Boston Harbor Hotel, 6:42 a.m. I tossed on a robe, had a fight with an unfamiliar coffee machine, then threw back my bedroom curtains to soak up the best part of chronic jet lag. Fuschia skies intensified before a beautifully fat, gold sun peeped above the horizon. Some hours later, a three-tier stand stacked with PB&J sandwiches, smoked salmon, vanilla bean scones and fig jam obscured the same uninterrupted view, from the Rowes Wharf Sea Grille downstairs.
Proffered a frankly overwhelming selection of colorful loose leaf teas, the irony wasn’t lost on me, a Brit, as I raised a pinky.
“Green Sparkling… Tropical Oolong… Organic Big Ben English Breakfast… Chai Imperial? How about L’Herboriste?”
My perfectly pleasant afternoon tea fell days before the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, close to where waters allegedly turned brown on December 16, 1773. I soon realized I was ignorant of just how integral Boston’s revolt against the British Empire had been to the American Revolution (you’ll be stunned to hear we don’t really study it in school across the Pond). The cadence with which locals gently took the piss out of my accent suggested I should brush up on my apparent involvement.
I downloaded the Freedom Trail app, pulled on some running shoes and jogged the red brick road snaking for 2.5 miles around sixteen historic sites, starting at Boston Common, then past Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere House, Old North Church and Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. My favorite stop was Monica’s Mercato & Salumeria in Little Italy, from whence I emerged triumphant with a mortadella and pistachio sub.
Next I jogged my memory at Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum at Griffin’s Wharf, where a large-scale re-enactment and procession will soon mark the big 2-5-0. I was handed a card denoting my character for the show’s duration, in a much welcome identity switch. I gladly assumed the role of Seth Ingersoll-Browne, a house carpenter who halted plans to join the Massachusetts Militia in favor of joining the Sons of Liberty. As “Sam Adams” handed out a few speaking parts and showed the crowd how to thumb their noses, I sank a little lower in my pew.
“Treason awaits! If you’re ready to throw tea off the boat, say ‘fiiiii!’”
An interactive show energetically described how American patriots snuck onto three British ships — the Beaver, Dartmouth and Eleanor — in the dead of night, exactly two and a half centuries ago. Together they destroyed over 300 boxes of valuable tea that had arrived via the East India Company from China, protesting King George III’s hefty taxations. This bold move of course fueled colonial unity and resistance, ultimately steering America’s course towards war — and independence. With glee, tourists commemorate the moment the uprising gained momentum, casting artificial boxes overboard. An enemy in plain sight, to avoid participation I daydreamed of making the jump myself.
One of the four tea ships bound for Boston that fateful night never made it at all. The William was thrown off course by a storm, ending up in Provincetown, Cape Cod. A couple of days later, I did too. Swinging by Boston Logan to pick up my friend Sofie, I rented a BMW X5 from Sixt. Overjoyed, we cranked up some Christmas songs and drove the two hours to Harwich, peeling off at elegant Wequassett Resort & Golf Club (where the car and, by proxy, we, fitted in just nicely).
Approaching the arm of the peninsula in pitch darkness, we pointed out huge 2D Christmas lights, safari-style. Each denoted the dwellers of their respective homes — my favorite being a family in a tight embrace, my friend Sofie’s a glittering fire engine.
Osterville’s Christmas Open House & Stroll saw us meander through a closed off street, poring over painted sea shells and vintage glassware in between petting endless white labradors and hoovering up free s’mores, handed out by smiley suburban realtors.
Discovering our enthusiasm for good food, kind local Jim Migliorini offered to take us on an adventure, starting at 8 a.m. sharp. Early winter starts come easy when you can switch on the Christmas tree, turn on the fireplace, bask in a rainfall shower, make a cup of tea and catch a crisp winter sunrise across impossibly still, clear waters. Our huge bedroom, complete with two double beds, afforded panoramic views of Round Cove and Pleasant Bay, gradually drenched in golden light. The charmed morning continued with apple turnovers, ham and cheese croissants and kouign-amann at PB Boulangerie, perhaps the trip’s best surprise.
Chef Phillipe Rispoli’s Zagat-rated French bakery, pastry shop and bistro valiantly powers through low season, a hive of festive activity in Wellfleet. A handful of talented pastry chefs shouted “bonjour!’ over the din, and the racket of “Little Drummer Boy.” Rispoli himself, and his dear mother, waved from the cleanest kitchen counter on the Cape.
“She flies in three times a year to help make jam. I refuse to use jam that is not my mother’s. One THOUSAND jars.”
A vintage music box stood in the corner, Rispoli’s “favorite thing.”
“Whatever mood we’re in, I wind this up, and chef is happy. He absolutely loves it. Reminds him of his childhood,” his assistant nodded, cranking the lever to start the sort of deranged ditty that can’t help but raise a smile.
Eyeing Rispoli’s Buche de Noel selection — “Chocolate Seduction,” “The Exotic” and “Omelette Norvegienne” on the way out of the door, we made our waterfront appointment with Nancy O’Connell, president of the Wellfleet Oyster Alliance, in search of the quintessential American oyster: Cape Cod gets two big tides per day.
Nancy reminded us how Wellfleet’s most famous export (I love ’em with hot sauce) is a natural barometer for the health of the waterways; a precious commodity she works hard to farm and protect.
“The kidneys of the sea…” my friend added.
Talk turned to Covid times, and how Cape Cod residents kept busy. Jim recalled shellfishing at high tide by the light of the moon, after a bottle of Malbec. Thank God for the “Sharktivity” app, now necessary after a spate of shark attacks in the area. Nancy talked of having more oysters than they knew what to do with, serving them with everything from sweet red crushed pepper to garden shallots mignonette.
“My husband Jim grows hard shells and little necks on a French ‘rack and bag’ system. So much work, they almost become your pets. They’re handled ten times before they go to market, which speaks to their cost. All this and Jim used to be allergic to shellfish!”
“What’s the strangest oyster recipe you’ve concocted?” my friend wondered.
“Crème fraiche and orange citrus.”
Brave was the man who ate the first oyster — and probably those, too. We piled in the car to Provincetown, in search of cod and fried clams. Beautiful high dunes shoot skywards either side of the road leading to the very top of Cape Cod’s arm.
Massachusetts was one of the first states to legalize gay marriage, and Provincetown might be its most delightfully progressive enclave. Rainbow flags and Taylor Swift baubles joyfully outnumber fairylit lobster cages, boxes of handmade fudge and saltwater taffy. We took a turn around Commercial Street, Provincetown’s main thoroughfare, stopping at the Lobster Pot — a local institution, where celebrity chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain put on his first apron in 1972.
Beyoncé, Elton John and Anna Wintour watched as we rolled up our sleeves for lobster rolls and fish and chips. The Canteen, a lobster shack-style spot awash with nautical, technicolor bric-a-brac, boasts a surprisingly great cocktail menu.
“Did you know Nantucket is entirely nudist?” Jim wondered, as we attacked hot BLTs (bacon, lobster and heirloom tomato) with enthusiasm. He told us how he likes to jazz up the abundant local produce.
“I do stuffed quahogs. Large quahog clams, taking out the meat and packing them with bread, chorizo, linguiça, peppers, clams and broth. I bake the stuffies in the shell and serve ’em with lemon and hot sauce.”
After all this oyster talk, we realized we had not yet eaten any. Running out of time, we thought about the best time to come back, tacking on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard.
“Before Memorial Day, after Labor Day” came the reply. We discussed a spring trip on the drive back to the hotel, to spend one last evening holed up in the Wequassett’s cosy pub Thoreau’s. It was buzzing, crowds quaffing bubbles and catching up after watching Broadway stars sing Christmas classics in a special festive event.
Sofie returned from the bathroom, glad to pocket the car keys and have a good drink.
“Right, what shall w-”
Six oysters sailed to our table before she could finish. After sinking them (then ordering six more), we each kept a shell. The following morning, we squeezed in a gingerbread decorating workshop before driving to the airport, part of the hotel’s extensive Christmas program. Sofie being an artist by trade, my sorry attempts were never going to attract much praise by contrast, and I regretted previous talk of a competition. I produced a shell from my pocket, and iced it firmly onto my house’s front door. I hoped to score a few points for originality — but Cape Cod nets that prize.