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The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2013

No. 10 - Provincetown, MA

If you doubt that Ptown, as it’s known, is radiantly beautiful, flip through “Cape Light” featuring photographs by Joel Meyerowitz, one of the many artists who have gravitated there.

Better yet, go in season when day-trippers head for National Seashore beaches and mob downtown, or out of season when geese cry and time slows, leaving the village to residents and artists and writers on retreat. They come from afar to seek inspiration at the Fine Arts Work Center, and in historic National Park Service-administered shingle shacks on the dunes where Jack Kerouac made notes for “On the Road.”

The earliest outlanders - the Pilgrims - were off-season people. In November of 1620, before they ever saw Plymouth Rock, they anchored the “Mayflower” in Cape Cod Bay, first setting foot on dry land at the west end of town. Their footfall is marked by a plaque and their momentous enterprise commemorated by a 252-foot granite tower. Built in 1910, the Pilgrim Monument overlooks a splendidly intact 19th-century village with 1,500 sites and buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

But it wasn’t history of fried clams that created Ptown in all its singularity. It was the artists from World War I - torn Europe who found safe harbor on Cape Cod Bay, establishing the venerable Provincetown Art Association and Museum, where American Post-Impressionism met Modernism. The organization still sponsors lectures, garden tours, concerts and exhibitions like last year’s “Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea.” Artists and art-lovers gather at Beachcombers Club clambakes to shoot the breeze about new shows at the galleries on Commercial Street.

As the bohemian art colony took shape, Provincetown laid cultural claim to its position on the outré edge of the Outer Cape. “This is the freest town in America,” resident Norman Mailer once said. The town’s gay and lesbian community helps set it apart. The December light festival, Holly Folly, has all the trappings of similar events in other small towns, except it’s sponsored by the gay and lesbian Provincetown Business Guild. “How to Survive a Plague,” a film about AIDS activism nominated for a 2012 Oscar for best feature documentary, got its launch at the Provincetown International Film Festival.

Go for the Pilgrims, clams, light and free-spiritedness. Just leave your Top-Siders at the door.

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