in Barnstable. With its own private dock, a gourmet kitchen, and stunning views of of Hyannis Harbor and beyond, this is an extraordinary home.

But just five miles away at 141 Governers Way, an absolute charmer of a house is on the market for $430,000. With 1,920 square feet, this cottage sits on almost half an acre of impeccably maintained grounds, with a large screened patio for enjoying cool Cape Cod evenings. There’s a den, formal dining and living rooms, and two fireplaces, one of which is in the finished basement.

Cape Cod house J

Cape Cod house

cape cod house

Cape Cod house KAnother affordable house with serious curb appeal is the Cape Cod style home at 12 Windswept Dr. in Sandwich. This 3-2 has just over 2,000 square feet with large living and family rooms, each with its own fireplace.  The house is filled with built-ins, hardwoods, and a full walk-out basement. This house is listed for $319,000.

Cape Cod house

Cape Cod house
Cape Cod house If you’re wondering just what comprises a traditional Cape Cod-style cottage, look back in history to the Colonial era, when Pilgrims were thinking about how to handle the often extreme winter weather. This meant building low, broad-frame houses no taller than a story and a half, with a central fireplace and low ceilings to keep the house warm. The roof was steeply pitched to prevent snow accumulation, and shutters on the windows kept stormy winds out. The issue of moisture in interior walls meant the use of wainscoting, and that style element still says “New England cottage” today.

Because the Pilgrims were not frilly folks, the style was simple—look for symmetry with a central front door flanked by two multi-paned windows. You’ll also find little exterior ornamentation, outside of pragmatic elements, like those shutters.

But this basic style has been embellished in the years since then, and the Cape Cod cottage had a huge revival during the first half of the 20th century. This style has been called the quintessential American cottage, with its cozy and practical floorplan. To my eyes, it’s utterly engaging and friendly, especially with window boxes, white picket fences, and sand or pebble pathways.

Cape Cod house

Cape Cod house

Cape Cod house Cape Cod is more than just the cape and peninsula, though. South across the Vineyard and Nantucket sounds are the two main islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, accessible only by ferry or air. Both are tourist destinations and summer colonies, although Martha’s Vineyard has more social cachet of the two, and has been since the whaling era, when wealthy sea captains and merchants built fabulous estates on the island.

Real estate is more expensive here, too, but there’s plenty in the half-million-dollar range. Take, for example, the classic Cape Vineyard cottage at 8 Teaberry Ln. in Edgartown. It has darling curb appeal, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and 1,389 square feet, listed for $549,000. Because the climate is so temperate, outdoor living is a requirement, and this house has a large deck off the kitchen, outdoor shower, and screened gazebo.

Nantucket has more of a creative vibe, having been an artist’s colony since the 1920s. It’s also a smaller island than Martha’s Vineyard, and with fewer houses comes higher land value, so let’s take a look at a gem. For $1.77 million, the 1840 house at 2 Prospect St. in Nantucket is a slice of history, located along a picturesque street in the Residential Old Historic District. It’s a 4-3 with over 2,000 square feet and a rose-covered guest quarters and mature trees and landscaping. It has historic details, like wide pine floors, original windows, shutters, doors, and moldings, as well as an updated kitchen and bathrooms.

Cape Cod house L

Cape Cod flowers

Cape Cod house

Cape Cod house

The overarching feeling of Cape Cod is breezy relaxation, and even the most elite houses feel comfortable and welcoming. How could they not, with the ocean always nearby and the smell of salt on the air? It’s a place I look forward to calling home each summer now, as I join the many others who have surrendered to the charisma of Cape Cod.