By EILEEN OGINTZ
Every summer, customers arrive at Four Seas Ice Cream, with their kids and grandkids, looking for more than a big cone of homemade chocolate chip or fresh strawberry. They’re chasing decades-old vacation memories.
“It’s a lot of fun to see them come in,” said Dick Warren, a retired high school English teacher who has been running one of the oldest ice cream shops in New England for more than 30 years in the small village of Centerville, Mass. “Sometimes they tell us we’re the first place they come on their first trip to the cape in years.” (Visit the Web site at www.fourseasicecream.com.)
Warren goes out of his way to employ the high school-aged kids of his former young scoopers. They work hard, too, dishing up as many as 2,000 cones a day. “Sure, the cape is bigger than it used to be,” said Warren, now in business with his son Doug. “But people still come here for the same reasons.”
The 15 towns strung along 70-mile-long Cape Cod — from Bourne to Yarmouth to Wellfleet to Provincetown — have long attracted family vacationers who come for the cool ocean breezes, miles of beach, and the never-ending water sports: sailing, fishing, canoeing, along with mini golf, summer theater, and concerts. Others come, too — artists for the spectacular light and vistas; gay couples for the tolerance.
Many families settle in at the beach for the summer. For Marian Oost-Lievense, it’s a family tradition: She used to spend summers there with her parents, now she shares the experience with her children. Others come for a week or two, renting a cottage or motel efficiency unit, more than doubling the population to 500,000, often renting the same place. “We look forward to seeing the same families every year,” said Oost-Lievense.
No wonder savvy cape-goers sew up their rentals by February. But with about 35,000 rooms available, there’s usually something to be had at the last minute, even for under $100 a night, Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Elaine Perry said. (For the latest availability, check the Chamber of Commerce Web site at http://www.capecodchamber.org or  33-CAPECOD.)
But this is one place where the crowds seem to be part of the fun — as long as you’re not stuck in a traffic jam, trying to get home on a Sunday night. “And even at its worst, it’s not like being in a big theme park,” said Jeff Heth, who with his wife, Mary, produces the free “Kids on the Cape” guide to fun in and out of the sun. (Visit http://www.kidsonthecape.com or order the 130-page book by sending $3 to cover shipping to Kids on the Cape, P.O. Box 1341, Orleans, Mass. 02653.)
“Wherever you go here, you’re going to see people with kids,” said Heth. “The kids never get bored. We never have to plan anything for them to do because there are so many kids around,” added Oost-Lievense, who lives in Connecticut.
Cape Cod is that archetypal American summer-vacation experience — a place with more than 30 miles of pristine beaches and small friendly towns, where there’s always a pickup game of something going on nearby. “I never get tired of it,” said Heather McClurg, who grew up there and is glad she recently moved back to Massachusetts so she’ll be able to bring her children more often. Her family’s favorite outing: exploring the salt marshes, net in hand, hunting for hermit crabs and other sea critters. “The kids are learning so much and don’t even know it,” McClurg said.
Don’t forget your bike helmets — they’re mandated by law for kids in Massachusetts. You can rent bikes and bike trailers, and there are bike trails everywhere, including the famous Cape Cod Rail Trail that stretches 40 miles from Dennis to Wellfleet through marshes and cranberry bogs.
Of course, there is plenty here to learn about, too, if you’re so inclined. Take the Pilgrims. Bet the kids didn’t know the Pilgrims spent a month in Provincetown before deciding to settle in Plymouth. This summer, in fact, the Mayflower replica will sail from Plymouth to Provincetown to celebrate that little-known bit of history.
“People miss a lot about the cape if they just come for the beaches,” said Dave Spang, a park ranger and naturalist at the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Head out from Provincetown to watch whales at Stellwagen Bank, the National Marine Sanctuary. Explore the dunes, dissect a frozen squid, or watch a reenactment of an old-fashioned sea rescue, complete with the line being shot from a cannon, with the rangers at the visitor centers for the Cape Cod National Sea Shore. (There are visitor centers both in Eastham and Provincetown. Visit www.nps.gov for family activities or call  255-3421.) Or, check out a lighthouse — there are 13 on the cape.
You could also take in a baseball game. The young players in your family won’t want to miss the Cape Cod Baseball League. The 12-team league, in its 115th season, is known as a training ground for promising college players from around the country. The schedule is posted everywhere.
Learn how potato chips are made at the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory in Hyannis ( 790-3900 or http://www.capecodchips.com). Or sign up the budding scientists in the family for a daylong camp at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History ( 896-3867 or http://www.ccmnh.org).
“Watching the seals get fed is the biggest attraction in town,” joked Dave Radosh, director of the free Woods Hole Aquarium that is part of the National Marine Fisheries laboratory -495-2000 or http://www.nefsc.nmfs.gov).
But be forewarned: As long as the sun shines, the kids won’t venture far from the beach. Explained Oost-Lievense: “Everything they need is right there.”