The cross-dresser in a Bette Midler wig approached us in a bathtub on wheels.
Cruising down Commercial Street, Provincetown's main street (or, um, main drag), she was handing out fliers for her "Electra! Bathhouse to Broadway" show that evening. She wore a mermaid costume and heavy rouge — and, upon closer inspection, we saw that she was propped up in a mobility scooter covered in a tub-shaped drape filled with glass bubbles.
My travel companion and I were just a few hours into our excursion to the Cape Cod beach town, and already Electra barely made us pause.
The quaint town was awash with shingled cottages, blooming gardens, ice cream shops and vacationing families, but our stroll down the cobblestones suggested there was also something more. In our brief time there, we had seen men biking down the street in swimsuits that would make Michael Phelps' Speedos look conservative, and enough sexual innuendos — on signs, T-shirts, coasters, even wallpaper — to make an entire red light district blush.
If we weren't already aware when our ferry from Boston landed, our first day in town made it abundantly clear: Provincetown is the gayest place in America.
It is also one of the country's best beach-vacation destinations — for anyone.
At the northern curvy tip of the Cape, Provincetown is nearly surrounded by water and home to some of the most stunning beaches in the country. Restaurants are numerous, bustling and terrific. The artistic scene, with century-old roots, is thriving.
The town's lasting impression, however, comes from its spirit, and the feeling we got while staying there. With its abiding culture of personal freedom and societal acceptance, Provincetown just feels joyful, in a way that goes much deeper than a few coats of mascara.
Walk along the residential roads of Provincetown and the views will reinforce every New England stereotype. Blooming hydrangeas front gray shingled houses. Wooden boats bob next to wooden docks. Red brick sidewalks, white picket fences and bright blue skies mirror the colors of the American flags, flying everywhere. It's a Kennedy's paradise. The kind of place that makes you nostalgic for something you never had.
In the heart of Provincetown, though, the color scheme expands — from Americana to psychedelic. Here, the rainbow flag reigns, the gay pride symbol draped every couple of blocks or so across Commercial Street and in the windows of many shops and restaurants. Brightly painted storefronts reflect that image, forming rows of bright yellow, green, pink and orange.
An all-out party
Once a Pilgrim landing point, and the site where the Mayflower Compact was signed in 1620, the area became a haven for the LGBTQ community as far back as the 1920s, though the acronym had not yet been coined. As an arts colony and creative trailblazer — the city claimed the first school of American art and modern American theater — Provincetown became known for its avant-garde freedom and the absence of judgment. By the '70s, it had a significant gay population. These days, Provincetown has the highest rate of same-sex couples in the nation — 163 per 1,000 pairs, according to the 2010 census.
That history is celebrated with a constant, all-out party.
Performers parade the street daily, wearing their signature over-the-top gear. Drag queen "Scarbie" donned a tall hat and high heels and rode a pink bicycle. The "Male Call" bunch roamed around in an open-air Jeep wearing teeny red shorts and crop tops barely covering their chests.
A Disneyland for the gay community? Well, yes. But Provincetown is hardly a theme park.
Over the course of six days, we biked, we sunbathed, we sailed, we kayaked. We discovered shops selling a range of goods, from risqué bedroom gear to whales' teeth etched with mermaids and elaborate ships. We ate lobster rolls at beachside bars, drank pourover coffee at boxcar-sized cafes, ate dinner at restaurants — some in converted Victorian houses — that could be dropped into any major metropolitan area and still draw in droves.
Coffee on the beach
As the first few days of our weeklong trip flew by, we fell into a routine. Mornings were for eggs and toast at the house we rented and walking the beach with coffee. In the afternoons, we'd grab sandwiches from a nearby cafe and have a picnic on a boat or sandy beach. Back in town, we'd enjoy happy hour somewhere, often with a view — such as the Red Inn, an early 1900s masterpiece where one can order lumb crab and oysters at the bar, then linger over a glass of frosty rosé on the wraparound back porch that stretches out to the bay. Then it was back home to cook up whatever bounty we'd found that morning at the excellent local fish market, Mac's. Spicy sautéed shrimp, clams in broth, seafood flatbread, lobster spaghetti — we made it all.
After dinner, we advanced back out onto Commercial Street for a craft cocktail somewhere surprisingly posh — our favorite was Strangers & Saints with its garden patio and impressive dexterity at the bar and in the kitchen.
How could the place be at once so quaint and so cosmopolitan, so charmingly old-school yet impressively progressive?
Everywhere we went, we encountered smiles — and often some singing and dancing to boot. There was even a village pilgrim, an elderly man who dressed in 17th-century garb and walked around town clanging a large brass bell and proclaiming "Here ye, here ye, today is a great day."
On our second evening, we wandered down Commercial Street and happened upon the Crown & Anchor, where a crowd had piled around a handsome piano player who was singing the Turtles' "Happy Together."
Then everyone erupted in chorus together: "the only one for me is you, and you for me, so happy together!"
Is Provincetown the happiest place on Earth? It certainly seemed like it to me when taking cues from the tourists or the families or the barely dressed bikers or those on the drag sails (sailboat cruises), which were a regular occurrence.
The scenery is magnificent. Entertainment awaits on every block. The sun shines. The fish is fresh. And the entire town seems to exude the very spirit of inclusion.
In Provincetown, all types are welcome. And all types come.
One night, we wandered to the shore just beyond our rental home.
At around 9:30, we watched as a family descended from the dock, loudly clamoring at water's edge. The father figure waded into the bay and dragged in a small boat. The kids struggled to get on, but soon, they were off to sea.
Ten minutes later, we heard the revelry on a packed pontoon boat long before it charged at the shore and beached itself just a few feet from us. Its contents — eight or 10 youthful partyers — squealed as they spilled off the boat and onto the sand.
"Where's my shoe? I can't find my shoe," one woman announced.
"Can someone carry me?" a young man giggled. "I'm not getting wet."
The whole crew managed to evacuate, wearing only swimwear, their bare legs illuminated in the moon's glow. They left the boat where it was and headed toward the strip, their laughter echoing into the surf.
Amelia Rayno • 612-673-4115
Though one can drive to Provincetown, avoid traffic and a rental car by taking a 90-minute ferry from Boston on Bay State Cruise (baystatecruisecompany.com). Adult round-trip tickets are $89 (with discounts for children and seniors); the ferries run several times daily.