NANTUCKET, Mass.—In summer, the senses feed hungrily on Nantucket, and Nantucket gives generously, with the scent of honeysuckle in the air; white-trimmed, gray-shingled houses as demure backdrops against joyous puffs of blue hydrangeas; and the lapping of the waves, a soothing song at sunset.
Many come to Nantucket to live in the present, to shed the cares of work and home. Its summer population swells from the normal 12,000 to 50,000. Don your prettiest Lilly Pulitzer dress or a pair of those famous Nantucket Reds shorts, and pick your picture-perfect spot from among 80 miles of gorgeous beaches.
The entire island is a National Historic Landmark. This “faraway land” (the name given by the local Wampanoag tribe) was dubbed by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “the Nation of Nantucket” in 1847. But far from being insular, as islands can be, Nantucket long had its sights cast wide on the world.
From the 18th to the mid-19th century, it was the whaling capital of the world. The island provided the fuel to light the world’s streets, households, and businesses, amassing enormous wealth in the process. Its sailors (“Quakers with a vengeance,” Herman Melville called them) chased whales to as far as the South Pacific on voyages that lasted anywhere from three to five years. The whaling industry light would not dim until a cheaper replacement was found, in the fields of Pennsylvania—petroleum.
The Gray Lady
When it’s cloudy and the island is cloaked in fog, Nantucket is cloaked in hues of gray, rippling from sky to sea to streets. One might imagine that the island’s three lighthouses, a beacon to home-faring sailors, could be the only light to cut through the thick fog.
“It’s a haunted island,” says Andrea Barnes. She is sitting at her loom, on the second floor of Nantucket Looms, a gift shop that doubles as an interior design and weaving studio. She takes a break from her weaving. Ghost tours and books about ghosts in Nantucket abound. “The guy who owns the ouija board company lives on the island.”
She tells of a pilot who is the “most logical person” she knows and yet “he sees ghosts all the time. I was shocked, ‘You … believe in ghosts? You do?'”
“No one’s ever been like, ‘Oh, I was possessed.’ It’s just you see creepy old whalers walking around [‘Sconset Village].”
She recounts a story about one time when the pilot was walking his dog, early on a foggy morning, and spotted a large man a few feet ahead.
“He gets closer and closer, but the guy isn’t progressing, he’s just in one place walking, and so he walks closer and closer, and the dog is getting excited. He was really scraggly, [with a] big beard, he had a sack. He gets closer and closer; the guy isn’t moving. He’s walking, but he’s not going anywhere. He’s a couple of feet away from him. He walks into a tree and he disappears—and then, the tree disappears! The dog stops and sits and is waiting, and he’s like, ‘The dog is seeing it too, it’s not just me!'”
“There’s just weird stuff, especially during the winter, [when] it’s quiet and no one’s around, and it’s cloudy,” she says.
A Different Nantucket
There’s the Nantucket for those who live here year-round, and the Nantucket for those who visit: “It’s completely, totally different worlds,” Barnes says.
“If you want to see the real Nantucket,” she offers, “I suggest going to the Madaket Mall.” The mall sounds like a strange suggestion given the town has clamped down on retail chains (Ralph Lauren squeezed into downtown just before the axe came down, and not without some grumbling too).
The Madaket Mall is not a commercial mall. “It’s the dump on Nantucket,” Barnes laughs. A large gray-shingled shed serves as a take-it-or-leave-it recycling drop-off center, where furniture, clothes, and books that, though trash to someone, might just become your next treasure. And because it’s Nantucket, there are some rules posted (enforcement is questionable), such as “30 MINUTES ONLY,” “NO TAG TEAM,” and a very Nantucket “CIVIL BEHAVIOR MANDATORY.”
Her other suggestions: grab something from the sandwich shop Something Natural and head to Steps Beach to watch the sunset. “It’s better than Madaket”—also renowned for its sunsets. “It’s a great view and the beach is gorgeous.”
A Tale of Two Nantuckets
There’s no denying the wealth piled on this little island, no matter how unostentatious it is on the surface (you won’t see luxury cars plying its streets, though it’s likely a number of private jets are parked at the airport). A recent look at Sotheby’s listings shows a 10-bedroom property on 4.5 acres on sale for a cool $42.5 million.
Bess Clarke, who runs Nantucket Looms, mentions a couple of “dueling impressions” of Nantucket.
“The Kardashians were out here last summer—’Oh great, if they found us then, it’s all over,’ you know,” she says. “There’s definitely the white Range Rovers, the pink shorts, the champagne on the beach.”
From her keen marketing experience, though, she will tell you how much of that reality comes from its image: “It’s almost like how Ralph Lauren accomplished his success: He created this world that really wasn’t real. It’s how people thought it was supposed to be, so suddenly it became how it was supposed to be.
“His English countryside look and the way you’re supposed to dress when in the Hamptons, that’s not real. He just thought it would sell shirts, and it did. That’s almost how I feel like Nantucket is becoming. You come out here and you act a certain way. Growing up, that’s not how it was.”
What it was, was a focus on quality of life, but with a real simplicity, an aspect that’s perhaps encapsulated in her shop’s philosophy.
“People really connect to things that are meaningful. People crave that because things are so much easier these days. Our value system, for us, is that more is not necessarily better,” Clarke says. “You could have just one great set of plates, one great set of napkins. You don’t need tons of everything, but if everything you have is special and has a story, that might just be enough.”
The aesthetics at the shop match the island: hues hover within the palette of grays, creams, blues, and greens. This is the place to buy a handwoven heirloom quality throw, or a boatneck sweater that will last for years. Locally made crafts carry their own stories, including ones steeped in nautical tradition, like the shell-collage valentines inspired by the ones sailors used to send to their sweethearts from the Pacific islands.
My version of discovering Nantucket involved hopping on a bike, a loaner from the White Elephant Village hotel. There are 32 miles of bike trails on Nantucket, and a bike lover will attest to the value of exploring at a bike’s pace, hopping on and off as you like. (Let me say, though, that biking on the cobblestone streets downtown is not a good idea, although it is a memorable one.)
At the edge of town, I chanced upon a surf shop that White Elephant Village Hotel manager Bettina Land had mentioned as having a sort of unexpected twist. I made my way to the back, past flip flops and surf boards, to a tiny backroom. It was filled with candy, with a businesslike eighth-grader manning the cash box.
Armed with watermelon sour candy, I headed out to ‘Sconset on the eastern end, along gentle hills, and passed the southern area of the Middle Moors, known as Nantucket’s “Serengeti.” Apparently, wooden cutouts of lions, gazelles, or even raptors pop up sometimes. Off in the distance was a cranberry bog and Sankaty Head Light station.
Too pretty for words is the village of ‘Sconset (shorten from its full name Siasconset, the Algonquian word for “place of great bones”), with blush-colored roses climbing on the walls of every cottage in sight.
If you find a white gravel road in between some houses, you’ve arrived at the ‘Sconset Bluff Walk.
“It’s really a walk through people’s front yards,” says a kind elderly gentleman, who had come to the general store to get ice cream with his wife and had given me directions.
And so it is. Rounding the corner of a cottage, I came upon a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean; on the other side, people enjoyed the view from their yards.
The path is so small and so close to the cottages, it’s almost impossible not to feel like you’re walking through their homes; some small talk as you pass by feels obligatory.
One man, a refugee from New York City, sat in his yard, looking out toward the ocean. Part of his roof was covered with pink rose blooms. There had been many more—he pointed to one side of his cottage and then the other—but their time had passed. It was a hot day, but he had never bothered with installing an air conditioner; he wanted to keep everything authentic, and there was the breeze from the sea.
Inside another yard, a small group of men chatted with each other, enjoying their evening get-together.
You know: quality of life, with a good dose of simplicity.
Tips for Visitors
Bettina Landt, general manager of the White Elephant Hotel, hails from Zurich, Switzerland, but has made her home in Nantucket for the past 15 years. The mix of authenticity, history, and a bit of eccentricity endeared the island to her heart. “Everything is a little quirky and a lot real; you don’t find that a lot in the U.S.,” she says. Here are some of her recommendations for what to do on the island.
First-time visitors should be sure to check out the lighthouses: “Brant Point, Sankaty in ‘Sconset, Great Point for the adventurous.” A walk through downtown is a must, as is a visit to the whaling museum. Done that already? Rent a bike, and head to Cisco Brewery.
Madaket, on the western edge of the island, is known for its sunsets. Another spot to catch the sunset is at Galley Beach, a little closer to town. On the northeastern coast, go to Toppers at The Wauwinet. “There’s a little piece of land on the horizon, which makes for an even prettier sunset,” Landt says.
Seafood is, of course, a big draw. On the casual front, you can order a to-go lobster dinner from Sayle’s Seafood. At Brant Point Grill, there’s the spectacular Lobster Bloody Mary. Nautilus and The Proprietors Bar & Table are hot spots, while the newer Cru stands at the end of the boat basin. Landt says, “It’s a great place to go in the afternoon for champagne and oysters. If you like the bar scene, it’s quite the place to see and be seen.”
For the Kids
There’s always a long line for ice cream at The Juice Bar; “the kids love it,” Landt says. For a fun experience, head to Force 5 Watersports for a tucked-away surprise: a candy store. “At the very end, there’s a little room with no windows, and there’s a little kid with a cash box and there’s candy everywhere,” Landt says.
Going to Nantucket?
How to Get There
Lying 30 miles out at sea, Nantucket is served by the Nantucket Memorial Airport (code ACK, which you’ll see on memorabilia). Ferries run from Hyannis on Cape Cod. The Seastreak ferry also makes the run from Manhattan.
Where to Stay
White Elephant Hotel
With views onto the harbor, this peaceful luxury resort offers suites and garden cottages. Guests love the afternoon port and cheese in the library. Through the hotel, you can book the classic LaSalle car for a photo shoot, or charter a boat from nearby mariners’ club Barton & Gray without having to be a club member. From $225 per night. WhiteElephantHotel.com
White Elephant Village
A 20-room resort with rooms and one, two, or three-bedroom residences. With a heated outdoor pool and beautiful garden grounds—and a convenient location just steps away from Children’s Beach—it is a great spot for families. From $195 per night. WhiteElephantVillage.com
Jared Coffin House
Herman Melville stayed at this 1845 brick mansion, built by ship owner Jared Coffin as his family residence. From $155 per night. JaredCoffinHouse.com
Those Nantucket Reds
It seems Nantucketers can spin a story out of anything. At Murray’s Toggery Shop, the clothing shop where the famous Nantucket Reds pants originated, owner Trish Murray Bridier overheard one of his employees regaling visitors with a story about their origin.
“He said, ‘One day, Mr. Murray was walking by the cranberry bogs, and he had these cream-colored pants. He slipped and fell in, and that’s how the color started.'”
Well, that’s not quite the real story, but those visitors loved it. Bridier’s grandfather Philip Murray sold pants originally made of heavy, red-brick-colored canvas that were extremely well-wearing, and softened and faded over time; her father then coined the phrase “Nantucket Reds.”
“It’s the iconic color of Nantucket now,” Bridier said.
You’ll find not only pants in Nantucket Red (worn by grooms at island weddings, golf clubs, cocktails parties, and even funerals—there doesn’t seem to be a place where these pants don’t go), but also sports coats, pocket squares, skirts, hats, moccasins, and bow ties.