Overview

Nantucket, Massachusetts, is at the confluence of two bodies of water, 30 mi/48 km out from the mainland. The north side faces the gentler waters of Nantucket Sound, its main harbor nestled within the protection of a barrier beach. Facing south and up around to the northwest are the more temperamental waters of the wild Atlantic Ocean.

At Nantucket's northwestern peak, Great Point is the long swath of sand and stunning beach that ends where the two waters meet, tangling together in frothy, dangerous tumult. For years, the island's position demanded a life dependent on the sea, a legacy that continues to shape its fortune.

Visitors to Nantucket are drawn by the island's rich and storied history and its distinct culture, shaped and beautifully preserved by its isolated location at sea. The entire island is a National Historic District because of its wealth of architecture dating back to the 18th century. There are more than 800 buildings on Nantucket that predate the Civil War, a distinction that even historic Boston can't surpass.

In addition to the lure of history, it is the power of the ocean that draws people to Nantucket. The beaches are arguably some of the finest on the East Coast, offering more than 80 mi/128 km of unspoiled ocean shoreline. One is free to swim, walk or explore 10 public beaches. Boaters and fishermen go to take advantage of the bounty of the island's waters. Perhaps most of all, despite the crowds, Nantucket island is the embodiment of the faraway, of a place that seems difficult to reach and greatly removed from almost anywhere. There is a sense of rugged independence among islanders that is not often felt elsewhere.

Preservation land protects about 45% of Nantucket from development, always with more land under consideration. This is a very fragile place. And although its popularity with visitors taxes the island's resources, most of the tens of thousands who visit each year respect and support its natural and historical treasures.

The 14-mi/23-km island, easily explored on foot and bicycle, has plenty of secluded beaches thick with bayberry, beach plum and heather. Most of them are open and easily accessible to the public. Spend at least a full day on Nantucket—more, if possible—to allow plenty of time for lying on the beaches, meeting the people and, because it's part of historic Massachusetts, visiting the significant sites scattered around the island. The island's alluring fine dining and shopping are also a prime draw.

Geography

Nantucket is dominated by the presence of its surrounding waters, Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, and its inland geography reflects that influence. Within that space are cranberry bogs, haunting fog-laden moors, expanses of wild beach roses and heath, and miles/kilometers of uninterrupted, dune-backed beaches. It truly is an island of small natural wonders. Indeed, approximately one-third of America's heathlands (moors) are on Nantucket. As a result of the island's curvaceous shape, there are more than 80 mi/128 km of shoreline, despite the fact that the island itself is a mere 3 mi/4 km at its widest and 14 mi/22 km long.

Nantucket Town is settled on the edge of a large harbor, protected nicely from the rages of the open ocean. It sits close to the center of the island, on the north side. Visitors aboard the ferries arrive there, and today, just as in the 18th century, Nantucket Town is the center of activity and the commercial hub. Streets are often narrow (watch for the cobblestones, laid out in the 1830s to prevent heavy carts filled with whale oil from sinking in the mud) and jut off in all directions. Generally, Main Street runs east to west.

Roads and bike paths stretch out from the town center—due east to the village of Siasconset on the ocean side and due west to Madaket, a favored sunset-watching spot. Areas outside of town are much quieter, with less commercial influence, though there are plenty of pricey vacation homes spread throughout. The island's manageable size makes it an easy place to cover by bicycle, the preferred way to get around in summer.

History

Named by the native Wampanoags, Nantucket means "faraway land," a description that defines more than just its location. For its first white settlers in 1659, it was a way of life, as well as a geographical reality.

Nantucket was part of a land grant given to Thomas Mayhew, whose intention was to bring Christianity to the native population, which he did for a time. But the island was too remote for his tastes, so when a group of Massachusetts Bay Colony residents offered to buy the island, Mayhew agreed, selling all but a tiny parcel for 30 pounds sterling and two beaver hats. The original purchasers had partners; in time, more shares of the island were sold in order to attract a well-balanced and multiskilled group of settlers.

The settlers wanted to be free from the harsh judgment and strict rule of the Massachusetts colony's Puritans, and it wasn't long before a majority of the islanders had embraced Quakerism. The faith emphasized a strong, hard work ethic, neutrality in war, equality for women and a fervent opposition to slavery. Islanders banned slavery in 1773, and Nantucket was home to a good number of free blacks and escaped slaves.

The island has always relied on the sea for its prosperity. The Quaker work ethic and the business of whaling combined to make the little faraway island of Nantucket a prosperous world capital in the industry for more than a century. During the golden years of 1818-49, 88 Nantucket-based whaling ships circled the globe in search of whales. While fishermen were chasing the sea's biggest catch, their wives sustained their families by opening shops along Petticoat Row, now Nantucket's thriving commercial Centre Street.

Extraordinary wealth from whaling built the grand homes in Nantucket Town, each filled with goods from a world market. The town's dependency on whaling led to near-ruin when a combination of factors caused the industry's collapse. In 1846, the lumber- and whale-oil-fueled Great Fire devastated 36 acres/15 hectares in the center of town. By 1849, petroleum and kerosene were cheaper alternatives to whale oil, a sand bar blocked the passage of large, heavy whaling ships into the harbor, and sailors were jumping ship to join the fevered California gold rush. A great economic slump ensued that would last until well after the Civil War; many historians say it was this depression that preserved both the great mansions and the more humble homes of the islanders.

From the success of the Industrial Revolution, a leisure class was born. By the 1870s, the island was a favorite retreat for the wealthy in pursuit of the healthful, beneficial pleasures of saltwater bathing and rejuvenating sea air. The notion hasn't changed—Nantucket remains a favorite place for those who seek the very same remedies.

Sightseeing

Whether you fancy historic architecture or isolated sand dunes, there is plenty to see on Nantucket. Part of the appeal of Nantucket is that so much of it is open to exploration, by bike or on foot, with a knowledgeable guide or on your own time.

Since the island is so rich in history, a good place to start is the Nantucket Historical Association. Under its care and domain are many of the island's most important historical landmarks, as well as many thousands of artifacts that reveal centuries of life on Nantucket. The Association offers scheduled guided walks. Prefer to go it alone? The Nantucket Preservation Trust provides details on its Web site for several self-guided walking tours. http://www.nantucketpreservation.org.

There are several tour operators that offer specialized outings according to tastes. Reservations are best made in advance in the height of the season. Either way, opportunities to explore are everywhere on the island.

Nightlife

Nantucket's nightlife is more contained than that of Boston, for example, but in no way is it dull. Many restaurants and taverns stay open late, and a few feature live bands in summer. Don't expect to find giant dance floors with sparkling disco balls, but the few places with music are hopping till 1 am (closing time). It's a good idea to check local listings for band schedules: the board outside The Hub (31 Main St.) is plastered with posters touting shows. In summer, you'll be able to choose your music nearly every night of the week. A particular favorite is The Chicken Box, a little place on the outskirts of town that's been around since the 1940s and is known for the variety and quality of its live bands.

Most nightcrawlers perch themselves in the taverns of the more popular restaurants, gathering around the bar or on outside patios, weather permitting. The island's sole, year-round cinema, Starlight Theatre and Cafe (1 N. Union St.), serves up mainstream movies and light fare.

Dining

Don't expect to find the island covered in the rugged seafood shacks that are the staple at most New England seaside towns. Nantucket may be 30 mi/48 km out to sea, but its dining culture is vastly sophisticated and on par (both in quality and in price) with cosmopolitan cities such as New York, Newport and Boston. Indeed, many of its rising-star chefs got their starts in the big cities. Many now run their own little places by the sea on Nantucket. Cuisine is creative new American, and fierce competition keeps the kitchens inventive. The trend to use locally caught fish and locally grown produce continues to grow—in the summer, you see Bartlett's Farm tomatoes on many restaurant menus—so diners can expect the freshest ingredients and menus that change with the seasons.

For such a small island, there are a surprising number of restaurants, many of them fine dining and hard to get into in the height of the season. In fact, fine-dining establishments outnumber casual, family-oriented places. You'll find plenty of variety and a few affordable options, but overall excellent quality food.

Along with all those fine-dining options comes a dress code. Laid-back nighttime attire in the island's restaurants means collared shirts and khaki pants for men and lightweight slacks, skirts or dresses for ladies. Formal attire means jackets for men, although guys will be pleased to know that ties aren't a common sight. And don't even think about wearing your flip-flops to dinner. Even casual places enforce the rule: No shirt, no shoes, no service. Ask about the dress code when making reservations, just to be sure. Cell phone use within most restaurants is strongly discouraged.

A majority of the restaurants are nestled within the town center, though several of the larger hotels outside of town have excellent restaurants, as do the outlying areas.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

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