Chatham is a sunny little town tucked into the elbow of Cape Cod, some 40 miles from the mainland. Best known for its beaches and its historic lighthouse, Chatham is a sought-after vacation spot for affluent tourists. Its tony Main Street downtown area is awash in unique shops selling high-end clothing, home décor, fine art, antiques, and locally made crafts and gourmet foods.

It wasn't always this way. The ancestral home of the Monomoyick Native American people, Chatham, was visited and mapped by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1606, then settled by English colonists in the mid-1600s. The sleepy fishing village began to attract summer tourists in the mid-1800s, and by 1925 there were eight hotels operating in the coastal town.

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Today it's a haven for recreational boaters, anglers, kayakers, golfers, and beach-goers as it holds tight to its watery roots with a thriving commercial fishing harbor and a robust aquaculture industry that grows and harvests clams and oysters.

On a day trip to Chatham, visitors can experience the best of land and sea activities, all wrapped up in a world-class destination that still has a small-town feel. Public transit options are limited, so having a private vehicle will allow more flexibility on a visit to this seaside community.

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Chatham Has A Quaint Downtown And Plenty Of Beaches

A perfect day in Chatham might include breakfast and a shopping excursion in its quaint downtown, a few hours at a beach and/or on a guided boat trip, an inland hike, a stop at the spacious observation deck overlooking the bustling fishing harbor, and finally, a sumptuous dinner at one of the town's landmark eateries.

With 66 miles of shoreline on both the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound, Chatham has many beaches visitors can explore. Families with children will want to check out Cockle Cove Beach, where calm, protected water is perfect for youngsters and where adults can relax and enjoy the views of Nantucket Sound. Ditto for Hardings Beach, a bit farther east and offering the same tranquil waters. Both of these beaches have vehicle entry fees in summer.

Lighthouse Beach is the biggest and most popular of the Chatham beaches. Less than a mile from downtown, Lighthouse Beach, which is free to access, is great for walking and for its expansive Atlantic Ocean views. Visitors stand a good chance of seeing seals in the water, and their presence attracts sharks, so bathers beware. At the top of Lighthouse Beach, visitors can see Chatham Light, a 48-toot-tall lighthouse that dates to 1877 and is an active-duty U.S. Coast Guard station. Tours are offered during the summer months.

Visitors will find it easy to spend time on the water since a variety of private companies operate seal and harbor tours in small boats. From the harbor fishing pier, tourists also can take a beach shuttle that will drop them off on the town's barrier beach, directly across the harbor, where they'll find an uncrowded oasis with access to the Atlantic on one side and the protected harbor on the other.

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Some visitors might want to take a look at interior Chatham, and they can do so by walking one of the many trails managed by the local conservation group. A favorite is the mile-long Frost Fish Creek Trail, part of a 90-acre protected area of woodland and wetland. Cultivated gardens can be viewed at the Sylvan Gardens Conservation Area, a refuge for plants and wildlife offering several trails across 10 acres. Access to the conservation lands is free.

In Chatham, Most Lodging Choices Are High-End

Chatham is a destination for up-market tourists, and its largest and most popular resort, Chatham Bars Inn, is not for the budget-minded traveler. The luxury property, sitting oceanfront with a quarter-mile of private beach and offering 217 rooms and suites, has a full spa, several dining venues, private cottage accommodations, a heated oceanfront pool, and even has its own whale watch boat that can be chartered by guests. Summer rates start at about $700 per night, dropping to around $400 off-season.

Its top-tier restaurant is The Verandah, serving continental cuisine in elegant indoor and outdoor settings and offering dishes such as New Zealand Lamb, Atlantic halibut, and Yellowfin tuna.

Less expensive lodging options include The Chatham Wayside Inn, in downtown Chatham, where rates start at about $500 in summer, or the Chatham Highlander, offering basic rooms with mini-fridges and a heated pool, for about $300.

The town has several dining options for lunch and dinner that won't break the bank. The Chatham Squire, on Main Street downtown, is a classic pub-style eatery that serves burgers, sandwiches, and pasta dishes along with fresh-caught seafood from local waters. It has a lively bar scene, too, with live music performed by local bands during most of the year.

Another venue, the Chatham Pier and Fish Market, is a take-out eatery, but there are places for families and friends to sit and eat along the pier. It features a classic New England menu of clam chowder, seafood rolls, various fresh fish offerings, and shellfish, such as lobster and shrimp.

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The market is located just steps from a spacious observation deck, where visitors can see panoramic views of the harbor and watch commercial fishing boats returning from the sea to unload their catch while a multitude of seals follows nearby, waiting for a few caught fish to be accidentally dropped into the harbor.