Nantucket: Surprise, Surprise!

By Robert F. Darden

Charming New England island beckons return

Mary and I are veteran travelers who have both been to Nantucket briefly in the past, but after more than a week on this small island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, we became unabashed fans of what the natives affectionately dub “ACK” (that’s the airport code for Nantucket’s picture-postcard airport — more about that in a bit).

If all you know about Nantucket (outside of limericks) is that it is cool in the summer (it is) and it was once a whaling center and the home port of the Ron Howard movie “In the Heart of the Sea,” you’d be correct. The island was the center of the lucrative and bloody whaling trade for a century or more and became America’s first truly wealthy city, more influential and powerful than anything on the mainland. The thousands of beautiful, gray-shingled homes that still dominate Nantucket are a byproduct of that legacy. The entire island looks like a movie set.

The first stop should be the excellent Whaling Museum. Your ticket, which gets you into several other attractions, includes live lectures — the story of the doomed whaling ship, the Essex, one of the inspirations for both “Moby Dick” and “In the Heart of the Sea” — as well as a viewing of “Nantucket” (a glorious, stirring documentary by Ric Burns). The museum has a host of artifacts and displays to peruse, from massive whale bones to tiny scrimshawed teeth.

You’ll learn, for instance, that the collapse of the whaling oil industry was, in great part, the reason why Nantucket became frozen in time, a forgotten destination until the end of the 19th century when tourists began to rediscover its charms. Since then, the island has mandated that all buildings must feature the cedar shingles that provide Nantucket’s nickname, “The Little Grey Lady of the Sea.”

But whaling did something else. It created America’s first truly international city. The whaling ships fearlessly circumnavigated the globe, returning with not just precious whale oil but crews from Micronesia, Africa and elsewhere, some of whom remained and left their own mark on the island. The island’s antique shops are filled with odd and wonderful treasures from these expeditions, and there are pockets where you can still hear hints of Portuguese.

The other intriguing side to whaling is that pre-Civil War crews also included African Americans. Couple that with Nantucket’s Quaker — rather than Puritan — heritage and you have one of the earliest homes of the antislavery movement. Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered his first fiery sermon here, and the island is said have been part of the Underground Railroad. We dined at a delightful pub, The Brotherhood of Thieves, which was one of those stops. Numerous shops and historic sites identify the continuing influence of African Americans on this storied island.
Perhaps you know of Nantucket’s coastline. Virtually all of the island’s beaches are open to the public, unlike much of New England and elsewhere. There is a charming children’s beach next to the harbor. One of the ever-present Wave buses ($1 or $2 will get you anywhere — they’re fast, clean and cheap) will hustle you to Breakers Beach in five minutes, a long, sandy beach on the bay side of the island. Other buses —or bikes — will take you to the wilder Atlantic beaches, including Surfside.

One day our dear friend and tour guide, Ella Prichard, rented a car and toured the island with us, visiting the other tiny villages — almost always associated with a beach — around the island, ending up at delightful Siasconset on the eastern end. This is some of Nantucket’s most coveted terrain with beautiful mansions and cottages on a bluff overlooking the cold Atlantic, crashing into the rocks below. Recent storms have eroded the cliff badly, forcing the relocation or abandonment of several homes along the cliff’s edge. ’Sconset is dreamily perfect, awash in flowers and much quieter than the bustle of the city of Nantucket on the other side of the island. For such a small island, Nantucket has an impressively varied terrain, including the interior, which has largely been preserved in its original wild state.

Another surprise – the preponderance of flowers. We’d seen nothing like this since the west coast of England. Every house, every yard — no matter how small — was awash in flowers. In late July, the dominant color was blue — mountains of hydrangeas half-covered every façade. They were just starting their slow fade, but six-foot-tall stargazer lilies scented the air down every street. June is the time to see the roses, but the ever-present flower boxes were still bursting to capacity with riots of color. A few steps down every street not in the town center led to another creative array of color. It never got old.

Nantucket, which is the name of the harbor town as well as the island, is a legendary shopping center, as the hordes of visitors arriving hourly by ferry from the mainland can attest. Part of the attraction is the look of the place — buildings all but unchanged for 200 years separated by cobblestone streets. Actually, these are really big cobblestones, since many of them served as ballast on the whaling ships. The other attraction is the quality. A few years ago a national retailer, whose name we won’t dignify here, bought a shop on Main Street. Horrified, Nantucket residents passed a law stipulating that no establishment with more than 14 stores can do business on the island. That means you’ll either see very exclusive shops (with windows that boast: “Paris, London, New York, Nantucket”) or an absolutely unique assortment of local stores, art galleries and restaurants.

Granted, the items in most of the antique shops were well out of our budget — but what items! Most of the antique shops would have been museums anywhere else. Priceless furniture, nautical items, paintings, ceramics, clothing, jewelry from the South Pacific to South Boston. We visited as many as we could but especially enjoyed the Antiques Depot, Lynda Willauer Antiques and the Pierce Galleries. The dreaming where you’d put that gorgeous Tony Sarg marionette theater or that tiny 18th century Swedish watercolor, of course, is free.

All that shopping, beach-combing and sight-seeing will make you hungry. Nantucket has hundreds of top-rated restaurants. Some streets are so packed with them it’s hard to know which line goes to which restaurant. With Prichard, our trusty guide, we hit the Proprietors Bar and Table, Queequeg’s, the Languedoc Bistro, Galley Beach and other nationally known spots, all fabulous and all with entrees in the $30-$50 range. We had just as good success in the many small seafood shops and restaurants, including the Rose & Crown and the coffee and sandwich shop The Bean, which makes extraordinary, fresh sandwiches. And yes, we consumed many lobsters, clams and halibut filets along the way. Still, some of our best meals were when Mary went to the seafood stalls and shops by the harbor, and we cooked in our little kitchen. Fresh off the boat can’t be beat.

There is more to Nantucket’s history than just whaling and abolitionists. One of America’s first female scientists, Maria Mitchell, was born and grew up there. Her 19th century home is a charming and instructional stop, just a five-minute walk up Main Street from the heart of downtown. The aquarium and science museums she started are still in operation and are great for kids. And the observatory she began — she was America’s first female astronomer — is still open most nights. The Quaker-educated Mitchell became the first woman Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and was a professor of astronomy at Vassar College until just before her death in 1889.

Finally, and this is still under the broad category of “surprises,” what we will remember as much as the vistas and the ever-present perfume of flowers are the people. The native Nantucketers are very engaging, despite the summer invasion of tourists, and have a marvelous, droll sense of humor. Nearly every one of the cottages and mansions has a name, and many are clever puns. The nickname “ACK” is incorporated into everything. And funny sayings and bumper stickers abound — “It’s Nantucket, Why Pay Less?”
We particularly loved talking to the service people who come to the island by the thousand to tend to the literally tens of thousands of tourists. We heard dozens of European accents, especially Irish, and enjoyed talking to the many brash and funny “Southie” Boston college students who tended the bars and served as wait staff with natural ease and wit.

Make no mistake, Nantucket is not cheap. Expect to pay near-Manhattan prices — everything has to be shipped in. Even getting there is expensive. You can fly to Logan Airport in Boston, take an Uber or cab to Hyannis Port and take one of the ferries to the island — the island strongly discourages automobiles and charges heavily even for rentals once you’re there — or you can fly the tiny and cheerful Cape Air from Logan. This time, we chose Cape Air and loved it. The low-level views of Nantucket gave us an unparalleled panorama of the island, including the numerous multi-million dollar estates dotting the landscape, the old summer homes of Rockefellers and their buddies. The airport itself is a charmer with a great restaurant, the Crosswinds. It’s also the site of the much-loved but short-lived television series, “Wings,” featuring former Baylor student, Crystal Bernard.

Speaking of Baylor and Waco, we met the pastor of the imposing First Congregational Church, Gary Klingsporn, and his wife, Debra, who is an author and teacher, for supper one night, courtesy of Prichard. Gary is a Baylor grad and Debra worked at Word, Inc. Like everyone else we met, they were delightful company and clearly loved their funny, funky little island.

Something happened every night of our stay — performances or readings or panels with the likes of Meryl Street or former congressman Barney Frank. The spectacular library, the Nantucket Atheneum, does double duty as a concert hall. And the two independent bookstores had book signings nearly every day.

In the end, we cherished our time on Nantucket and hated to leave. On our last evening, we really, really wanted to climb the steps of the tower of the Congregational Church for the best view on the island to see the bustling harbor one last time, but my balky knee wouldn’t allow it. I’d walked in the early morning hours nearly every day, exploring the ancient neighborhoods surrounding the commercial district, surprised and enchanted by vistas and scenes around every corner.

The last surprise of Nantucket is no surprise at all — it was how soon we talked of returning, even as our flight pulled off of the island on our final morning. The islanders claim late spring and early fall are actually the best time to visit, but frankly, outside of January-February, we could be talked into coming back just about any ol’ time.