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Cape Cod is rich in history, beaches and cultural offerings

CAPE COD, Mass. – Breathtaking beaches and classic seafood shacks. Quaint villages and postcard-perfect lighthouses. Whale watches and dune rides. Art galleries and summer theater. Cape Cod draws millions of tourists each year, including a sizable number of Connecticut residents, and there’s no end to the area’s charms.

But with all there is to do, it’s tough to know where to start and what not to miss – even for seasoned visitors. Kim Grant, author of “An Explorer’s Guide: Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket,” says the things to do and places to see are so vast and varied that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the choices.

“It’s hard to talk about the Cape without resorting to hyperbole, but there really is no place like it,” says Grant. “If I had to narrow it down, I’d tell people to start with the classics like the Cape Cod National Seashore and the dunes; a drive on Route 6A past the clusters of iconic little cottages and a visit to Woods Hole, which is one of the most charming villages anywhere.”

Some of the most beautiful dunes and beaches in New England are located around Provincetown at the Cape’s outer tip, says Grant, and Art’s Dune Tours has been offering narrated, off-road tours through them since 1946. “Art’s has been around for decades, yet there are still people who come to the Cape every summer who have never done one of their dune rides,” says Grant.

Like Matt Poland, Hartford Public Library’s CEO. In spite of the fact that the Hartford resident has been vacationing on the Cape since 1975 and owns a home in Provincetown, he took his first dune tour just this month, an experience he described as “spectacular.”

“I have no idea why we waited so long to do this,” says Poland. “Fabulous scenery and interesting history. It turned out to be one of our best Cape experiences yet.”

Along with all its natural scenery, Cape Cod is also known for its art galleries, museums and theaters – and there’s plenty of history in those venues as well. The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, declared by Actors’ Equity Association to be the “Oldest Professional Summer Theatre” in America, opened in 1927 with a play starring Basil Rathbone. Bette Davis, a former Playhouse usher, made her acting debut here, and theater-goers can still see productions there today.

On the same grounds as the Playhouse is Cape Cod Cinema, which opened in 1930 and continues to screen films in its art deco auditorium, featuring individual black lacquer and tangerine suede arm chairs and a 6,400-square-foot mural by American painter Rockwell Kent. A framed poster in the lobby notes that a 1939 premiere of “The Wizard of Oz” took place at the Cape Cinema before its New York showing.

“Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch in the movie, had appeared at the Cape Playhouse and used her influence to get the film shown here before its Radio City premiere,” says Joseph Guglielmo, general manager. “Seeing a movie here is quintessential Cape Cod.”

And there are plenty more of those uniquely Cape experiences available. You can bike the Shining Sea Bikeway (named for a line in the song “America the Beautiful,” written by Falmouth native Katharine Lee Bates) that hugs the coast from Falmouth to Woods Hole; or kayak around Pleasant Bay in Orleans.

Visit Chatham and watch the fishing boats come into the town dock or the skydivers at Chatham Municipal Airport. Go to the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory in Hyannis and sample the area’s namesake salty snacks. Take a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.

Whatever you choose, don’t forget the food. Eat lobster, fried clams, chowder, ice cream and fudge almost anywhere from Bourne to P’Town – and do it outdoors, whenever possible.

Other eateries that show up on “Best Of” lists include Sir Cricket Fish ’N Chips on Route 6A in Orleans, Spanky’s Clam Shack and Seaside Saloon in Hyannis Port, Captain Frosty’s in Dennis, The Lobster Pot (which has been in business since around 1943), and Spititus Pizza, all in Provincetown. (Some restaurants operate seasonally and some only accept cash, so be sure to call ahead.)

“You really do need to make yourself a bucket list,” says Grant.