Although a whopping 70 percent of Wellfleet is conservation land, the town is perhaps best known as an art stronghold. Wellfleet’s two principal thoroughfares, Main Street and Commercial Street, are dotted with 20 or so galleries representing a wide gamut of art: from souvenir works to images that transcend their media. Many artists and artisans who exhibit here call Wellfleet home, at least for a short time each year, gaining inspiration from pristine landscapes and an unrelenting ocean.
After art, Wellfleet’s other main draw is nature. The outstanding Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary offers practically unparalleled opportunities for observing marine and bird life through guided activities and self-guided walks. A mostly sandy, 8-mile-long National Seashore trail on Great Island yields solitude and commanding views of Wellfleet Bay.
On the Atlantic side, dunes and cliffs back broad and uninterrupted beaches. Any of Wellfleet’s meandering roads are perfect for cycling, leading you past ponds, salt marshes, heathlands, and scrub pines.
Wellfleet appeals to a distinct crowd, many of whom have returned year after year for decades. In fact, many non-native families — washashores — rent houses here for the entire summer. When shopkeepers and restaurateurs begin dusting off the shelves in early to mid-June, it feels like a real homecoming — old friends catching up over a coffee in a café, neighbors renewing relationships as they tend their gardens.
And although Wellfleet is very popular with vacationing Freudian analysts, there’s also a notable seasonal contingent of lawyers, professors, and writers. They’ve all come for the same purpose: to commune with their thoughts, recharge their batteries, and lead a simpler life (albeit only temporarily).
Summer folks also venture out of their cocoons to dine on wonderful food in laid-back settings, to square dance outdoors, and to engage in lively conversation after a particularly spirited performance by the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.
Wellfleetians are an independent bunch. Almost 30 percent of the 3,000 year-rounders are self-employed (proverbial Jacks and Jills of all trades), more than in any other Cape town, and almost 20 percent are unemployed in winter. (If you do visit midwinter, you’ll find a few warm beds and the frozen bay — a romantic sight on an overcast day.)
While most of the town rolls up its shutters from mid-October to mid-May, Wellfleet may also feel like a ghost town on a weekday in mid-June. But on any given summer day, about 17,000 folks will be overnighting here.
Wellfleet was most likely named for a town in England that, like “our” Wellfleet, was renowned for its oyster beds. As early as the 17th century, when Wellfleet was still a part of Eastham known as Billingsgate, the primary industries revolved around oyster and cranberry harvesting. Whaling, fishing, and other related industries also flourished until the mid-1800s. By the 1870s, commercial markets had really opened up for littlenecks, cherrystones, and clams for chowder.
Today, with the depletion of natural fish and shellfish stocks, year-round fishermen have turned to aquaculture. Currently about 50 or so aquaculturists lease 120 acres of Wellfleet Harbor; you’ll see them off Mayo Beach at low tide. Shellfish like quahogs and oysters are raised from “seed,” put out in “protected racks,” and tended for two to three years while they mature. Since as many as 2 million seeds can be put on an acre of land, this is big business. For those looking for fishing charters, though, the harbor and pier are still centers of activity.
Wellfleet oysters are renowned: Legend has it that England’s Queen Victoria served them at her state dinners (no others would do). According to aficionados, Wellfleet oysters taste better when harvested from the cooler waters in the off-season, but you’ll have little choice if you vacation in July or August; order them anyway. Wellfleet is also known for its hard-shell quahog and steamer clams. In fact, these waters yield millions of dollars’ worth of shellfish annually.
The visitor center is on Route 6 in South Wellfleet on the right side of the road as you are driving north.
Atlantic White Cedar Swamp TrailAunt Sukie’s B&B
Cape Cod Rail Trail Southern End
Great Island Trail
Mac’s Seafood and Mac’s on the Pier
Moby Dick’s Seafood Restaurant
PB Boulangerie Bistro
Wellfleet Harbor Actor’s Theater
Wellfleet Flea Market
Wellfleet Drive In
Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
Wellfleet Art Galleries
Uncle Tim’s Bridge
If you’ve fallen in love with the Cape and want to take a deeper dive with exploring, my Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket: An Explorer’s Guide has been the region’s travel bible since it was first published in 1995.
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