Cape Escape

A hidden-away oasis of history and nature

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ear the elbow of Cape Cod is a hidden enclave where the birds drown out the traffic and where the natural beauty is so overpowering that the locals spend their lunch breaks watching the ocean pound the coast. Marked by only a small sign on an easy-to-miss side street just shy of the main entrance to the Cape Cod National Seashore, Fort Hill is where the French explorer Samuel de Champlain dropped anchor 15 years before the Pilgrims, the Mayflower first sighted land, and the author Henry Beston spent a winter alone with a journal in his “outermost house.” Easy hiking trails of from one-tenth to one-seventh of a mile follow the rocky coast, though maple, pine and red cedar swamps (above). Many lead to Skiff Hill, below which is where Champlain landed on July 20, 1605. The Pilgrims neared the same spot on November 9, 1620, before sailing north to Provincetown. For all that Fort Hill offers, it is equally attractive for what it doesn’t: noise, crowds, or traffic. Only a fraction of the five million annual visitors to the National Seashore find their way here. It is, wrote Beston, “the last fragment of an ancient and vanished land … Solitary and elemental, unsullied and remote.”

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After the land was farmed to exhaustion, Cape Codders went to sea, including Edward Penniman, who left at age 11 and worked his way up to captain of the bark Minerva before returning with the fortune he had earned and building what was then the biggest house in town, which is also in Fort Hill and open for tours in the summer. The French Second Empire-style home is one of the most outstanding sea captains’ houses on Cape Cod, and was the first with indoor plumbing and a kerosene chandelier.

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