The dunes of Cape Cod have drawn writers, artists and musicians for years. It’s desolate beauty has inspired some of our most well known songs and movies. The best way to visit the dunes is with Arts Dune Tours out of Provincetown.
Arts Dune Tours has been in business for 75 years. It began with founder Arthur Costa offering a taxi service from P-town out to the dune shacks. Now protected by the National Park Service, Art’s Dune Tours is the only company to get a yearly permit to drive through the dunes.
I booked our tour over the phone. There are several times throughout the day to choose from (at time of booking our offerings were 10 am, 11:30 am, 1:30 pm and 3 pm). The daily tours last one hour. Tours run rain or shine from mid May to November 15th.
There are also sunset tours that last two hours. Add-on experiences such as clambakes, kayaking and a tour of Race Point Light can be arranged.
Our dune tour left right from the center of Provincetown. The four-wheel-drive Suburbans have air-conditioning and comfortably fit up to 6 people. It is basically a private tour because you will only be with your group. Our driver had a negative covid test that day and there was plexi glass between the driver and the rest of the car.
Children of all ages are welcome on the tours. If you want your child in a car seat, you will have to bring your own as they are not provided. Otherwise, the kids can just use a seatbelt or sit on a parent’s lap.
Our tour was jam packed with history from the moment we got in the car. We saw what was left of the life-saving station whose mission it was to help survivors of shipwrecks in the late 1800’s. One time it took two attempts to get up and over the tallest dune which was close to 100 feet tall.
The landscape of the dunes is really unique. The enormous sand deposits were left behind when Ice Age glaciers receded. The peaks and valleys rise and fall like waves and the grass is beautifully windswept. Any refuge from the wind allows a tree to take root, yet it will grow sideways. It is hard to believe that anything could survive in that desolate of a habitat.
We stopped at the top of one of the dunes from a 10 minute break and were able to take photos.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour was learning about the dune shacks and the visitors who sought out the isolation of the dunes to let their creativity flow.
History of the dune shacks
Provincetown has always been an artistic community and people seeking inspiration began heading out to the dunes.
In 1920, people began using the scraps of shipwrecks and parts of the old life-saving station to build shacks.
Tennessee Williams wrote a Street Car Named Desire from his shack and it is said that Marlon Brando walked through the dunes shouting “STELLA!” in an attempt to audition for the role.
The shacks have hosted great minds such as Henry David Thoreau, Jack Kerouac, Eugene O’Neill, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Norman Mailer, Mark Rothko, and E.E. Cummings, to name a few.
Can you stay in a dune shack?
The easy answer is yes, but you will have to fight for it. There are week-long residence opportunities for artists, musicians and writers. A non-profit in Provincetown helps the NPS with the stays for the summer residency programs. The would-be residents must apply, and are chosen by jury selection or by lottery.
There are still 19 dune shacks remaining. These primitive shacks have never been wired with electricity or running water. You will have a bare wooden shack with an outhouse. It may come prepackaged with mice. There is no coming and going. You will be delivered to your shack and your ride will return a week later. With that said, those who have experienced the dune shacks claim it to be an existential experience.
What does Arts Dune Tour cost?
Number of People Per Truck- (There is a minimum price for 1-4 people)
1-4 people $140.08
5 people $175.10
6 people $210.12
Are the dune tours harmful to the environment?
No, they are not. This was a worry of mine before the tour. We only drove on the fire access road that is there to reach the shacks. You won’t be off-roading willy nilly, ripping up the dunes or crushing piping plovers. The company has to apply for a permit each year, so access is very regulated. The vehicles they use are outfitted with special fat tires that don’t damage the fragile dune ecosystem.
Are the tours dog friendly?
No, dogs are not allowed in the vehicles.
Taking a dune tour with Arts Dune Tours is a really unique experience you won’t find anywhere else in the world. We learned a lot about the history of the area and had fun doing it. We would highly suggest checking it out. Growing up, we visited P-town almost every summer but never left the main street. Provincetown has so much more to offer than shopping. Our other favorite experience was visiting Long Point.
In closing, I will leave you with the lyrics of Rupert Holmes Piña Colada Song, so that it will be stuck in your head as it has been in mine.