by Janine S. Pouliot, assistance provided by Mimi Herington

You know you’re in Cape Cod when you’re doused with seawater sprayed out of a hard shell lobster you’re desperately trying to crack open for dinner. The briny scent of crustacean is evocative of all things Cape: endless blue ocean, miles of golden sand, wind swept dunes, swaying sea grasses, expansive tidal flats, pungent salt marshes… Cape Cod is a nature lover’s paradise. Add to the mix winsome storybook villages filled with tiny, flower-festooned, weathered cottages and you have the makings of an archetypal New England honeymoon.

The name alone conjures up images of lazy summer beach days. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the JFK Museum in Hyannis. The small facility displays nothing but photos of President John F. Kennedy, who often vacationed on the peninsula as both a child and an adult. The snapshots capture a moment in American history brimming with hope and promise. The Kennedy clan appears smiling, sun-kissed and apple-cheeked, hair streaked with golden highlights, young and healthy, relaxing at their compound in Hyannis Port. The compound still exists today, but is off limits to the public.

Before the Kennedys brought world attention to the Cape, it was home to simple farmers and fishermen. The first inhabitants were the Wampanoag, although textbook American history begins here with the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620, prior to their sailing across the bay to establish Plymouth, the first British colony in the New World. Given its stunning topography, it’s no surprise that tourism commenced as early as the 1800s and remains strong today.

It was in Falmouth that Joe Kennedy first began courting his wife Rose Fitzgerald. This typical New England town with its village green is the launching point for the even more low-keyed islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, reached by ferry from nearby Woods Hole. The world famous Oceanographic Institute, the Marine Biology Laboratory and the Science Aquarium are located in Woods Hole and are open at specific times for tours. In addition, Woods Hole contains the quintessential lobster experience at Shuckers Raw Bar.

Nightly, Shuckers’ outdoor veranda is packed with locals and visitors in windbreakers and jeans cracking their way through fresh lobsters while yachts and small boats bob gently at the dock. A Noble Prize winning marine scientist may be seated near a barefoot hippy, points out owner of 26 years, Kevin Murphy. “And nobody will criticize if you have a little lobster stuck on your face!”

One of the most representative towns on the Cape is picture perfect Chatham, an amalgamation of tiny original one-room-wide, weather-beaten bungalows hugging the shore and upscale, restored, white clapboard cottages and inns just oozing charm. Everywhere are brilliant blue hydrangeas, the signature flower that grows like wildfire in the salty moist climate. Interesting boutique shops reside within old refurbished cottages along the main street and the area is renowned for sophisticated fine dining.

It’s also the ideal base for enjoying the Cape’s outdoor gems. The Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham offers 7,600 acres of varied eco-systems including miles of seashore, dunes, freshwater ponds, salt marshes and barrier islands accessible only by boat. It’s a wild sanctuary of startling ever-changing beauty. The action of high waves, forceful winds and Atlantic storms forges a shifting landscape that is habitat to roughly 300 species of migratory birds. A one page printed guide sheet points out diverse environments for a self-guided walk.

Monomoy is also noted for its classic New England-style lighthouse and nine of these iconoclastic structures dot the Cape. These lighthouses have garnered near cult status and lure camera-toting tourists in droves.

By contrast, Frost Fish Creek Trail is a quiet inland woodlands of dense cattails and grasses, high pines forming a snug canopy overhead. No sound of the ocean here, only the chirp of birds, the calming rustle of leaves and an enveloping sense of tranquility.

Just outside of Chatham is the start of one of America’s greatest natural treasures and most scenic drives, the Cape Cod National Seashore. Stretching across 40 miles of coastline beginning in Chatham and ending at the island’s most northerly tip, Provincetown, the park was established in 1961 when President Kennedy signed legislation ensuring its preservation. It’s worth a trip to the Cape just to meander the splendid beaches and rugged coast, stopping frequently for spectacular vistas and increasingly untamed topography. Each beach area maintains restroom facilities and two large visitor centers offer a slew of organized walks and activities.

The park’s Highland Lighthouse, originally built in 1797, is open for tours and requires a climb up a narrow, wrought-iron, 69-step stairway through the brick cylinder. At the top, the wind creates an eerie thunder that nearly drowns out the narrative of the volunteer interpreter. Each lighthouse has its own identifying light pattern and Highland’s is a burst of white light every five seconds to alert sailors to their location on the often treacherous waters surrounding the Cape.

The antidote to all this raw wilderness is an indulgent stay at the adorable Captain’s House Inn in Chatham. Set within manicured gardens, it looks like it popped out of a child’s fairytale. Built in 1839 for the new bride of sea captain Timothy Loveland, it maintains many original architectural features, offset by high-end amenities such as plush bed linens, oodles of luxurious toiletries, period antiques in guest rooms, service of High Tea every afternoon and port and sherry in decanters in the den. “Guests can enjoy our DVDs, books, board games and newspapers anytime,” invites owner Jill Meyers.

Breakfast in the sunny morning room includes a buffet of homemade granola, yogurt, breads, cakes, fruits, juices, meats, cheeses and a changing hot entrée such as a Mediterranean omelet or banana macadamia nut pancakes.

Cape Cod offers close encounters with nature via hiking, biking, kayaking, seal and whale watching cruises, boating, fishing and infinite beaches. And the eternal appeal of whimsical historic towns and enchanting bed-and-breakfasts ensures that the Cape remains a popular tourist destination.