Just a 90-minute drive from Boston, Falmouth and its neighbor Woods Hole are two of the most accessible destinations on Cape Cod. While Woods Hole is largely characterized by its ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and the academic presence of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Falmouth boasts a historic downtown area that’s laid-back but not boring. Between these towns, their endless stretches of beach and ocean, and nearby day trips, you'll have plenty to do -- whether you're staying for a day or a week.
Start the trip at Highfield Hall & Gardens, an 1878 estate that will inspire contemporary arts fans, history buffs, and nature lovers alike. One of the first summer homes in Falmouth, it was nearly demolished in the '90s but was saved and restored. Today, gorgeous moldings, sparkling chandeliers, and stately fireplaces are a fine backdrop to seasonally rotating art exhibits. The galleries in town already do a fine job of showcasing local talent, so you can expect something different and unexpected here,. This fall, don’t miss a few summer exhibits that have been extended by popular demand, including Portals and Passageways -- a show that encompasses 18 outdoor sculpture installations. Art aside, there’s a cheery new library with shelves of design- and history-related books, and visitors are often surprised to find the 400 acres of public woods and trails surrounding the estate. ($5 suggested donation for admission.)
Nobska Lighthouse, which sits on the southeastern shore, is the home of the local Coast Guard commander. Individual tours are not available, but groups of 15 or more can arrange a visit by appointment. Even if you can't see it up close, it’s still a popular sightseeing stop on the way to Nobska Beach. Be sure to bring sturdy walking shoes; a steep cliffside descent is the closest way onto the beach. (If that seems too challenging, try the nearby Menauhant or Bristal beaches.)
For an afternoon trip, take a 20-mile drive north to Sandwich. The glass museum here is small but surprisingly varied, weaving interactive displays and even a hologram program into its presentations ($5). Demonstrations start on the hour from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and include some background on the 19th century history of the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, as well as an illustration of glass techniques -- and the gift shop is a great souvenir stop for all budgets. While you’re here, set aside some time to wander the leafy shores of Shawme Lake or to visit Heritage Museums and Gardens ($18).
Here for a romantic getaway? Locals love The Knob for near-360-degree sunset views. The cliffs jut out over Buzzard’s Bay here in the form of -- you’ve guessed it -- a small knob, creating a platform for an elevated view. You can even incorporate a light hike into the experience by veering left at the fork at the beginning of the trail. Otherwise, keeping right takes you on the easiest and more direct route.
Where to Eat: Pastries, Seafood, and Fine Comfort Food
What’s a Cape Cod trip without lobster? Falmouth Raw Bar is a fun, quirky option if you're willing to make a small splurge, with two life-sized pirate statues greeting the guests at the entrance and an outdoor patio offering up views of Falmouth Harbor. More importantly, the lobsters here, while not the cheapest, are incredibly sweet. The whole-lobster luncheon, with corn and slaw was $26 in August (priced daily), while a lobster roll is $19. For something a little different, the $13.95 lobster salad roll at Falmouth Fish Market gets a satisfying crunch thanks to some added celery, and the $11.95 gulf shrimp plate satisfies cravings for something fried that isn't too heavy or greasy. (Take-out only.)
Over in Woods Hole, the local anytime snack comes from the ovens of Pie in the Sky, in the form of super soft, almost custard-like popovers for $2.95. The bakery is about a minute’s walk from the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard -- a boon for last-minute picnic planners. Pick up ham and cheese or spinach and feta croissants for $3.25 each, all-day breakfast sandwiches for $2.95-$4.95, entree sandwiches for $6.75-$7.95, and house-roasted organic coffee from $1.25.
Head over to MacGuire’s Irish Pub for dinner and chances are you’ll find Liam MacGuire himself performing onstage. It’s a true local watering hole, casual and almost effusively warm, and the kitchens crank out more than your average Irish pub. The family-run, 20-year-old establishment serves up the kind of cottage/shepherd’s pie you can only find in Ireland, with scalloped potatoes broiled to brown perfect. (In fact, many visitors from the motherland make a point to make reservations here.) But don’t worry, foodies can also enjoy more modern dishes like pepper-crusted tuna here. Just make sure you buy a pint and sing-along to the tunes you recognize.
La Cucina Sul Mare’s Italian fare rivals any from Boston’s North End. With a Mediterranean bent, the menu’s stars are chef and owner Mark Clifone's homemade sauces. Fan favorites include the zuppa de pesce, a pasta featuring seafood sautéed in olive oil and garlic -- but wait until you hear the specials before you make up your mind. La Cucina is a perfect special-occasion spot that makes for a great "last meal" before you head home; antipasta start from $12, pastas are $17-$23, and fish, chicken, and other entrees are $22-$32. It fills up fast, so make sure you get there early or, better yet, call ahead.