Dawn comes early on a crescent of sand 26 miles off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The fog lifts, revealing a harbor filled with boats. Birdsong and sunlight fill the sky, setting the stage for the spectacle of summer in Nantucket.
A foghorn announces the arrival of M / V Iyanough ferry. It carries day trippers and locals who will walk the same cobblestones as Melville, Emerson and Thoreau. Some line the sidewalk in front of Black-Eyed Susan’s, waiting for buttermilk pancakes. Most don’t mind the wait. It’s worth being on Nantucket, a fleeting and enduring place. And you don’t have to be a novelist or a philosopher to understand that.
Nantucket was, and still is, a place of contrasts. It’s both remote and mundane, thanks to the whalers who have traveled the world, bringing home wealth and fame. It’s historic, but avant-garde and fashionable. It is beaten by the waves and adorned with gardens so lush that a single flower makes a bouquet. The weather is also capricious. One day, the “gray lady” hides behind the fog. The next, she’s basking in a bright sun, tempting outdoors artists to capture her quicksilver beauty. Long before the early 1700s to the late 1850s, when Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world, the Wampanoag people called it “the far place.” Perched on the edge of the continental shelf, it seems distant. However, within a half-day trip from Orlando, you can arrive in a climatically and culturally different destination. You recognize it when you land at Nantucket Memorial Airport, with its cedar shingled terminal topped with a weather vane.
The story is not limited to the manuals on Nantucket. You feel it in the bumpy pavers laid in 1837, you see it in every 18th century gray shingled salt shaker that a modern family calls home, and you hear it with the accents of the ninth generation of Nantucketers.
Set the stage for your exploration by staying at the Jared Coffin House. Hotel since 1850, it once hosted Herman Melville, who immortalized the island in Moby Dick, his novel about the great white whale. The renovated hostel offers free amenities: bathrobes, slippers, beach towels, chairs, bicycles and umbrellas. Downstairs, the Nantucket Tap Room serves upscale and classic comfort fare.
Most of Nantucket’s landmarks are within minutes of the inn’s majestic steps. To understand the island’s past and present, spend a few hours at the Whaling Museum. Don’t miss the Roofwalk, with its view of the harbor and Brant Point Lighthouse.
Follow this by walking along Orange Street, where 134 sea captains lived. Further up Main Street, houses known as “Les Deux Grecs” and “Les Trois Briques” were built by whale merchants. For a glimpse of 19th-century opulence, visit the Hadwen House at 96 Main St. The Quaker Meeting House and Research Library at 7 Fair St. reveals the simpler side of the island. Before returning to the waterfront, take a detour to India Street to admire the Atheneum, where Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery in front of an audience of abolitionists. For a deeper dive into local traditions, book a walking tour of the Nantucket Historical Association.
To fuel your excursions, stop at Provisions in Harbor Square for a juice of Nantucket Nectars and Turkey Terrific, a treat a local calls “Thanksgiving on a sandwich.” Claim a bench on the quayside and savor your mighty meal to a soundtrack of cheerful chatter from the sidewalk cafes.
By land or by sea
Nantucket is best explored on foot or by bike. Borrow a bike from your innkeeper and you can explore a 55 km path that winds along moorland, woods and windswept beaches. The former fishing village of Siasconset (known locally as Sconset) is a worthy destination. Its narrow lanes and endearing cottages feel more British than American. Enjoy lunch at Claudette’s, then cycle 1.4 km north to Sankaty Head Lighthouse. On the west side of the island, Madaket is the place to be for breathtaking sunsets, cocktails and dining at Millie’s. Tip: You will cover more ground by taking the THE WAVE bus. Each bus can accommodate two bicycles.
Nothing connects you to Nantucket like sailing, so schedule a sunset cruise on the Effort. Or save the salt spray for another day and enjoy the views from Brant Point Grill. At the end of the day, the boats and houses along the harbor light up in orange at sunset. Take a mental snapshot while tasting Great Point oysters, fresh drawn from the water without a brackish bite.
Highlights of the season
Few places shine like Nantucket from mid-June to Labor Day. Climbing roses cover cottages and beach dunes. The Atlantic breezes blow so cool and chilly that they once inspired poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson to write: “The air of Nantucket comes to your face and eyes as if happy to see you.
Focus only on summer and you miss out on Nantucket’s other charms. Islanders understand this and Carpe Diem whatever the weather. On the first weekend of December, downtown looks like a Dickensian novel. Carolers in period costumes wander the streets, lit by gas and lined with Christmas trees. On the last weekend of April, the Daffodil Festival welcomes warmer weather and cherry blossoms bloom in mid-May. Spring is less crowded than summer, with lower prices and shorter restaurant waits. The same goes for the end of September, October and November.
Sunsets, seafood, and the seasons are fleeting pleasures, but Nantucket is another story. One visit and it’s anchored in your memory, reminding you of a magical crescent of sand surrounded by the sea.
Located in the heart of Nantucket Town, rates at Jared Coffin House start at $ 185 / night. Its sister property, the White Elephant, offers rooms, suites, cabins, residences, a pool, spa, and the Brant Point Grill. Just steps from the children’s beach, the family-friendly resort offers loaner bikes and Radio Flyer wagons. Rates start at $ 325 / night.
Yes momentum could be purchased, you will find it in the elegantly organized boutiques in the city center. Check out Murray’s Toggery Shop for iconic “Nantucket Reds” clothing. For exquisite hand-woven blankets and household items, visit Nantucket Looms. Book lovers appreciate the “independent and at sea” character of Nantucket Bookworks and Mitchell’s Book Corner.
If you are visiting outside of May through October, check the museum, tour, and restaurant opening hours; some will close or limit off-season hours. Fog can delay flights and ferries at any time of the year, and it is wise to wear diapers. Windbreakers, hats and sweaters are practical even in summer.
Fly to Charlotte, Boston, Newark or New York, followed by a fast connecting flight to Nantucket Memorial Airport.