Cobblestone streets. Pristine beaches. Timeless charm. You’ll find all of this and more on the island of Nantucket. Whether you’re a nature lover, sports enthusiast, history buff, or collector of art and antiques, Nantucket is a vacation destination that appeals to just about everyone.
This pocket-sized island, located 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, is just 14 miles long and 3.5 miles wide. (For a bird’s eye view of the island, climb to the steeple of the First Congregational Church at 62 Centre Street.) Approximately 10,000 residents make their home hear year-round, but during the summer months that number “blossoms,” as the Chamber of Commerce is fond of saying, to 40-45,000.
Unlike many beach resorts that seem to have sprung up almost overnight (with all the condos and fast food restaurants that go along with that!), Nantucket has a long history that dates from 1659 when a group of colonists looking for political and religious freedom joined together with Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard to purchase Nantucket from the Native Americans for 30 British pounds and two beaver hats. It wasn’t long before Nantucket became a thriving whaling center.
In fact, exploring Nantucket’s whaling heritage wouldn’t be a bad place to start your visit. After an extensive expansion and restoration, the 75-year-old Whaling Museum, located at 13 Broad Street, recently re-opened to the public. The museum now includes a restored 1847 spermaceti candle factory, a sperm-whale skeleton, fully rigged whaleboat, collection of whaling tools and portraits of whaling captains, a children’s discovery room, and an observation deck that overlooks Nantucket Harbor.
To see live whales in action, sign up for a whale or seal-watching cruise (Shearwater Excursions offers seal and whale-watching cruises, and Nantucket Seal Cruises & Charters and Nantucket Adventures offer seal-watching cruises).
Much of Nantucket’s charm lies down its narrow lanes that give you the sense of stepping back a century…or two or three. The island boasts more than 800 houses built between 1740 and 1840, almost all of which are located in their original setting. Nantucket, in fact, claims one of the largest and best-preserved historic districts in the United States.
The Nantucket Historical Association administers thirteen of these properties, almost all of which are within a half-mile on Main Street. Several are now museums and well worth a visit, including the Jethro Coffin House (Sunset Hill Road), built around 1696, the oldest building left on the island; and the 1723 Nathaniel Macy House (12 Liberty Street) and the 1844 Hadwen-Satler Mansion (96 Main Street), both a testament to the prosperity brought to Nantucket through the whaling industry.
During the 18th century, a large missionary-led Quaker movement took root on the island, and its influence can still be seen in some of the plainer Quaker-style homes that also line many of Nantucket’s main street and small lanes; among them the Maria Mitchell Birthplace House (2 Vestal Street), built in 1790 and home of America’s first woman astronomer (join members of the Maria Mitchell Association on nature and wildflower walks and birding field trips, or help them collect island marine life for the Maria Mitchell Aquarium).
If you run out of reading material, you can stop by the Nantucket Atheneum (downtown on India Street). Located in an elegant and historic Greek Revival building that dates to 1847, this free public library is one of the oldest in continuous use in the United States. The library’s holdings include approximately 42,000 volumes, historic paintings, sculpture, ship models, and scrimshaw. The adjoining Atheneum Park makes a nice spot for reading and relaxing.
Nantucket is a nature lover’s paradise; nearly 46 percent of the island is protected conservation land. There are bike paths that lead to Madaket, Dionis, Surfside, and Siasconset beaches, and also more than 8,400 acres of undeveloped land that can be explored by visitors to the island. The less adventurous can follow the Sanford Farm-Ram Pasture Walking Trail, a marked hiking trail that offers 15 miles of wilderness owned and managed by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.
A number of artists and craftspeople make Nantucket their home and if you’d like to pick up a brush yourself, there’s no shortage of opportunities to take art classes. The Artists’ Association of Nantucket, the Nantucket Island School of Design and the Arts, Shredder’s Studio, and the Nantucket Community School all offer classes in drawing, painting, ceramics, mixed media, basketry, jewelry making, art, and nature.
If you’d rather buy the works of other talented artists, there are more than 100 shops on the island that carry antiques and fine arts, as well as traditional handcrafts, such as scrimshaw and Nantucket lightship baskets.
One of the more popular items among nautical antiques, scrimshaw is the folk art of the whalers. Although a 1971 embargo on the importation of new whaling products is still in effect, old bone and ivory from whaling stations going back 50 to 100 years can still be sold.
Another ideal souvenir from a trip to the island would be a Nantucket lightship basket. Named for the South Shoal Lightship, a floating lighthouse anchored off Nantucket Island from 1854 to 1905, original Nantucket lightship baskets were made from tightly woven rattan with sturdy wooden bottoms and swinging handles. They were round or oval in shape, open on top, and were frequently made in nesting sets of five to eight baskets. Designed to tote anything from potatoes to firewood, the baskets were made to while away the long, lonely hours on board ship and were frequently given to wives left on shore
When the lightship era ended in 1905, so did the era of the lightship basket, not to be resurrected again until the 1940s. Jose Reyes, a Filipino man then living on Nantucket, wanted to make a basket for his mother. To his basket, he added a lid so it could be used as a purse, and thus brought about the contemporary Nantucket lightship basket. Don’t miss a visit to the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum (49 Union Street) with permanent and temporary exhibits, and educational programs such as demonstrations and workshops.
Like many other seaside towns, Nantucket has become a year-round destination with a number of festivals and events to draw visitors back often. The annual Daffodil Festival Weekend in April, Historic Preservation Week and the Nantucket Wine Festival, both in May, the Nantucket Film Festival in June, and the annual Sandcastle and Sculpture Day in August (this year on August 20), keep the spring and summer season going. But think about coming after high season, for the Nantucket Arts Festival, this year from October 1-9; “Fall on Nantucket,” throughout October and November; and the annual Christmas Stroll Weekend, from December 2-4, when you can enjoy an old-fashioned holiday celebration featuring over 150 Christmas trees throughout town, Victorian carolers, bellringers, a house tour, and more. Christmas Stroll is part of the month-long Nantucket Noel celebration that starts on Thanksgiving and continues through New Year’s.
If You Go…
Nantucket Island is located 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. From Hyannis (80 miles from Boston), the Steamship Authority (508-495-3278) and Hy-Line (800-492-8082) provide regular and high-speed ferry service to Nantucket year-round. The Steamship Authority carries passengers, bicycles and cars (reservations required; cars, however, are strongly discouraged on the island), while the Hy-Line accommodates only passengers and bicycles. Several airlines have scheduled flights to Nantucket from Boston, New York, New Jersey, Providence, Hyannis, Martha’s Vineyard, and/or New Bedford.
Nantucket offers a wide variety of accommodations, from large full-service properties to smaller bed and breakfasts or cottage rentals. Several favorite choices: Jared Coffin House, 29 Broad Street, 508-228-2400, www.jchouse.com; this grand brick home was built in 1845 and restored to its original beauty by the Nantucket Historical Trust; The Wauwinet, 120 Wauwinet Road, 800-426-8718, www.wauwinet.com; located on the beach, this is the island’s most deluxe property, with personal service to match; the Cliffside Beach Club, 46 Jefferson Street, 508-228-0618, www.cliffsidebeach.com; also situated right on the beach and about a mile’s walk from town, this combines old-word charm and up-to-the-date amenities.
To help you plan your trip, call the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce at 508-228-1700 and request the “Official Guide,” or visit online at www.nantucketchamber.org.
Photo credits: Michael Galvin/Nantucket Chamber of Commerce