There was more than a hint of September in the crisp blue sky as a massive white ferry boat glided into port at Woods Hole, Mass.
From my perch on the back patio at Pie in the Sky Café, on a bluff overlooking the harbor, I noshed on popovers and surveyed the stream of summer revelers trooping back from their Martha’s Vineyard vacations. They wore suntans and Black Dog sweatshirts and carted beach chairs, and all the cars went in the same direction: back to the city.
I had done the same thing for years, regarding the village of Woods Hole and its town of Falmouth as a mere way-station en route to the islands. Then one day, while waiting for the ferry, I found myself with time to kill. And I discovered a charmingly untouristy corner of Cape Cod that is part New England village, part world-class science center — with a liberal, intellectual bent and a culturally vital Jewish community.
Pretty and proper, Falmouth occupies a particularly convenient corner of the Upper Cape — just an hour east of Providence, mostly by highway. The town itself bears all the hallmarks of old New England, from a prim center green crowned by church steeples to streets lined with Colonial-era clapboard houses. The vibe along Main Street — lined with a pleasant mix of preppy boutiques, artisanal bakeries and upscale eateries — is youthful but not oppressively hip. An outdoor movie was playing in the park on the day I visited, and while couples filled outdoor patios for happy hour, families were spreading picnic blankets and savoring the breeze.
A few miles down the coast, Woods Hole has the rustic, windswept feel of a fishing village. I drove along the winding shore road through salt ponds, wild roses and jungle-like forest; off to the left, a barrier beach offers miles of golden sand along Vineyard Sound.
Along with the massive, bustling Steamship Authority ferry terminal, Woods Hole is dominated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) — the world’s largest private, nonprofit ocean research facility. A high concentration of Birkenstock-wearing marine scientists explains why this tiny seaside village has the lively feel of a college town. Cafés line the main street, offering fair-trade, organically sourced Sumatran coffee and fish tacos; ubiquitous flyers advertise yoga and meditation classes alongside lectures on Israel and global politics.
I was impressed at the quantity of Jewish-related activity evident in all these flyers, since (like a lot of small, somewhat remote New England towns) Falmouth just doesn’t have a very Jewish feel about it.
In fact, the lone congregation dates back just 33 years — yet here again the story has a distinctly New England twist, and a historical one at that. When a group of Jews decided to form what is today the Falmouth Jewish Congregation, the local East End Congregational Religious Society gifted the new group a circa-1797 building it had long stewarded: the East End Meeting House.
The congregation grew and added another building, but worship and events still take place in the renovated Meeting House — a shingle-sided chapel whose post-and-beam construction is an elegant example both of early American religious architecture and of interfaith goodwill. A contemporary film series, monthly musical Shabbat services and other events make this Reform temple a hub of cultural activity.
But most people come here to watch the boats and explore the North Atlantic environment. For the latter, there is no place better than Woods Hole: it was the Oceanographic Institute to which global media turned for expert commentary on the deep-sea search for the missing Malaysian airplane. There’s something charmingly incongruous about strolling Woods Hole’s country lanes and noticing that those quaint Colonial houses are actually research labs.
You can explore the whole complex — from the docks where marine-exploration vessels are parked to labs full of water tanks — in an hour-long guided walking tour, which WHOI offers year-round by appointment. Visitors can also drop into the Ocean Science Exhibit Center, WHOI’s public museum, where interactive exhibits feature deep-sea simulations, life in submersible vehicles, and shipwrecks including the Titanic. On Fridays at noon, the Institute invites the public for cookies, coffee and a brown-bag presentation on maritime matters.
All that water talk leads quite naturally to Woods Hole’s other big attraction, the Science Aquarium — about a 10-minute walk along the water from WHOI. Founded in 1885, the aquarium is the nation’s oldest, and operated by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The highlight here is an array of touch tanks where you can touch hermit crabs and starfish. And it’s weirdly entertaining to actually see live codfish, haddock, flounder and other fish I’m more accustomed to viewing breaded and fried.
Outside in the waterfront park, I sat by a monument to Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and environmental crusader, and watched the sun set over Nonamesset, one of the wild Elizabeth Islands just offshore. A ferry boat glided into the harbor, full of returning revelers: the end-of-summer ritual playing out once more.