The Cool and Camp of Provincetown
Carpe diem! Visitors and locals seize the day and make merry amid the picturesque byways and natural wonders of the sun-and-surf hotspot lovingly known as Ptown. Here, “carpe diem” is more than a lifestyle, it’s also one of the resort’s popular institutions. The Carpe Diem Inn is a bed and breakfast that features a full-service spa. Stay in the Oscar Wilde room and make time for the afternoon wine and cheese soiree. Meditate in the Zen garden, breathing deeply to take in the marine air.
A most surprising twist: within minutes of this tranquil hideaway, you land amid the buzz of Commercial Street. Here you can shake off the preppie vibe of the Cape and get funky. Park your car and absorb the scene via foot or bicycle so you see everything. Like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Commercial Street stays packed on summer nights, with beach bums and culture vultures taking turns barhopping and gallery-shopping, and street performers keeping everyone entertained. Buy a tie-dye T-shirt to remember your trip, or forget your budget and invest in a custom wardrobe from boutiques like MAP (urban, counter-culture), BodyBody (style cat), SS Cherry (vintage), D Flax (trendy), Indigo (indie), and Spank the Monkey (leather).
The gay-friendly atmosphere and boho style make Ptown stand out from other beach spots on the Cape, but it’s also the quirky touches that draw return visitors. Outdoor seating everywhere invites you to enjoy ocean views or face street side and people-watch. Business owners set bowls on the sidewalks so dogs can have water breaks. Ice cream shops sell flavors Häagen-Dazs never dreamed of (Lewis Brothers serves a White Russian ice cream and a Moose Tracks froyo, featuring peanut butter cups and fudge). Pedestrians wander in front of cars and bikes as they stare at window and garden art. Families, men in drag, and punks mingle on the sidewalks. And, along the most shopped-on, dined-at corridor in town, there is not a chain store in sight.
Take a breather from the hubbub at Harbor Lounge, where you can sit outdoors on a dock or retreat inside. Pull up a luxe leather couch, park yourself at a huge window, and watch the 180-degree view of shifting water in the harbor as you sip an expertly prepared mojito. The bar snacks? Wasabi peas. As the sun sets, the scene heats up, with gay couples predominating.
When hunger hits, make your way over to The Mews Restaurant. In the words of Ron Robin, general manager, “We are not afraid of flavors with our American Global cuisine….” The tone is anything but stuffy. “We have set up a spoof of ‘Hollywood Squares’ called ‘Towniewood Squares’ with local celebrities and local oriented questions…Bruce Villanche actually came to visit one year and we put him in a square!”
If it all sounds like 24 hour party people wining and dining, you’re missing a core element of the Ptown experience—its culture. “We wish all could experience Provincetown to see that tolerance and diversity can be so natural.” This statement, part of an exhibition at Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, captures the locale’s most winning trait. From business owners to visiting celebrities, tourists to residents, the people of Ptown exude openness and a celebratory attitude, resulting in a place brimming with creative visionaries.
At Gallery Voyeur, the art goes beyond the typical Cape fare of seascapes and sailing vessels. Owner and artist Johniene Papandreas does extraordinary portraits on a large scale. She says, “Provincetown has some sort of energy to it that really draws artists.”
In a short film about Provincetown’s cultural history, Berta Walker, the owner of the Berta Walker Gallery shares, “Everybody around us were artists and writers and they walked up and down Commercial Street….[Hans] Hoffman was here…So the enthusiasm and the talent and the excitement was right here.” Another artist adds, “And the light, it’s this incredible light. It’s like the light of the Mediterranean.” Walker elaborates, “There is an energy here and it’s almost like the inspiration of the light is the inspiration that comes in from each one of us.”
Hoffman’s notoriety attracted established artists to Provincetown, some to study with him at his studio space. Among the notable summer residents were Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Fritz Bultman.
Local artist Mike Wright, part of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, reflects on the place’s dynamic past. “That’s really what drew me here. It’s that there’s so many layers. It’s a very interesting community…We’re definitely seeing a trend of more artists who know this is a great place to start or continue sculpting, painting, or whatever they’re doing.”
Some fascinating remnants of Ptown’s lively cultural history are the dune shacks. During the early 20th century, playwrights, painters and poets made their way to Provincetown for the sunny season, where they stayed in makeshift structures tucked amid the sand and sea grass. These austere buildings originally housed seamen in the 19th century. Eugene O’Neill penned plays here and loved the area so much he purchased a dune shack. These days, government and nonprofit organizations own the shacks and use them for artist residencies as well as tourist rentals.
O’Neill’s legacy lives on in the lively theater community. One wonders what he would make of one of the most popular, long-running productions, Showgirls. Local luminary Ryan Landry hosts this variety show that attracts drag queens, performance artists, stand-up comedians and others to compete for a $500 prize.
Landry, the hostess with the mostess, describes it as “like American Idol with a John Waters twist.” It turns out that everyone’s favorite campy director Waters is no stranger to the area. On the advice of a friend who told him “It’s a very weird place,” Waters summered here from 1966 to 1980. He says about his adopted home, “People always say that Ptown is different. I think it’s always exactly the same. Many of those shops have been there for 25 years…I think sometimes if I dropped a Kleenex in 1965 it’s still there…It’s really amazing how Ptown stays the same. In a great way.”