Sunday, June 30, 2013

Vacationing In Provincetown: Culture, Entertainment & Community (Part 5)

As further immersement into the culture of Provincetown, we visited the Provincetown Art Association & Museum (PAAM), meeting with Executive Director Christine McCarthy, President Jim Bakker (of James R. Bakker Antiques) and PAAM Development Director Sheila McGuinness. Art is an integral part of Provincetown, which is home to the oldest, continuous art colony in the country. Back in 1899, Charles Webster Hawthorne, a famous artist, came to Provincetown and founded the Cape Cod School of Art (CCSA) at Land's End.

Though a number of artists came to Provincetown before 1899, Hawthorne was probably the first to offer instruction and his school attracted much interest. Other artists followed suit and by 1916, there were six art schools and about 600 artists and students spending summers there. During the last one hundred years, plenty of other art schools, artists and students came to Provincetown, and now there are over 60 art galleries in the town.

"The objects and purposes of this association shall be to promote and cultivate the practice and appreciation of all branches of the fine arts, to assemble and maintain in the town of Provincetown and environs a collection of works of art of merit, to hold exhibitions, and by forums, concerts and similar activities to promote education of the public in the arts and social intercourse between artists and laymen."
--Constitution and By-laws Provincetown Art Association & Museum

PAAM is a small art museum, with an eclectic assortment of art, including paintings, sculptures and other less categorizable pieces. They also have a few rooms where they conduct various art classes, continuing the tradition of Hawthorne. In addition, they hold a couple of art auctions each year.

I thought this tentacle sculpture outside of PAAM was fascinating, reminding me of Cthulhu or some other tentacled sea monster.

We also attended a cocktail reception at one of the art galleries, the Berta Walker Gallery This was an interesting visit as Berta was quite a character, as well as very knowledgeable about the history of artists in Provincetown. The artists she displays essentially all come from Provincetown and there is a wide diversity in styles and mediums. The fascinating piece above was done by Elspeth Halvorsen, who creates "box constructions." This one is called "The Whole World Is Watching" and deals with 9/11.

Another compelling sculpture.

"Perhaps it is the fantastic structure of the dunes, carved in intricate mouldings: some with smoothly rounded tops, others combed by unseen fingers, others running into spectral peaks, and still others with long, flat summits — weird sentinels, linked together by the most unstable and most resistless chains."
--Agnes EdwardsCape Cod: New and Old

My last visit to Provincetown was many years ago, when I was a teenager, and I still recall touring the dunes. I got to do so once again, with Art's Dune Tours, which has been family owned and operated since 1946. You have several different options, such as a one hour Daily Tour ($27) or two hour Sunset Tour ($43). Each vehicle holds 6-8 passengers, and the driver gives you an ongoing history and nature lesson as you drive through the dunes.

The dunes are not just miles of flat sand. There is plenty of varied vegetation as well as numerous hills and valleys. Who would have thought that you would even find cranberry patches in the dunes? Such beautiful scenery and I took many pictures.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the dunes are the dune shacks, primitive buildings, usually without electricity or running water. These shacks once were temporary residences for mariners, artists, writers, playwrights and others who wanted isolation and privacy. There are now around 19 dune shacks, though there once were many others. The government took control of them and destroyed many before they were convinced to maintain them for historical purposes.

A non-profit group now controls some of the shacks and rents them out, through a lottery system, and many artists vie for a spot though anyone can enter the lottery. They still generally lack electricity or running water.    

One afternoon we were supposed to check out the Tea Dance. Historically, a tea dance has its roots in France and England, and often was an early evening dance, often accompanied by tea and pastries. In the U.S., tea dances have become more casual, and in Provincetown, during the summer, they hold a daily Tea Dance at the Boatslip Resort. This is primarily an outside dance party and on the night we were supposed to go, it rained so very few people showed up for the party. On a normal night, this place would have been packed with people.

For the final scheduled event of the trip, we adjourned to the Crown & Anchor, a hotel, restaurant and entertainment complex. The restaurant, Central House at the Crown, provided us a good meal and then we went to a drag show at the Crown Cabaret and saw Dina Martina. I certainly didn't know what to expect, except that it would be a comedy. And it is somewhat hard to describe the show, a combination of jokes, songs, video and more. It was twisted, bizarre and extremely funny. The humor is going to appeal to most audiences and I would recommend that you check out another Dina show. You are sure to laugh plenty. Afterwards, we sat at the Piano Bar, sipping cocktails and enjoying our final evening in Provincetown.

It was a fun, enlightening and interesting time in Provincetown and I would like to return again in the near future to check out what I missed this trip. Put aside your preconceptions about Provincetown and check it out as a cool vacation destination, a place that caters to people of all types. Go for the food, the art, the history, the shopping, the beaches and more. Special thanks go to Anthony Fuccilllo and the rest of the staff at Provincetown Tourism Office for showing us the wonders of Provincetown.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Vacationing In Provincetown: Culture, Entertainment & Community (Part 4)

What is the essence of Provincetown?

This year, Fodor's placed Provincetown on its list of the 10 Best Small Towns in America while
the Smithsonian listed it as #10 of their Best Small Towns To Visit. Provincetown is garnering much deserved praise. I have previously discussed some of the reasons why I find Provincetown compelling and am back to provide even more reasons.

On our media trip, one of our first meetings was at the Provincetown Town Hall, where we learned a bit about the history of Provincetown, as well as about some of its sights, attractions, cultural aspects, and more. The town hall, which has the largest auditorium in the town, used to be located near the Pilgrim Monument, however, in 1877, the building was hit by lightning and burnt to the ground. In 1886, the new town hall, at its current location, was dedicated and has underwent some recent renovations.

Val Marmillion, a resident of Provincetown and the President of Marmillion + Co., a public relations firm, provided an intriguing overview of Provincetown. Obviously, as he works in public relations, you have to carefully consider his words, to separate the truth from the hype. After dealing with many PR people over the years, I have attained a good level of discernment as to what they tell me. With Val, I spent some time outside of this meeting talking with him, and it was clear that his passion for Provincetown is true. He seemed very honest and forthright, so I felt that much of what he said was authentic.

Val stated that Provincetown is a place where diversity is celebrated and promoted, that it is a town where it is not about how much you own, but it is about what you enjoy. It is a "created village" that is not hamstrung by "can't do." It is a progressive, liberal town that values freedom of expression and offers no apologies for its positions. Curiosity is important and each day is unpredictable. The showing of emotion is accepted and not suppressed. It is quaint, a town of pets and bicycles, of art and theater, of eco-tourism and a strong GLBT community.

Brian Carlson, manager at the department of Health & Environmental Affairs, discussed eco-tourism and poetically stated that Provincetown was "a floating sandbar in the middle of the ocean." The town sits on a sand bar, which is about 5000 years old, and has 21 miles of coastal shore line to explore. In the dune region, there are twenty dunes which are at least 100 feet in height. There are also 9 state recognized freshwater ponds, though Provincetown gets its fresh water from Truro. There is plenty of wildlife in the Provincetown region, a great place for birdwatchers. Go swimming, sit on the beach, hike through the dines, go bird watching, rent a kayak. If you want a more active, outdoor vacation, then you can consider Provincetown. Brian also mentioned that the largest environmental problem facing the town is handling waste water, trying to prevent it from flowing into the ocean, but that they are doing a very good job of handling this issue.

In addition, we met Doug Johnstone, the Town Clerk, who discussed the issue of same sex marriage. As Doug teared up while discussing this issue, it was clear how important it was to him, how proud he was of Massachusetts for leading the way on this matter of equality. With the recent Supreme Court decision on DOMA, this can be expected to become even more important. Back in 2003, there were only about 20 weddings held in Provincetown. In 2004, after Massachusetts legalized same sex marriage, there were 900 weddings held in Provincetown, more than any other Massachusetts community. Currently, about 350-400 marriages are conducted there each year, a significant economic boom to the town. People come from all over the country to come here to be married.

Afterwards, we explored some history by a visit to the Pilgrim Monument and Museum where our tour was conducted by John McDonagh, the Pilgrim Monument Executive Director. Construction of the monument, to honor the Pilgrims’ landing in Provincetown, began in 1907 and President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone. It was completed in 1910, and was dedicated by President William Howard Taft. The monument is 252 feet and 7.5 inches tall and is one of the first sights you see as you approach Provincetown by the ferry. Through 116 steps and 60 ramps, you can walk to the top of the monument for a great view.

The museum, located a short distance from the monument, is medium-sized and fascinating, with exhibits on the Pilgrims, Provincetown history, the fishing industry, theater, Arctic animals, Inuit items, Native American artifacts, and much more.

This is the town’s first fire engine, built in the 1830s by an apprentice of Paul Revere. There is also a small gift store at the museum where you can purchase souvenirs or books about Provincetown. I picked up a cool history of Provincetown, as well as an intriguing book about the origins of Cape Cod names.

We had an opportunity to take to the seas, as part of a Whale Watch excursion on one of the Dolphin Fleet boats. This company originated whale watching on East Coast and they run excursions, three to four hours in length, from April through October, from three to twelve trips per day. The basic cost for an Adult ticket is $44 and Children's tickets, aged 5-12, cost $29. Aboard, there is a galley where you can get food and drink.

A naturalist accompanies each trip and gives a lesson on whales and other sea creatures while the ship tours around seeking whales.

I enjoyed being on the boat, traveling the sea, though we saw few whales, probably only two. It is always an unknown when you board the boat whether you will see many whales or not. They are wild animals, not tame creatures in a pen. However, it is such a fascinating moment when you first see a plume of spray, noting the presence of a whale, and then see its fins or tail break the surface of the sea. Such majestic creatures, sure to instill wonder.

For a more low-key experience, you can check out the Provincetown Theater to see a play, maybe something modern and avant garde, or something more of an American classic, like a play by Eugene O'Neill. Provincetown is one of the originators of the Modern American Theater, and the Provincetown Players, which started in 1915, was one of the "little theaters" that sprouted up during this time period. They performed Eugene O'Neill's first play, Bound East For Cardiff, and would give fame to others too, such as Tennessee Williams. You can even attend the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival or the Provincetown International Film Festival

Provincetown has long been a favorite spot for artists or all types. For example, a number of writers have lived or worked in Provincetown, including Norman Mailer, John Dos Passos, Harry Kemp, Stanley Kunitz, Michael Cunningham, Wendy Kesselman, Paula Vogel and John Guare. Some of them spent their time in the isolated dune shacks, gaining privacy and quiet so that they could work. During some of my free time, I was even able to do some writing on the next Tipsy Sensei novel.

To Be Continued...

Friday, June 28, 2013

Vacationing In Provincetown: Dining & Drinking (Part 3)

Before going to Provincetown, I was immensely curious about its culinary scene, whether it would be a mass of tourist traps or instead whether it might offer some intriguing finds. The restaurant world in Provincetown is relatively small, with about 30+ seated restaurants and a number of more fast food/counter spots. You will find plenty of seafood and American fare, however you will also find diverse cuisine such as Thai, Japanese, Mexican, French and more. Forget McDonald's and Taco Bell, as you won't find any of those restaurant chains in Provincetown. In fact, the only chain that you will find is Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, and that really isn't a typical chain anyways.

Overall, I enjoyed plenty of delicious food in Provincetown, at high end restaurants as well as small cafes. Many of these places would be welcome additions to the culinary scene of Boston. Besides the food, I was pleasantly surprised by the wine lists, which were far more diverse and interesting than I expected. In fact, they were more diverse and interesting than some Boston restaurants I have visited. Wine prices were also generally lower than what you find in Boston. Though I only scratched the surface of the culinary world in Provincetown, I was impressed by what I found and want to explore it more, maybe at the Food & Wine Festival in October.

On our first day, we began with a cocktail reception at the Harbor Lounge, located on Commercial Street and facing the ocean. A small lounge, I still was pleased at the diversity of wines available by the glass. They have a full bar and I chose to drink a Dark n' Stormy, with Goslings Black Seal Rum. We received a large platter of cheeses, meats, dips, crackers, grapes and more. Fresh, high quality and tasty, this was a pleasant way to start off our evening. With a great view, this is a nice spot to stop by for a cocktail or glass of wine.

Our first dinner was at The Mews Restaurant & Cafe, which is co-owned by Ron Robin, who we met during dinner. Known as Rockin' Ron, he also works as a radio personality on Dunes 102.3 FM. The original location of the restaurant, in 1964, was discovered to have once been a stable, and the old English word for stable is "mews," hence the restaurant's name. In 1993, the restaurant was moved to its current location.

The upstairs area is for the bar and cafe, while the downstairs is the main dining area, though the downstairs is really at street level and you have a great view of the beach. All of the art and stained glass windows in the restaurant were created by local artists. Local carpenters also designed the tables and benches. The dining room has a cool and casual vibe, a homey place which will appeal to couples, families and groups.

The wine list is interesting, though I was especially impressed with their vodka list, which contains over 260 selections from all over the world. Who would have thought you would find such a vodka selection in Provincetown? I enjoyed a couple of vodkas, including a Chopin Rye and Belvedere Rye, which I had never tasted before. I could come here dozens of times, just to taste through the intriguing vodka list.

Executive Chef Laurence DeFreitas has worked for The Mews for 24 years and Ron mentioned that the chef seeks to create "flavorful food," and not "vanilla" cuisine. Despite his lengthy position at the restaurant, Chef DeFreitas is not dwelling in the past and his menu remains fresh and interesting, often relying on fresh and local ingredients. A number of the dishes have an Asian flair to them. The menu is divided into Starters ($10-$16), Salads ($9-$14) and Mains ($22-$35). Begin with a Starter like a Wild Boar Naan Pizza or a Tuna Sushi Tempura and move onto a Main like Mongolian Style Grilled Lamb Chops or Pork Vindaloo.

Some fresh bread to start the meal.

I began my meal with the Lobster Dumplings in a Miso Broth ($13), three plump dumplings in steamed shumai wrappers. Each dumpling was filled with fresh lobster meat, ginger, scallions, and oyster & sherry sauces. The dumplings skins were just firm enough and the interior had plenty of sweet and flavorful lobster, enhanced by the umami of the savory miso broth. An excellent starter.

A Special that evening was a Venison Carpaccio dish, topped by thin sliced cheese. Though I didn't taste it, it looked fantastic and the person who ordered it enjoyed it very much.

I continued with The Wedge ($10) a salad of baby romaine, topped by cracked black pepper & Parmesan vinaigrette strewn with pancetta crumbles. Fresh romaine with lots of salty pancetta and a very pleasant vinaigrette. Simple but tasty.

For my entree, I selected the Shaking Beef ($31), a Vietnamese inspired dish with chunks of beef tenderloin, wok sautéed with scallions and red onions over watercress with a lime black pepper dipping sauce. Very tender beef, with a compelling sauce and a minor bit of heat. There was plenty of tenderloin and I definitely would recommend this dish. Everyone was very happy with their own dishes too. The Mews was a winner!

For lunch the next day, we stopped at the Patio American Grill & Cocktail Bar, which is also located on Commercial Street. It serves plenty of seafood dishes, New England cuisine, and sandwiches. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as a wide range of cocktails and wines. I enjoyed a glass of Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace Brut Rose with my lunch.

We sat on the outside patio, allowing us to people watch everyone walking down Commercial Street. It was a fine, sunny day so this was a great spot for a leisurely lunch.

We started off our lunch with The Monument ($88), a large seafood sampler, which can easily feed four people, and includes 12 oysters, 6 littleneck clams, 6 jumbo shrimp, snow crab claws, shrimp ceviche and a whole chilled lobster. I gorged myself on this very fresh seafood, including the huge, plump shrimp and sweet lobster. The ceviche was also quite tasty, with nice citrus and spice notes. If you want a piece of New England, the seafood in this dish will give it to you.

After that, I tried the Corn Chowder ($8.95) with lobster, tarragon and chili oil. This seemed to me to be more like a bisque than a chowder as the corn was essentially liquified. However, it tasted good, with a strong corn flavor complemented by sweet lobster and the hints of heat from the chili oil. For my main dish, I went with another New England dish, the Fried Ipswich Clams with fries. Plump clams, with a clean, crunchy coating certainly hit the spot.

I wasn't going to have dessert, but they brought us a couple dishes anyways, including a Strawberry Shortcake ($8.95). This was a superb dish, with fresh whipped cream, sweet berries and a soft, fresh cake. I probably could have devoured this entire dish by myself.

After a whale watch, we made a brief sojourn to The Purple Feather Cafe & Treatery, where you can find lunch, gelato, desserts, chocolate and more. It is owned and operated by Peter and Ann Okun, year round residents, and Ann has about 25 years of chocolate making experience. The Purple Feather has gone beyond just chocolate, selling a wide range of enticing sweets.

There are lots of intriguing chocolate concoctions, like the tasty Sweet & Salty Coconut Pretzel, a crispy pretzel dipped in caramel and chocolate, and then covered in toasted coconut. I thought the components were well balanced, especially as I am a fan of the combo of sweet and salty. The Chocolate Bacon contains thick sliced bacon covered in dark chocolate, providing more of that delicious sweet/salty combo.

They also have an assortment of Gelato and Sorbetto, which you can have in a bowl or cone, in a shake/smoothie, or between two cookies of your choice.

That evening, after a tour of the dunes, we went down to one of the beaches for a traditional New England Clambake. It was a beautiful evening, though a bit chilly for some, though we had a fire set into the sand. The clambake was catered by Ptown Parties, and they did an excellent job in arranging the event, as well as providing plenty of delicious food. For example, they had blankets for everyone, in fact two per person, so that you had one blanket to lay down atop the sand and another to wrap around yourself if you were chilly.

We began with bowls of Clam Chowder, and frankly it was one of the best chowders I have had in quite a while. It was the right consistency (not too thick or thin, just creamy enough), full of flavor, and contained plenty of tender clams. I enjoyed it so much that I had multiple bowls. Next up were Littleneck Clams, sauteed with onions and linguica, in a wine broth. Again, this was another delicious dish, the linguica adding a nice element to the clams, and I once again had multiple portions of these clams. Sitting on the sand beside a fire, with the ocean a short distance away, and eating these clams was just such a New England thing.

The main dish was Steamed Lobster, though they were accompanied by jerk chicken, roasted potatoes, grilled veggies, and jalapeno corn bread. A smorgasbord of culinary tastes. I am generally not a fan of eating a whole lobster at a restaurant cause it can be very messy, and water can squirt out when you try to crack open the lobster, and sometimes it shoots where you don't want it to go. But in the fire-lit darkness, such problems become much less visible, and you can dig into the shells of your crustacean. With the briny smell of the ocean as a background, the sweet lobster meat tasted even sweeter.

The cost of such a clambake is roughly $62.50 per person, with an added cost for the staff, dependent on the number of people at the clambake. There are plenty of extras you can order as well. In addition, they have a more budget option, for only $47.50 per person. For this type of event, and the quality of the food, I think the prices are reasonable. We had plenty of delicious food, and the setting and experience are quite memorable. If you want a true New England experience, then you have to have a beach side clambake.

We even had two coyotes stop nearby us on the beach, wanting to join our clambake, but they simply watched us from afar.

The next morning, I was on my own for breakfast, and after receiving a couple recommendations, I chose to eat at Cafe Heaven, which turned out to be an excellent choice. It is a small, casual spot, with windows looking out on Commercial Street. Their breakfast menu has plenty of the usual offerings, with some of their own more unique items, from homemade English muffins to linguica. Everything is reasonably priced too.

On the walls, you will find a number of breakfast and lunch specials. I tried the linguica, a large piece of a slightly spicy and flavorful Portuguese sausage. The homemade English muffins were also very good, with plenty of nooks and crannies for butter, and the consistency of the bread was just right. They are larger than the typical English muffins you buy at the grocery store.

For my main dish, I went with one of the specials, Corn Bread French Toast. It sounded so enticing, and I had never seen any other restaurant make this dish, so I had to try it, hoping for the best. Well, it was superb! The corn bread was thinly sliced, moist and with a delicious, sweet corn flavor. This would have been delicious corn bread on its own. Adding the eggy batter to its grilled goodness, enhanced and elevated this dish and I was extremely happy that I had ordered it. It had no faults and I would love to see other restaurants trying this as well.

The recommendations for Cafe Heaven were spot on, and I add my own hearty recommendation for this restaurant.

For lunch, we dined at a small casual spot, Lucky Dog Ptown, which primarily sells gourmet hot dogs and lobster rolls. They sell ten different hot dogs, the the hot dogs are made from their own special recipe. You can get your dog ($4.95-$10.95) topped with items like chili, mac n' cheese, slaw, bacon, baked beans and more. There are six different lobster rolls ($15.95-$19.95), made with simple mayo or butter, or topped by items like bacon or mac n' cheese. You'll also find a few other sandwiches, from pulled pork to sausage, as well as sides, such as baked beans, potato salad and chili.

I went with the Bacon & Blue Dog ($7.95), with smoked bacon & blue cheese and wasn't disappointed. The meaty dog went well with the crunchy, smoky bacon pieces and the tang of the blue cheese well accented the meats. You really need a fork to eat these dogs as they are so full of toppings that it is too difficult to just pick up and eat. Everyone else also enjoyed their dogs or lobster rolls and I would return here in a heart beat. A simple menu, they invest their passion in the items they create and it comes out in a well-made and delicious product. Highly recommended.

I thought these plastic utensil dispensers were so cool! Rather than have a cup filled with plastic utensils, where everyone can be touching them, these dispensers help keep the utensils more sanitary. You just dispense the utensils that you need, and never touch any others. Would love to see these used in many more restaurants.

On my own, I also stopped at the Provincetown Portuguese Bakery, which not only is a bakery but also serves breakfast and lunch. With Tibor Bago as the main chef, the bakery sells a variety of appealing Portuguese pastries, breads and more, and they all look enticing. I had to order the Malassada, a type of Portuguese donut which resembles fried dough, and it was well worth it, especially if they are still warm. It is far better than a carnival fried dough, being lightly sweet with a great, flaky pastry. This is a must stop if you visit Provincetown!

If you are a food and drink lover, then you should consider Provincetown as a culinary destination. From a killer Portuguese bakery to a voluminous vodka list, from a hearty tower of fresh seafood to a a unique French toast, you will find plenty to appeal to your palate.

Mews Restaurant & Cafe on Urbanspoon
Patio American Grill & Cocktail Bar on Urbanspoon
Purple Feather on Urbanspoon
Cafe Heaven on Urbanspoon
Provincetown Portuguese Bakery on Urbanspoon