"A dozen oysters, please," I asked the man behind the seafood counter in Provincetown, Mass. He looked at me with consternation, pointed to a pile of steamer clams and asked, "You mean these?"
I sighed. Normally, I would have fled the store forthwith. But I had nowhere else to go - I was on Cape Cod in early January and both Mac's and Cape Tip, nearby fish markets, had closed for the season and there was no place in reasonable driving distance that sold oysters. So here I was, at the new Provincetown Stop & Shop, trying to buy Wellfleets from a man who didn't actually know what oysters looked like.
But instead of rolling my eyes, I was patient. After all, these oysters - yes, they had them - were a mere $3.99 a pound, meaning eight bivalves (all they had) came to a mere $5.53 - less than half what they'd cost at a restaurant.
Within an hour, I'd taken them back to my cozy-but-modern bed-and-breakfast, the Aerie House and Beach Club, on a hill overlooking the bay in Provincetown's East End, where I shucked them in the kitchen, doused them in lemon juice and carried them upstairs to the fireplace-warmed room where my wife, Jean, was tending to our month-old daughter, Sasha. I cracked open one of the two complimentary mini-bottles of Champagne and poured the wine into flutes.
Then, at last, I swallowed an oyster - a marvelous balance of brine and cream and acid. A perfect Wellfleet.
Normally - which is to say, when it's above freezing on Cape Cod - I could not easily afford this. Provincetown in summer is a nonstop party, a fashionable escape that draws New Englanders of every color, stripe and proclivity - the lone exception being frugal travelers. But Provincetown in the middle of winter - "the dark period," according to one year-round resident - is a land of quiet bargains, where simpler pleasures emerge from the frenzy of summertime, while out-of-reach luxuries drop drastically in price.
Lodging is the most dramatic bargain of all. Rooms that run $200 or more during the season cost half that on weekends, and even less during the week. Jean and I were first tempted by Admiral's Landing (158 Bradford Street; 800-934-0925; www.admiralslanding.com), a 19th-century Greek Revival whose gorgeous rooms - many of them with fireplaces, a necessity during New England winters, if you ask me - were all $100 or less, with a third night thrown in free during the winter. All, however, were booked.
After searching Provincetown.com, I discovered the Aerie House (184 Bradford Street; 800-487-1197; www.aeriehouse.com), whose bay-view fireplace room was $115 (midweek, it's $70). Still on the high end, but we'd only stay two nights. The cool-looking Enzo guesthouse (186 Commercial Street; 508-487-7555; www.enzolives.com) e-mailed with an off-season rate of $75 for a fireplace room, but I'd already put a deposit on the Aerie House.
Not that we regretted it. The house was beautiful and warm (so warm, in fact, that our fireplace was superfluous). A bookshelf full of DVDs let us catch up on films we'd somehow missed (e.g., "The Squid and the Whale"), and the breakfasts were a nice notch above simple: juices, pastries, a frittata, an excellent fruit salad of kiwi, pineapple, strawberries and blackberries.
Saturday morning, we awoke to a classic Provincetown sky, startling in its clarity and depth. With Sasha snuggled into her baby carrier, Jean and I walked down Commercial Street and were stunned at the silence. What is Provincetown's summertime main drag, a place where tourists jostle for space alongside drag queens handing out nightclub fliers, was virtually empty.
Most shops were closed, "70% off!" signs still hanging in their windows from fall. A tattered old house had a sign in the window: "For rent, year round." At a bayside beach, rowboats were flipped over, and across the water, MacMillan Pier looked frozen in time. Even the bay itself seemed scarcely to move. The town was in hibernation.
Well, not entirely. A few Commercial Street shops remained open, catering to the occasional tourist (or local) in search of jaunty sneakers (at All-American Boy, No. 210), high-end home furnishings (at Shor, No. 277) or marital aids (at Toys of Eros, No. 200). Surprisingly, the Marc by Marc Jacobs shop (No. 184) is open seven days a week, and even had bargains: fingerless wool gloves were $3, so I bought two pairs.
Nor does Provincetown's art scene entirely shut down. There were no plays running, but the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (460 Commercial Street; 508-487-1750; www.paam.org; admission $5) was open Thursday through Sunday. Housed in a stunning new energy-efficient building, the museum displays everything from the Cape's master painters (Charles Webster Hawthorne, Vollian Burr Rann) to the Muppets designed by Ed Christie, a resident of neighboring Truro (the exhibition ends Jan. 25).
If that $5 admission threatens to break the bank, visit the Julie Heller galleries (2 Gosnold Street and 465 Commercial Street; 508-487-2169; www.juliehellergallery.com), which I've long thought of as Provincetown's other art museum. The ramshackle Gosnold Street building looks like an artist's studio, with prints and paintings lying helter-skelter on the wooden floor. Except that these are works by legends - locals like Milton Avery and Blanche Lazell, international stars like Joan Miró - and you can sift through them as you would ears of sweet corn at a farmers' market. When was the last time you handled a $65,000 painting?
It's a remarkably laid-back scene, one duplicated at the handful of restaurants that remain open all winter. These feel like true locals' joints: Fanizzi's by the Sea (539 Commercial Street; 508-487-1964; www.fanizzisrestaurant.com), where $11 buys you a massive bacon Cheddar cheeseburger and $8.99 a bowl of fat mussels (don't forget the 10 percent-off coupon in the Provincetown Banner); the wood-paneled, fireplace-warmed basement at Jimmy's Hideaway (179 Commercial Street; 508-487-1011; www.jimmyshideaway.com), which makes excellent chicken livers with red-onion marmalade ($9); and Chach (73 Shank Painter Road; 508-487-1530), a diner-esque spot that closes by 2 p.m., ensuring that only those in the know enjoy the fantastic tuna melt ($10.95).
In this environment, where frugality is a way of life, it can feel weird to pay so much attention to money. The best remedy is to head out to the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore - those much-painted, much-photographed waves of sand that front the Atlantic. (Vehicles are generally forbidden in the dunes, but you can park in small lots on Route 6, and follow trails into the sand.)
In winter, they are less welcoming but as stunning as ever in their variety: Here, a stand of tall grasses arched by wind. There, a stand of leafless trees. Farther on, a smooth valley of untouched sand looking like newly scooped ice cream. And finally, the sea itself, lapping at the shore with a regularity that knows neither season nor budget.
Leave your wallet behind, but if you're bringing a camera or sketchpad, a pair of warm, fingerless gloves comes in mighty handy.
[Matt Gross, The New York Times]