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Nantucket, Massachusetts

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Did You Know … ?

  • Herman Melville’s book, “Moby Dick,” was based on the true story of a Nantucket whaling ship.
  • The first European owner of the island sold it to nine men for £30 and two beaver hats (1659).
  • Cars were first permitted on the island in 1918 after its rail line was washed out.
  • Before opening Macy’s in New York (1858), Rowland Hussey Macy operated a dry goods store on Nantucket.
  • The last whaling ship to leave Nantucket’s harbor (1869) never returned.

A place whalers called home

The name Nantucket, for the 21st century traveler, conjures up images of seaside cottages covered with cedar shingles, cobblestone streets, pristine sandy beaches, broad sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and pleasure boats of all kinds.

It is a playground for New England’s upper crust and, occasionally, for sitting U.S. presidents. Nevertheless, the 48-square-mile island 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast, is also accessible to visitors for whom the word budget has meaning.

Tourism is the main business here, but the island first gained fame, in the late 1700s/early 1800s, as the world’s whaling capital. Its port ranked behind only New York and Boston in importance in the U.S. At the peak of the whaling era, as many as 150 whaling ships made Nantucket their port. The island’s whaling business collapsed in the mid-19th century, and Nantucket lost 60% of its population between 1840 and 1870.

Bad news then is good news now. Historic buildings were left undisturbed, and today, Nantucket claims more than 800 houses built before the Civil War. The entire island is a National Historic District because, as the National Park Service says, it is “the finest surviving architectural and environmental example of a late 18th and early 19th century New England seaport town.” Evidence of that long-lost whaling boom adds to Nantucket’s appeal for the history-minded tourist.

Visitors also are drawn by the flora and fauna — a third of the island is protected from development in perpetuity — and by weather. Nantucket is 10 degrees cooler than the mainland in summer and 10 degrees warmer in winter. As for activities, boating is the top draw.

The well-to-do began building vacation homes here before 1900. Nowadays, the population in summer grows to five times the year-round number, not counting tourists on short visits. That means the island can be very crowded in July and August, making spring or autumn visits preferable for many.

In addition, out of concern about the congestion, Nantucket urges visitors, who can arrive by air as well as ferry, to leave cars on the mainland and use bicycles or shuttle buses to get around. Taxis are available, too.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Go sailing. It is clear this is the place for boating activities of all types.
  • At Cisco Beach, rent a surfboard and hit the waves. If you need to improve these skills, take instruction at the Nantucket island Surf School.
  • Register your antique car to participate in the Antique Car Parade that is part of the annual Daffodil Festival Weekend. The participating cars are covered with some of the more than 3 million daffodils that bloom on Nantucket each spring. Fill out the festival weekend by joining the Daffodil Tailgate Picnic. Also, watch the Daffy Dog Parade, the Daffy Hat Pageant and other events.
  • Hone your skills as a windsurfer.
  • Build sandcastles as a competitive sport. Come for the late-summer Sandcastle and Sculpture Day, and see if you can garner a prize for your work.
  • Make the bicycle your mode of transport throughout your visit.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Charter a boat for deep-sea fishing.
  • The only kind of whaling out of Nantucket these days is whale watching. Spend a day on a catamaran looking for and watching the world’s largest mammals.
  • Stay at the Nantucket Whaler Guest House, once the home of a whaling captain.
  • Carry a picnic lunch, and see the island on a bicycle. The island boasts more than 25 miles of bike paths.
  • Hoof it to see Nantucket’s natural and manmade attractions up close and at your own pace. Choices range from land owned by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation to the streetscapes of Nantucket Town and the village of ’Sconset (short for Siasconset).
  • Take an early-morning bird-watching tour to less-visited areas of the island.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Walk the sandy beaches. Swim in the calm waters of Nantucket Sound or take on the Atlantic on the south shore.
  • Hire a guide for a private tour of Nantucket, being certain to visit the Whaling Museum. Stop for lunch and order locally caught seafood. Try the local White Elephant ale.
  • Watch celebrity chef cooking demonstrations and sip wine in grand houses during the springtime Nantucket Wine Festival. Some wine tastings include brunch or dinner.
  • Time your visit to coincide with the Nantucket Comedy Festival (July), an event designed to tickle your funny bone and support local charities.
  • Or, time that visit for the Christmas Stroll Weekend. Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive aboard a Coast Guard vessel and ride down Main Street in a horse-drawn carriage and accompanied by the town crier. Other entertainment, on a stage or seen strolling the streets, includes carolers in Victorian costumes, bell ringers and other musicians.
  • If they are not too rich for your blood, choose a few souvenirs at the island’s high-end boutique shops.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce at www.nantucketchamber.org