Washburn Island, Cape Cod

A trip to this secluded island is like summer camp for grown-ups.

Illustration: Melinda Beavers

The best way to experience Washburn Island, a sliver of land in Waquoit Bay on the Cape’s south coast, is with a seasoned local. But if you’re city-dependent and don’t know anyone in the area, fear not: the following tips will help even neophyte campers survive two nights of “roughing it.”

To guide us on our primitive beach camping trip, my husband, Scott, and I enlisted our friend and Falmouth, Massachusetts local Amy. In order to reach Washburn Island, we had to drive to Falmouth and then load our cheap Kmart tent and air mattress into Amy’s 14-foot motorboat; the island, home to 11 wilderness campsites, is accessible only by water. But its 330 acres of scrub pine and oak forest, barrier beaches and coastal salt ponds are a fine reward for those willing to make the trek. Naturephobes beware: Bathroom facilities are nearly nonexistent. There are just two solar-powered composting toilets—stocked, thankfully, with toilet paper.

After 20 minutes on the water, we reached our campsite: a narrow strip of beach with a short path meandering up to a tree-shaded clearing for tents. The bay was lapping at the shore, and in the twinkling sun it looked pretty idyllic. Know-it-all Amy chose to reserve two of the more secluded sites, and their penetrating stillness made it easy to forget just how close by civilization lurked.

Within minutes, the space was transformed into a proper camp, as we set up tents, grill stations and a makeshift bar made from coolers. Abundant rain encourages the local mosquito population, so we quickly sprayed ourselves with repellent and migrated to the beach. When all was done, Scott wondered aloud what we’d do on this tiny island for two days.

It’s a legitimate question: Part of the island’s beauty is that, with no running water, electricity or external human contact, there does seem to be nothing to do. It’s isolating—and more than a little shocking to someone accustomed to life in New York, where distractions abound.

But as it turns out, there’s plenty to do on Washburn, a fact the skillful locals in my midst—who continued to arrive during the night via sailboat, canoe and kayak—know well. We swam, snorkeled and hiked the island’s little maze of trails. On the beach we played Wiffle ball, bocce and Frisbee. We grilled sausages and drank premade dark ’n’ stormies. (Technically, alcohol is prohibited, but if you’re neat and discreet, no one will bother you.) We caught blue crabs after lunch (and ate ’em for dinner), fished for striped bass at dusk, and went clamming whenever the mood struck—which often meant wading in and digging for clams buried in the soft muck with our feet (a.k.a. doing the “clam dance”). The bucket of quahogs we collected this way tasted heavenly when grilled with a squeeze of lemon.

At night we gathered around our contained fire to roast s’mores and take swigs from a bottle of Jack, feeling a little like castaways—or maybe pirates. I was surprised to hear myself recount a tale about the striper that had gotten away the day before (okay, it was a bluefish). On the fire-flickered beach, with nowhere to go but a few yards to my tent, it seemed only natural.


Two nights, two people

Campsite cost (non-MA residents): $10/nightKayak rental: $99Shellfish license per person or family (non-MA residents): $50 (available at Falmouth Town Hall; 508-548-7611) Car rental (with estimated gas): $275+ Food & drink (estimated): $80

TOTAL: $524

Travel time: 4hr 30mins

Wise words from a Falmouth local

FOOD: “Always divvy up the meal responsibilities among pairs or groups. Bring foods that won’t spoil too quickly and keep them in containers that won’t shatter on the bumpy ride over. While you’re camping, anything can taste great when sprinkled liberally with adobo powder and fresh citrus.”

DRINKING WATER: “Bring at least a gallon per person per day—more if you’re doing a lot of cooking that requires water.”

ON RECREATION, especially Wiffle ball: “We all relax better when we play hard. Besides, you need to work up an appetite for the evening feast.”

ON SHELLFISHING: “Being able to literally dig up a meal from just in front of your campsite makes the days rich and fulfilling. It gets you in touch with your hunter-gatherer side.”

MISCELLANEOUS: “You’ll need: bug spray, sunscreen,ice, headlamps, bathing suit, marshmallows, lemons, hot sauce, first aid kit, camping chairs, camera, and old film canisters filled with seasonings like sugar, adobo, and salt and pepper.”