On Island Time: Three Days in Nantucket
Last Thursday's fall equinox marked the official start of autumn, but for us, like many, it is Labor Day weekend that signals the change of the seasons. We savored the last days of summer on the island of Nantucket, a "wee elbow of sand" some thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Once known round the globe as the whaling capital of the world, her wind-swept beaches, charming cobblestone streets and storied maritime history have drawn visitors to her shores for nearly two centuries.
It was nearly a decade ago that we first set foot on Nantucket, newly married and with our shih-tzu Ralph in tow. Instantly charmed by her cobblestone streets, natural beauty and tradition of warm hospitality, we soon fell in love with this enchanting island. In the years that have passed since that very first visit, we've traveled around the world and seen many beautiful places both near and far. Yet our hearts, unfailingly, yearn eternally for Nantucket, drawing us to return time and time again to our most beloved corner of the earth.
English settlement of Nantucket began in 1641 when the island was deeded to Thomas Mayew, a merchant and Christian missionary. In 1659, Mayhew sold the island to its nine original purchasers "for the sum of thirty Pounds...and also two beaver hats, one for myself, and one for my wife". Offshore whaling began soon after, marking the commencement of one of the most prosperous periods in the island's history. Over the next 150 years, Nantucket reigned as the whaling capital of the world, with more than a hundred ships setting sail from her harbor each year to traverse the globe in search of "greasy luck."
By the mid-nineteenth century, the whaling industry was in decline. The last whaling ship set sail from Nantucket's harbor in 1869, never to return again. Without any industry to replace the whale fishery, the island suffered economic hardship compounded by the "Great Fire" of July 13, 1846, which destroyed over 300 buildings and left hundreds homeless. Between 1840 and 1870, Nantucket's population plummeted from nearly ten thousand to less than four thousand as men left the island in droves to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Although the sun was setting on the great era of whaling, dawn would bring the rise of a new golden age of tourism. As commercial shipping gave way to recreational boating, graceful steamships brought the first summer visitors to Nantucket's sandy shores. Island residents began operating rooming houses and small inns, and women opened their private homes to summer boarders, offering "large airy rooms" and "nicely cooked bluefish". Advertisements touting the health benefits of the island's pure air and the "invigorating and delightful indulgence of Sea Bathing" were published in newspapers in Boston and New York. Tourism began to grow, and the island's first summer hotel was erected in 1870, with more to follow over the next decade.
As the tradition of summer vacations firmly took hold across America, tourism ultimately became the principal source of income for the island, and remains so to this day. Playing host each year to more than 50,000 summer residents and visitors from across the globe, the present-day island of Nantucket is once again as prosperous a little "elbow of sand," as Melville described it, as can be found anywhere in the world.
The streets of Nantucket town are lined with world-renowned restaurants, well-curated boutiques, art-filled galleries and steepled churches. Stately mansions once owned by prosperous whaling captains offer a well-preserved nod to the island's storied maritime history. Flowers spill from the window boxes of grey-shingled cottages with white picket fences. Traveling farther afield brings miles of wind-swept beaches, wild cranberry bogs, lush farmland, picturesque lighthouses and acres of conservation land that ensure the island's natural beauty is preserved for generations to come.
What to See and Do
Explore the Island by Bike
Just 14 miles long and 3 and 1/2 miles wide, the tiny island of Nantucket is best explored on two wheels. Its flat terrain and extensive network of paved pathways make bicycling an ideal way to experience her lush scenery and unparalleled natural beauty. Bicycles are permitted on all ferries for a nominal fee and can be rented from numerous shops. Run by the same family for over 85 years, Young's Bike Shop offers excellent customer service and a convenient in-town location. Easy Riders Bicycles carries a wider selection of bikes, including retro-style cruisers and tandem "bicycles built for two". The shop is located outside of town on Surfside Road, however bicycles can be reserved online and delivered to your doorstep free of charge.
Although there are few things more charming than a basketed bicycle ride, speeding around Nantucket on scooter is an exhilarating alternative for those who prefer to survey the island with the wind in their hair. Nantucket Bike Shop has provided quality scooter rentals and service since 1976.
Arguably the island's most popular venue on a sunny summer Saturday, locals and residents alike gather in the courtyard of Cisco Brewers to enjoy live music and sample locally produced spirits. Nestled in the pastoral heart of Nantucket en route to Cisco beach, the property is home to a winery, brewery and distillery.
Opened in 1995 as the country's first outdoor brewery, Cisco is best known for its Whale's Tale Pale Ale. The iconic wood-carved tap handle bearing the beverage's namesake can be found in essentially every island establishment. The vintners at Nantucket Vineyards focus on the fermentation and production side of wine making due to the island's inhospitable grape-growing climate, crafting elegant small-batch varietals such as Sailor's Delight, a Merlot-Syrah blend aged for 18 months in French oak barrels. Triple Eight Distillery turns out whiskey, rum, and gin as well as five varieties of vodka, including a cranberry vodka made from native berries from Windswept Cranberry Bog.
Bartlett's Oceanside Farm
Just down the road from Cisco Brewery lies Bartlett's Oceanside Farm, where seven generations of Bartletts have worked the same land for more than two centuries. Bartlett's fresh, seasonal produce is considered the finest on the island, and can be found on the menu of nearly every Nantucket restaurant. During the summer months, fruit, vegetables and flowers may be purchased in town from the farm truck that parks daily at the corner of Main and Federal. However, a trip to the farm is well worth the effort as their year-round market offers a wonderful selection of just-picked produce, gourmet gifts, artisan cheeses, organic wine, local meats and other essential sundries.
Where to Stay
The island offers a vast array of accommodations, from charming bed and breakfasts to luxurious private estates that may be rented for a week or more. Though traveling with furry friends can prove difficult in Nantucket, the Summer House India Street Inn, located in a restored whaling captain’s mansion, is pleased to accommodate well-behaved pets. Guests of the inn enjoy complimentary jitney bus transportation to the Summer House Beach and Pool Club, a lovely oceanfront resort located in the nearby village of"Sconset".
Built in 1845 by one of Nantucket's most successful ship owners, the Jared Coffin House offers elegant accommodations at the center of the island's historic district. For those looking to escape the bustle of town, The Waiwunet, nestled on the northeast shore of the island, is a seaside refuge boasting breathtaking views, historic architecture and luxury amenities.
Where to Shop
The Iconic "Nantucket Reds"
Philip C. Murray, the shop's original owner, first introduced "Nantucket Red" pants in the in the 1960s. Crafted from a red canvas fabric meant to fade over time, the color was reminiscent of the sails that dotted the coast of Brittany, France at the time. The pants' popularity quickly grew, and the fabric soon became synonymous with Nantucket island life. A nod to Murray's by the tongue-in-cheek reference guide: "The Official Preppy Handbook" in 1980 cemented their status as the unofficial Nantucket uniform. Today, the familiar faded pink canvas is styled into skirts, shorts and accessories, and when worn off-island, serve as a fond reminder of summers spent sailing around Nantucket harbor, sipping cocktails at the Club Car and swinging golf clubs at the Sankaty Head Golf Club.
Since 1968, Nantucket Looms has epitomized the understated elegance and refined simplicity of Nantucket cottage-style living. Originally known for its gorgeous handwoven textiles, the charming Main Street shop now offers a well-curated selection of fine home furnishings, handcrafted gifts and lovingly crafted artisan goods, as well as full-scale interior design services. During our last stop in, I picked up a beautiful set of striped cotton napkins inspired by a timeless Nantucket Looms design. Jute napkin rings serve double duty as nautical-inspired candle-wreaths.
A hidden gem on Federal Street, Peter Beaton Hat Studio can be found by following a discrete wooden footpath to the cheery courtyard which houses the tiny boutique. Offering a varied selection of authentic Nantucket dry goods, this true lifestyle brand is known world wide for its signature line of hats. Each hat is crafted from finely braided leghorn straw, custom fitted and trimmed, and presented in an iconic striped hatbox. I have acquired a lovely collection over the years, and am particularly fond of the large-brimmed Wauwinet.
Where to Dine
Just outside of town is the legendary Galley Beach, a restaurant, bar and lounge where you can dine with your toes in the sand. Opened in 1968 as a surfside clam shack, the restaurant regularly receives national accolades for its coastal cuisine and casual yet elegant atmosphere. Encapsulating traditional technique and local inspiration, the menu highlights the bounty of Nantucket's lands and sea.
With its breezy, white-picketed patio, the Boarding House restaurant is lovely for a leisurely brunch. Owned and operated by husband and wife team Seth and Angela Raynor (also of The Pearl, one of Nantucket's finest dining establishments) the farm-to-table menu changes seasonally and highlights island produce, local seafood and regional heritage meats. Consistent standouts include the smoked crab-stuffed avocado, lobster eggs Benedict and Bartlett's Farm tomato & burrata caprese.
As they round Brant Point and set sail toward the open ocean, visitors departing Nantucket by boat cast a penny or two in the sea. A time-honored tradition, tossing"two pennies overboard" is said to ensure one will some day return to this most enchanting island.