Give me a P-town (Elle)

I’m convinced that Provincetown is how the whole world would look if gay men were in the majority. No one uses a front door key, the front gardens are a riot of wisteria, and there’s a catwalk of a main thoroughfare with a lot of al fresco dining and small dogs. This outermost tip of Cape Cod in North America is artsy, cliquey, flirtatious and up for a good time. It’s free from corporate coffee chains and golden arches, but it does have a Marc Jacobs.

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Michael Cunningham is the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Hours and one of the town’s most high profile part time residents. I’m sitting with him on an idyllic July afternoon on the rear deck of his beach house in the east end. He’s taking time out from working on his Dusty Springfield screenplay, a project that he’s juggling with duties on a new novel. ‘This place is like high school but with all the horrors removed,’ he says. ‘It’s a high school that values eccentricity.’ Cunningham has been decamping from New York to P-town (as it’s commonly known) during the summer for years. He first came here, like many writers, to find solitude, but found something much more amongst its bohemian denizens. ‘This place feels profoundly like home, in a way I’ve not felt since I was a child,’ he says, before recalling one of the typically offbeat dinner parties he’s hosted, involving John Waters, Patty Hearst and the late Norman Mailer. ‘A mad tea party if you will – although Norman was entirely lovely and harmless in his dotage. It was difficult to imagine him throwing any of his wives out of windows.’

My visits to Provincetown over the past few years have been to spend time with one of my oldest friends, Elissa,  who has taken to summering here with her not-quite-urban family.  She spends her time gardening, beachcombing and taking pictures of the dunes and the abandoned airforce base in neighbouring Truro. ‘This is what we call the Secret City,’ she says, guiding me through the woods and gesturing to rows of spooky derelict cottages through the trees. The roads on which they stand are cracked with weeds, while iconic American fire hydrants rust on corners, on standby for a blaze that will never come.

From here we drive to Race Point to watch the sun set over the sea. Families are packing up their picnics on the soft sand while a few heads bob up and down in the scarlet-streaked azure waves. We watch a sea eagle swoop down and land on the shore before evening takes us away, past the drag queens outside the town hall flyering for the evening cabaret, to Whaler’s Wharf and to Ross’ Grill for filet mignon and Oregonian Pinot Noir.

This coastline has a rich pedigree in American visual arts – its dramatic Atlantic land- and seascapes and the much talked-of ‘Cape Light’ inspired Mark Rothko and Edward Hopper in their day, while the filmmaker John Waters lives from May to August in the house of Pat de Groot, who has spent her entire career painting the sea view from her balcony, each canvas radically different from the next by virtue of the light. ‘Sometimes, when the full moon is out, it’s like a Lichtenstein painting of a moon on water, or a calendar in a barber’s shop,’ says the cult filmmaker as we walk on the beach behind de Groot’s rambling grey-tiled house. ‘I sit on my balcony and I feel like I’m on a boat in a Fellini movie.’ Waters, who exhibits and sells his photographic work through the Albert Merola Gallery on Commercial Street, has been coming here on and off for 44 summers. ‘I lived with Mink Stole and Divine and we premiered my early moves, Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, here. It’s always been bohemian and eccentric. People say it’s changed, but I feel like if I dropped a piece of paper out front at the end of one summer, it’d still be there when I get here the next spring.’ Waters is a fixture of P-town, and we’ve all seen him cycling determinedly, nay recklessly, down Commercial Street on his Pee Wee Herman boneshaker. Like a lot of [visiting] artists he uses his time here to work on new projects undisturbed, but he’s still a committed hedonist, and hosts frequent parties at Enzo’s restaurant in the west end of town. ‘Monday to Friday I get up at 6am and write, then I go for a swim at 1pm, go for a bike ride and then dinner. But on Friday night I go out partying. I’m a coal miner with a pay cheque.’

Every June, some of Hollywood’s more maverick power players arrive for the Provincetown International Film Festival. Last year Quentin Tarantino joined Waters and other P-towners at the event, which centred around makeshift screening rooms off Commercial Street and at a 1957 drive-in theatre in nearby Wellfleet. Now, I’d be hard pushed to think of a worse environment in which to catch all the subtle visual nuances of a movie, but the drive-in experience is a glorious overdose of retro Americana. I queue up with Elissa to pay for my random oddments of deep fried carbohydrate, grape soda and buttered popcorn and head back to her car, with its small pieces of driftwood and dried seaweed across the dashboard, remnants of afternoons spent doing not much at all along the Cape. As an eerie sea-mist rolls across the parking lot, I hang a knackered-looking ’50s metal speaker on the passenger seat window and try to make out Christian Bale in his Batsuit through the fog. I feel like I should have a quiff and a biker’s leather jacket.

Much of P-town is a New England timewarp, from the colourful saltwater-taffy shops near the pier, to the vintage bookshops and Adams Pharmacy, a 19th century drugstore. This is where the pilgrims first landed, before moving on to Plymouth: in many ways it’s where America began, although that thin stretch of water between P-town and Boston is oceans wide in terms of lifestyle and politics. There’s nowhere else in the States where chic weekending New Yorkers holiday with families, bears, indie kids in drainpipe denim and the generally, certifiably, potty. At Herring Cove there’s the ‘boy beach’, then to the right of that the ‘girl beach’, then the ‘everybody beach’. It’s a Catholic mix, but the Pope wouldn’t approve.

I have a P-town friend, Nicole, who waitresses at the Beachcomber, a barefoot beach bar along the coast at Wellfleet that does a mean frozen margarita and attracts the kind of crowd that wouldn’t look out of place in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue – blonde, toned and shiny boys and girls. A US magazine recently voted it the ‘sexiest bar in America’. Nicole, who looks part Flemish Baroque Rubens and part Bruce Weber model, was interviewed for the Travel Channel after the story came out. ‘They asked me why I thought it was so sexy in here,’ she tells me as I squeeze lemon into my freshly-shucked oyster. ‘I said maybe it’s because people come in here not wearing many clothes.’

Despite what I’d assumed before first visiting P-town, this isn’t a place for nightlife. Everything shuts down at 1am, even if the party often continues outside Spiritus Pizza on the main drag. I don’t rate their pizza much, but the gossip and the flirting in the queue is first-rate. I sent a friend into the throng ahead of me one night for a slice of pepperoni and five minutes later saw him through the window, snogging the face off a stranger at the head of the queue. While there’s an enormous amount of fun to be had in the sillier bars along Commercial Street, I think the best of Provincetown is to be found in daylight hours – whale watching, climbing to the top of the Pilgrim Monument for views across both coastlines, or driving through the rosehip bushes and remote artists’ and writers’ shacks (one of them formerly Norman Mailer’s) across the sand in one of Art’s Dune Tours buggies. My favourite thing to do in P-town is simply to walk around and enjoy the colourful wooden architecture and the gardens full of curios that remind me so much of Dungeness in Kent – picket fences adorned with scavenged brightly-coloured bottles, weathered driftwood and fishing ephemera, all strung together like voodoo totems. There’s something of the spirit of the English seaside village in P-town, right down to the dips in the bracing Atlantic. With its distinct social seasons – wild and mobbed in summer and then desolate long before the first snowfall – it’s perhaps better to think of it as more of an underground Hamptons. If I didn’t know people here to stay with, I’d have to book a year ahead to get a summer rental, or six months in advance for a hotel room. Very few people stay after the season is over: even if the weather didn’t disintegrate, the people probably would. ‘In May, everyone’s thinking that they’ll fall in love or get rich,’ says John Waters as he straddles his bicycle, bound for Commercial Street. ‘In August they either did or they didn’t. And that’s when the melodrama happens. So it’s time to go. But of course, I still look forward to coming here every year.’

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WHERE TO STAY

The Crowne Point Historic Inn & Spa, 82 Bradford Street, enq

508 487 2365; http://www.crownepointe.com. Doubles from £85.

The Red Inn, 15 Commercial Street, enq 508 487 7334; www.redinn.com. Doubles from £85.

Masthead Resort, 31-41 Commercial Street, enq 508 487 0523, capecodtravel.com/masthead. Doubles from £75

WHERE TO SHOP AND WHAT YOU SHOULD BUY

There are Provincetown-branded exclusive Marc bags and T-shirts amidst the thrifty accessories at Marc by Marc Jacobs, 184 Commercial Street, enq 487 0723.

The design store at the Schoolhouse Gallery (494 Commercial Street, enq 487 4800) has some unique jewellery and interior objects, rather like a mini MoMA.

Michael Cunningham hosted a Comme-style guerrilla store last year at MAP (141 Commercial Street, enq 508 487 4900), the coolest boutique in town. Shop for luxe denim, art books and meat cleaver silver jewellery.

Marine Specialities (235 Commercial Street, enq 508 487 1730) is a mad curio-packed must-see in its own right, selling everything from army surplus to diving suits and first class airline cabin condiment sets.

John Derian (Law Street, enq 508 487 1362) is the Massachusetts outpost of the New York decoupage king’s empire. Come for all kinds of glass interior pieces, adorned with antique paper imagery.

WHERE AND WHAT TO EAT

Breakfast, whether bircher muesli or a French toast binge, is as good as dinner at Edwige (333 Commercial Street, enq 508 487 2008) while the sushi at Saki at John Dough (258 Commercial Street, enq 508 487 7776) is as leftfield as the clientele – strawberry and mango top the salmon maki rolls.

The people-watching is on par with the lobster mac and cheese at Patio (328 Commercial Street, enq 508 487 4003), while Victor’s is one of the few dressy dinner places in town. Order the BBC oysters or deconstructed Ahi Tuna.

Ross’ Grill (237 Commercial Street, enq 508 487 8878) has the best red wine list in town to accompany its steaks, while the raw bar at the Wellfleet Beachcomber (1120 Cahoon Hollow Road, enq 508 349 6055) produces a fantastic sesame encrusted seared tuna, and the live music and bar scene makes it the best straight hang out on the Cape.

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