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A Family Afar: An Underwhelming History Lesson in Cape Cod

When columnist Jon Bailey takes his family to New England, the educational aspect becomes diluted


Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

Given the recent election and all the “teachable moments” that came with it, we thought it was a good time for a family sojourn to the Northeast to visit those patriotic places from which our great country sprang. New England, its colonies, our Founding Fathers... “It’ll be way better than those history lessons in school,” we told the kids. “A trip to Boston and its surrounds will bring the story of our nation to life before your very eyes!”

Those very eyes rolled at the thought of an “educational” vacation.

After some quick thinking on our part, the trip was rebranded as a Cape Cod beach adventure, with a few notable sights thrown in for good measure. Sandy white beaches and warm water seemed alluring as we showed the girls photos of lighthouses and sand dunes dotted with picket fences. The eye rolling turned to bright smiles as thoughts of bikini shopping and saltwater taffy danced through their heads.

Determined to hit the points of interest in between lazy beach days, bicycle rides, homemade ice cream, and daily lobster rolls, Triton and I found ingenious ways to weave history into the fun. For example, we took a drive to the other coast one day “to see if the ocean was different on that side of the cape,” and just so happened upon Plymouth Rock. Surprise!

And what a surprise it was. I grew up imagining Plymouth Rock as one of those hyper-historical, must-see points of interest. This rock signifies the touchstone of what would become our great nation, and its story is one we have all been told since we were wee tykes.

Having said that, visiting it in person is pretty underwhelming. Plymouth Rock is, in fact, about the size of a sleeping cow—hardly the epic Rock of Gibraltar monolith I was expecting. It was so small that Sophia and Ava gave it a passing nod, peering down with a mere glance on their way to the concessions stand. And frankly, it screams out for more. I guess we just like things big in America.

Plymouth Rock is, in fact, about the size of a sleeping cow—hardly the epic Rock of Gibraltar monolith I was expecting.

Another point of interest that didn’t quite meet expectations was the Mayflower II, a full-scale replica of the original vessel that carried our famous Pilgrims to the New World. And man, was it tiny—no windows, no toilets, cramped sleeping quarters. We couldn’t quite believe this was the same size ship that carried 132 Pilgrims and all their earthly belongings 2,750 miles across the Atlantic. It would have had any modern-day traveler gasping for air. This, the girls joked, was the colonial equivalent of flying on Southwest.

Yet we still felt a surge of patriotism as we posed for touristy photos with the ship in the background.

By the time we forged on to Boston, our sneaky history lessons became more obvious. We loved walking the streets where battles were fought, American leaders were made famous, and there was evidently some ruckus about a bunch of tea.

Back on a tiny boat in Boston Harbor, we witnessed a historical reenactment of the Boston Tea Party with actors playing some of the meatier parts. It was fun to get caught up in the significance of these places and points in history—even the kids commented with excitement, “Oh, I remember this from school. It didn’t sound like any tea party I’d ever been to!”

And in that moment, all was right with the world. A real-life experience in New England had been connected to a history lesson back in San Diego, complete with factual recall and some color commentary thrown in.

Maybe you don’t need to label something educational in order to learn from it, after all.

Jon Bailey pens the travel blog 2dadswithbaggage.com. jonjonbailey

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