NANTUCKET — Whether navigating the cobblestone streets of downtown, pacing the widow’s walks atop the weather-shingled houses or hiking the narrow footpath of the Sconset bluff, it’s easy to appreciate the allure of Nantucket.
Named “The Faraway Land” by its first occupants, the Wampanoag tribe, the island 30 miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod, Mass., is a summer haven but now draws visitors year-round. Among them: President Joe Biden and his family, who have been spending Thanksgiving here since 1975.
Plenty of tourists were milling about during our recent getaway to the island. The neighborhoods of gray Cape Cod cottages and businesses were waist-high in beds of flowering blue, violet, white and pink hydrangeas. And the breeze from the ocean was crisp, requiring sweaters in the evenings or for outdoor dining.
Masks were required indoors during our visit and the policy was strictly upheld.
Comfortable shoes are a must on Nantucket’s stone streets. According to the island’s historical association, Main Street was first paved with the stones in the 1830s and local legends have them coming from the ballasts once used to level ships. The town itself was developed around 1659 by nine English settlers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. They brought farming and the Quaker faith to the island and took up fishing and whaling from the natives.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Nantucket dominated the whaling trade. Residents first harvested beached whales and later went offshore to spear the massive mammals to process for oil and food. The downtown Whaling Museum features the skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale hovering over a small, wooden boat with the harpoons used to capture the creatures.
When whales became a protected species in the 20th century, whale watching became the bigger business on Nantucket. Fishing boats regularly spot breaching humpback whales or the endangered North American Right whales within miles of the coastline. We hired a guide for a day of deep-sea fishing, leaving from the docks adjacent to downtown. While we didn’t spot any whales, our captain, Pete Kaizar of Althea K Sport Fishing Charters, said he had seen a number of them the day before. He and his first mate, Scott Riddle, helped us reel in six 70- to 80-pound bluefin tuna. We kept our legal limit of two, which the captain filleted and shipped home for us.
Because the island is only 14 miles long, it’s easy to drive from downtown to the eastern shore to hike along the Sconset Bluff Walk, a public path from Siasconset to the Sankaty Head Lighthouse. The shoreline is lined with manicured summer homes that rent for upwards of $25,000 a week during peak season. Most have private, gated walkways to the uninhabited coastline below, where the views are breathtaking.
Before our hike we stopped at Bartlett’s Farm on Nantucket’s south shore to browse the fresh vegetables and flowers grown on the 100-acre, family-owned property. We visited the Farm Kitchen to order sandwiches for a picnic lunch on a picture-perfect day.
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Bartlett’s is also among the many wedding venues on Nantucket. Our hotel, the White Elephant, located in the downtown historic district, hosted an outdoor wedding the evening we arrived. And Topper’s Restaurant at the Wauwinet, where we ate dinner the next night, was the site of another intimate sunset wedding during our visit.
At Topper’s we sat outside amid flower beds and tomato plants and ate fresh seafood, including an appetizer of local Retsyo oysters on the half shell, harvested 300 yards away in Nantucket Bay.
One of our favorite meals was at the Galley Beach, where we sat at a table in the sand along Nantucket Sound. The pan-roasted halibut and the miso butter-poached local lobster were delicious, but the sunset view was, as the French say the real lagniappe. For dessert, we visited the Juice Bar in downtown Nantucket a few times for homemade ice cream. The smell of the shop’s warm waffle cones wafts through the village throughout the day.
And twice for breakfast, we headed to the Island Kitchen, a favorite of locals. We became addicted to the homemade, flower-shaped Fleur de Lys Belgian Waffles with pure maple syrup.
While shopping at the boutiques and antique stores in town, we bought my husband, Joe, a pair of traditional red canvas shorts, known as Nantucket Reds, from Murray’s Toggery Shop. The trousers have been famous since the 1960s for their unique color inspired by the red canvas sails of boats off the coast of Brittany.
Temperatures during our visit were in the low 70s, ideal for any activity, including an evening walk on the beach or building a fire pit in the sand. All of Nantucket’s beaches are public and fires are permitted as long as they are used for cooking. Roasting marshmallows counts!
Getting to Nantucket
A few major airlines fly directly to Nantucket Memorial Airport, as well as a number of smaller airlines, although most visitors arrive by ferries operated by the Steamship Authority. A traditional ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket takes two hours and 15 minutes, and the high-speed, passenger-only ferry can get you there in an hour. The ferries book up quickly during tourist season so it’s a good idea to check those schedules before booking hotel rooms. Also, gusty weather can delay or cancel flights and ferries to and from the island in short notice. For information, visit steamshipauthority.com