Cape Cod is a thin sandy peninsular that makes the shape of an arm wrestler’s elbow as it protrudes into the Atlantic Ocean. Once there was enough cod in the sea that, so they say, you could walk out on the water and not get your feet wet, though now the cape is populated only by schools of tourists. Provincetown, right on the tip, is a small town with narrow streets stuffed with gift stores and shops geared to the 60,000 visitors who pop in each year.
Other friendly fishing harbour towns, many named after English ports – Harwich, Yarmouth etc – dot the cape, surrounded by sweeping windswept beaches.
Cape Cod was the first landing spot of the Mayflower, the ship carrying the famous Pilgrim Fathers colonists. They swiftly moved on to the mainland and settled New Plymouth. As with many of America’s founding myths, the facts often get in the way of a good story. Plymouth Rock, alleged site of the second landing, is a revered place in American history, and has thus been enshrined by a kind of stone pavilion visited by thousands of sombre-looking tourists each year. It looks pretty ridiculous, and when you discover that the rock was ‘discovered’ hundreds of years after the landings by locals who were opposed to renovation of the foreshore, probably was underwater at the time, wouldn’t have been suitable for a landing in stormy December when the colonists arrived, and has been cut, removed, shifted and re-set many times, it’s quite hilarious.
The tidy city of Providence in Rhode Island, the smallest US state and, incidentally, not actually an island, was much more interesting than New Plymouth. Here we found some grand colonial buildings, including the Ivy League Brown University, which seemed more impressive than what we had seen of Harvard. There was also, as we have come to expect, a grand State Capitol building. Providence was fun to explore for an afternoon, but the real treat in Rhode Island lies a little further south.
Newport, RI became the summer getaway for the nouveau-riche of mid-19th Century New York, the great families – the Vanderbilts, the Astors etc – who had made fortunes on railway construction, newspapers and steel. They each tried to outdo the others in building sumptuous mansions dripping with marble and gold leaf wallpaper – purely for use during six weeks of summer each year. The setting is stunning, as the imposing remnants of the ‘Gilded Age’ (think The Great Gatsby) line a cliff top overlooking the Atlantic waves. A number of homes are now open as museums, and tell an extraordinary tale of opulence and glamour. Our favourite was The Breakers, 70 rooms of jaw-dropping exquisiteness and conspicuous consumption.
From Newport we followed the by comparison quite stale Connecticut coast and cut north for one last look at New England fall foliage. We followed the grand Housatonic River through some little towns and covered bridges, all enveloped in forests of golden leaves. On the last day we turned around and headed into our last stop, New York City, on the picturesque Taconic State Parkway, a pretty road free of commercial vehicles that almost drops you in Manhattan before you realise you have skipped through the city’s outskirts.
And so we found ourselves buzzing through the traffic of downtown Manhattan as we made our way to our home for the next two weeks, a little apartment in downtown Nolita. It was time to say a sad goodbye to our colourful camper, our hallucinogenic home on wheels for the last five months. But we weren’t leaving the country just yet – first we had New York City to explore!