Growing up, summer vacations on Cape Cod were a family tradition. My parents, brother and I would jump in the station wagon and make our way from Central Massachusetts to the Cape, where we’d convene with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents from all over the Northeast. Our week-long adventure would include the typical vacation staples of ice cream and mini-golf, souvenirs and endless beach days.
This was the mid-80s and during one of those trips, we explored the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore with Art’s Dune Tours out of Provincetown. We went the following summer, too, only this time at that magical time of day – sunset - when all seems right on the Cape.
The specifics of those tours escape me, but I do remember a feeling of pure joy and happiness, and of being immersed in a place of enormous beauty and wonder.
Fast forward more than 30 years later, and I found myself in a similar position as this summer came to a close – an Art’s Dune Tour with my mom, brother, six-year-old nephew, two aunts, and a family friend. We were led by our driver, Rob Costa, who has done this one-hour sightseeing trek countless times in his life.
Seventy-three years ago, it was his father Art, lovingly referred to as “King of the Dunes” on the company’s website, who started these trips to the Province Lands in a 1936 Ford Woody. Rob has proudly carried on his father’s tradition, taking locals and tourists on a serene escape from the eclectic buzz of Provincetown’s Commercial Street. In reality, it’s a mere 5-minute drive to an other-worldly land, featuring dunes that stretch up to 110-feet tall, the largest on all of Cape Cod.
We began our journey riding up and down the dunes in a Chevy Suburban that seats seven comfortably. It’s an unsettling feeling at first– as if we’re on a slow-moving rollercoaster – eliciting laughs of delight from my nephew Henry.
“Are we going to tip over?” I half-jokingly ask.
“What’s the one word we don’t use on these tours?” Rob responds, before answering the question. “Yes!”
Here on the farthest reaches of the Cape is an awe-inspiring place you just have to see to believe. This unspoiled stretch of sand and vegetation is what drew artists like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Annie Dillard and Jack Kerouac here for inspiration.
Rob highlights these literary heavyweights as we pass by several dune shacks – there are 19 in total – that dot the landscape. The earliest were built in the 1800s and the remaining ones are still in use today. “There’s no electricity or running water in them,” he says.
Among the other notables to visit were Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen in 1968 for the filming of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Rob’s father helped transport the film’s cast and crew, while his mom baked her famous coffeecake for McQueen, popularly known as the King of Cool.
As a tour guide, Rob wears several hats. He’s part historian, part geologist, part environmentalist. One minute he’s explaining how the Province Lands came to be, the next he’s discussing the types of plants and animals found here, and the importance of this unique landscape to America.
He’s also part-entertainer. At one point, he motions to an outhouse in the distance that he refers to as “the international house.” He tells us, “When you go in there, you’re Russian. When you’re in there, you’re European. And when you’re done, you’re Finnish.”
Rob is also a successful businessman, building upon the foundation that his dad started in 1946. The tours go far beyond the one-hour sightseeing excursion we went on. There are sunset tours, clambake/bonfire tours, lighthouse tours, a sunrise photography tour, and tours combined with kayaking, charter fishing, sailing or speed boating. There are also private tours for celebrating special occasions, including weddings, birthdays and reunions.
There’s a joy and excitement in Rob’s voice that shows just how passionate he is about the work he’s doing. He reveals an intricate tattoo on his left arm that features a dune shack situated on a dune surrounded by Rosa rugosa. “That’s my mom and my dad,” he says, pointing to two stars that are part of the piece.
When asked what he loves most about the tours, Rob says, “it never gets old. There are always different questions and a different appreciation. It is beautiful every day and I’m meeting new people. Everyone is in a good mood and I’m transporting people who have no idea this exists out here. This becomes a memory more than tour; it becomes a special memory of an event in people’s lives.”
Near the end of the tour, Rob stops and my family gets out. We take photos. I notice my small nephew Henry running and laughing in the sand. In 30 years, he may not remember the specifics of this day. But I’m almost positive he’ll remember the joy it made him feel.
Interested in learning more about Art’s Dune Tours? Tours run from April to the middle of November. Visit artsdunetours.com for more details or to book a tour.