Ever since America stopped lighting lamps with whale oil, Nantucket has been a sanctuary for generations of vacationing families — and a few hardy year-round residents — who are quite protective of their island retreat. Here are my top tips for planning your first visit to Nantucket, whether you’re a day tripper or planning to stay and relax for a while.
Taking the Ferry or Flying to Nantucket
Getting to Nantucket isn’t easy but the isolation is part of the charm! A great place to start your trip planning is the FAQ on the official website of Nantucket Town and County. There is no bridge to the island. Visitors must arrive by ferry boat or airplane. I took a seasonal connecting flight from United’s hub at Newark Airport. Cape Air provides connections from Boston’s Logan Airport and JFK in New York, among others.
It’s possible to do a day trip to Nantucket from Hyannis on Cape Cod. Both the Steamship Authority and Hy-Line Cruises have a regular (2 hours) and a fast ferry (1 hour). The local newspaper recommends that daytrippers take the 8:15 am Steamship Authority’s high-speed ferry, which arrives at 9:15 am, and then return to Hyannis on the 6:15 pm departure, 8:45 pm on Fridays/Saturdays. Online advance reservations are recommended and mandatory if you are bringing a car. Foot passengers can take the slow ferry on the day of sailing without a reservation. Be sure to check the websites for the latest schedule updates!
Nantucket Whaling Museum
A short stroll from the ferry wharves leads to Broad Street and the Whaling Museum in the heart of town, an excellent starting point for your visit. Adding a few dollars to your admission ticket gets you combined entrance to all of the exhibits plus nearby homes and sites run by the Nantucket Historic Association. Guided walking tours are offered in the morning and afternoon, but I enjoyed exploring the town on my own. The museum is closed on Sundays and opening/closing times can vary, depending on what time of year you visit.
The main museum building was once a factory for making candles out of sperm whale oil. An excellent guide gave a talk on the fire of 1846, which destroyed both the town and its whaling industry, to an audience of one — me. Young families seemed more focused on the touchy-feely exhibits. The huge whale skeleton displayed next to the relatively tiny boat illustrated the life-threatening conditions faced by whale hunters. Unique American art has a place of honor, from whalebones etched with scrimshaw to a Smithsonian exhibit of paintings by such artists as Edward Hopper. It is worth the climb to the roof for a panorama of the harbor.
You’ll work up an appetite as you explore the town with endless options on and around Broad Street. The friendly, mid-priced Rose and Crown Pub is open for lunch. If you’re hungry at dinnertime, don’t miss the Nantucket Lobster Trap. This was my first lobster roll and I thoroughly enjoyed the huge chunks of juicy lobster meat in the salad mixture on a fresh brioche bun, with sides of fries and cole slaw. Families come early with kids and the local dive bar ambience gets more adult as the evening goes on.
Follow the intoxicating smell of fresh-baked waffle cones to The Juice Bar for homemade ice cream. There’s almost always a long line waiting for scoops at this Broad Street landmark across the street from the Whaling Museum. This place has been rated by Travel & Leisure as one of the top 50 ice cream parlors in the United States!
Historic Nantucket Homes
Continuing on Broad Street, you can’t miss the imposing homes built by the town’s leading merchants. Hadwen House displays a collection of local history artifacts from the heyday of whaling in Nantucket. The couple who lived in this white-columned Greek Revival mansion also were abolitionists who invited such notables as Frederick Douglass to speak at their parties. Women’s suffrage also is honored with the first ballot boxes to receive women’s votes.
There’s a fascinating short video about Seward Johnson, the artist behind the statues of “real” people I saw all over town. I actually thought a lady was gardening and an artist was painting in the garden until I realized they were two more statues! Don’t miss the life-sized figures depicting classic artworks like the Dejeuner sur L’Herbe and American Gothic.
Across the street, the Thomas Macy house — named for a relative of the Nantucket native who founded the department store — gives more insight into the genteel lives of Nantucket’s leading residents. This charming cottage and its grounds are used to host visiting artists and scholars on the island.
The Starbuck family was also among Nantucket’s founders and their name inspired the character of the fictional first mate in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” The founders of Starbucks Coffee admired the novel and took the name from there.
Amazing Nantucket Women
Greater Light: The guide at Greater Light expertly told the story of the two eccentric sisters who renovated this cow and pig barn. The delightful studio spaces, bedrooms and adjoining gardens were furnished with castoff items the sisters found literally by the grace of God, while scouring the dumps in Philadelphia for cast-off ironwork and church windows. These Quaker ladies created a surprisingly colorful environment for their artistic talents. I’d love to come back to one of the performances where a local actress brings their story to life. The historical association also holds teas here. Admission and tour are included in your combination ticket from the Whaling Museum.
Maria Mitchell Birthplace: No photography is permitted inside the humble home of Maria Mitchell, the self-taught astronomer who achieved international fame by discovering a comet from a telescope on the roof of her father’s bank in Nantucket. She was the first professor hired at Vassar, although she never attended college. She was one of 10 kids who grew up in this Quaker home, and you can visit the rooms on 3 floors including the attic. A bright Vassar student on a summer internship was my guide. Not included on the combination historical ticket but well worth the $5 admission to the house only. I would have liked more info on the observatory next door. There is a separate natural history museum a bit further down the street.
The Old Gaol of Nantucket
This tiny building is packed with quirky history. The building itself isn’t much to look at, but the helpful guide brought the stories of the various inmates to life. Among other things, the jail residents dined on lobster— not considered a delicacy in the olden days. Most criminals were thieves and embezzlers and many escaped if the doors were left unlocked. Once outside, there was the challenge of getting off the island, so most were recaptured. One embezzler paid enough bribes to turn his cell into a furnished apartment and the whole place became a storehouse for bootleg booze during prohibition. A deeper dive into the history will uncover the tale of the first bank robbery in the US. Hard to find but included in your combination ticket from the Whaling Museum and worth a short visit.
Where to Stay in Nantucket
To really soak up the island charm, plan to stay longer. Although highly coveted home reservations for the high season in July and August can be hard to come by, Airbnb offers a choice of stays in the shoulder months of May, June or September. Click here to make your first AirBnb reservation with a discount. There are inns and hotels in a variety of price ranges, from homey cottage rooms to seaside luxury at The Wauwinet. A mid-priced option is the Nantucket Inn, near the airport.
Nantucket’s youth hostel, Star of the Sea, is in a converted lifesaving station. A plaque says lifeguards stationed here “guarded these treacherous shores” from 1874 to 1921. Comments on Trip Advisor praise the location near the beach, but give mixed reviews to the dorms and bathrooms. It might be worth considering if you’re on a tight budget and OK with communal living, in separate dorms for men and women.
Scenic Swims and Walks in Nantucket
While Nantucket’s beaches were lovely for strolling or dipping my toes in, I was a bit intimidated by the idea of going in for a swim on some days. The signs posted on a lifeguard station at popular Surfside Beach warned of high surf and potentially deadly currents as well as jellyfish and other “hazardous sea life” including sharks. Fear not. Nantucket has plenty of beaches with gentle waves, and ponds that are perfect for all kinds of water sports enthusiasts. You might even find locals and regular visitors at events such as a fundraising swim to benefit the island hospital or another worthy cause, part of the sense of community that makes the Nantucket experience so special.
Sconset Bluff Walk: On an island with many scenic paths, the ‘Sconset Bluff Walk was the most memorable of my visit. The trail begins among the charming tiny fishermans’ cottages in Codfish Park and winds along the bluffs through some multimillion dollar backyards, as pictured at the top of this post. It has been deeded as a public foot path since 1892 — and that means walking ONLY. No jogging or cycling.
As you enjoy the views, keep in mind that the bluff is receding at 5 to 30 feet per year, depending on the severity of winter storms. A few houses were moved inland, others are destined to topple in the not-too-distant future. An exhibit near the end of the trail explains the measures being taken to hold back the forces of nature, with mixed results.
Stranger Danger: When they say, “Stay on the footpath,” they really mean ON the dirt path, both to avoid trespassing and making contact with the poison ivy lurking in the greenery. The easy walk was surprisingly tiring on a blustery, windy day, so you’ll be hungry.
It’s easy to see why people line up for lunch at Claudette’s Sandwich Shop. The tasty seafood salad sandwich had juicy chunks of lobster and whole shrimp on whole wheat bread. They keep the line moving and bring the sandwich to your table, if you are lucky enough to find a seat at this reasonably priced lunch stop on an otherwise pricey island. Many customers left with bags of takeout to enjoy elsewhere.
Culture Break at the White Heron Theater
What an unexpected delight to find high quality theater on Nantucket! I attended the opening night of “Fireflies,” directed by award-winning Judith Ivey with a first-rate cast. There isn’t a bad seat in this small house and the plays are carefully selected through a workshop process.
If you go to one of the standup comedy nights, be prepared to be picked on in the front rows. Also be aware that the blue humor is for adults only. They also serve wine and cocktails in a reusable sippy cup that you can take into the theater.
Memorable Meal in Nantucket
Locals and regulars will tell you The Chanticleer is a must-do experience on Nantucket, especially if you are celebrating a special occasion. From the moment I entered the charming courtyard garden, I was hooked. Once the domain of a traditional French chef, the one-page menu now features creative tastes that put local seafood front and center. Meat eaters will love the filet mignon and kids will enjoy the burger, but I got my seafood fix with codfish beignets and organic salmon over cauliflower risotto. Extensive wine list includes a few brilliant selections by the glass. Eating in the garden offers the added bonus of people watching as Nantucket regulars arrive in their island finery and pose for pictures. Attentive but not pushy service. Yes, it is a splurge but worth it for the quality.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Getting Around Nantucket: I was visiting a friend who had a car. Once I got a lift into town, I walked everywhere to see the historic sights. To explore the landscape you’ll need a car; rentals are available at the airport. Public shuttles, taxis and ride-sharing services are another option.
Take Your Time: Now that I’ve experienced Nantucket, I also feel protective of this uniquely welcoming and relaxing place. Everyone experiences in the island in their own way. I hope this blog will help you discover it for yourself.
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