Compact and picturesque in charcoal grey and deep-sea blue, the island of Nantucket once hosted the astronauts of their time: the whaling captains who inspired Moby Dick.
They ruled the marine world, trading in risk, adventure and wealth. And then something happened.
Something which makes a visit to this curious corner of Massachusetts all the more rewarding. So here's a guide to things to do in Nantucket. But first, join me on the high seas for a trip to the past...
Nothing gives a different perspective faster than arriving somewhere by sea.
“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”
That sounds as though it could be me talking, but of course it isn’t.
It is, of course, a quote from Moby Dick, the Great American Novel by Herman Melville, published in 1851, that charted the course of the whalers on an epic quest around the world.
It could also describe, in 21st century terms, the arrival on Nantucket itself.
In the book, the whalers start and hope to end on Nantucket, a small island off the windswept shores of New England. A community that once mined the whole world’s waters as its dominion.
Today, it startles visitors in two ways: no cars and no franchises. You read that right. American land. No Apple, Starbucks, and no Tommy Hilfiger (even though the man himself has a house here.)
Stripped of America’s biggest icons, Nantucket feels more remote than it is.
Passengers must arrive by sea or air, connecting either by ferry from J.F.K. hotspot Hyannis, or by “puddle-jumper” from New York or Boston to clear the 30 mile difference from the coast of Cape Cod.
A whitewashed lighthouse guards the harbour at Brant Point, taut stars and stripes on its squat façade. And slate-coated rooftops stretch out in much the same way as they did in 17th-century Nantucket, protecting grey-shingle walls with white-slicked wooden fences. Old-fashioned lamp posts still stand guard.
In short, it’s like nowhere else on earth.
The layout from the harbour isn’t hard: head straight up from the dock and keep walking.
Our hotel, at 76 Main Street, lived up to its name with joyful simplicity.
And so, luggage and toddler in tow we arrived beneath the white columns and steep porch stairs to sip lemon-iced water in the marine lounge beneath a beautiful betentacled octopus.
The lounge, like the boutique shops and cafes we passed en route, makes the marine world beautiful; they extol the outdoors life.
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And it’s an outdoor life that’s easy to love. Eighty miles of unspoilt coastline, accessible mostly by bike, the lack of other transport touching them all with an air of seclusion.
Locals swear by Jetties Beach on the Northern Tip, surfers prefer Nobadeer and sunset photographers think Madaket is the best bet.
Those with young children (hello, that’s us!) prefer the aptly named Children’s Beach just on the edge of “town.”
Here is a world where the elite rest their well-heeled feet. Beaches. Cycling. Lobster rolls.
Whale tail pale ale from on-island brewery Cisco’s. Smores, the biscuit, chocolate and hot marshmallow concoction melted over a campfire, made all the romantic with a DIY gift set waiting in our room.
All set on an island where 40% of land is protected conservation land and whose very existence is a National Historic District.
The town itself is easy to enjoy, boutique art shops mingling with the steady pace of relaxation that New Englanders are made to enjoy.
Yet it’s the whaling history that fascinates.
It’s so reviled today, and yet so intriguing.
How did this small island, a mere 3 ½ miles by 14, rise to such a prominent place in the world?
It isn’t long before I find myself in the glossy $11 million whaling museum, my spine arching back in order to take in the magnitude of the spine hanging in the air.
At a staggering 14 metres long, it's humbling to realise that's only half the size of the one featured in true-life Hollywood Movie Heart of the Sea.
In part, it’s as grisly as I’d have imagined. Blood, harpoons, spears and blubber.
Yet compared to the whalers of today, these seamen seem hopelessly outsized. The boats insubstantial, the threat immense.
Voyages used to last three to five years; men would be away from their families for most of their cut-short-and-injured lives. Not that the whales fared much better, of course.
And on closer inspection, the history of Nantucket holds up a mirror to the history of the world. The battle and struggle for survival. The shifting influence of Empire and economics.
When English-speaking settlers arrived on Nantucket, they first tried their usual methods of farming. Sheep, goats, cattle and corn.
Things didn’t go well.
Together with the native Wampanoag, at least to begin with, they moved to fishing and local trade, harvesting bones and oil from dead whales that washed up along the shore.
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With the advances in marine technology, the Nantucket whalers could travel further and deeper than those before. From the “scorching heat of the equatorial sun” to the “shivering in the frozen regions” the Nantucketeers, harvested whale oil from untouched regions around the globe.
1712 saw the first offshore expedition. By 1750 Nantucket was world leader and by 1773, Nantucket whale ships took part in the Boston Tea Party.
But then came the California Gold Rush. Hundreds fled. Railroad and steamships arrived on the mainland, boosting their ports, while the Nantucket sandbar blocked access for larger ships.
And just like that, these masters of the sea found themselves redundant. The declining whale population made journeys harder, more dangerous and less rewarding than before.
The workforce left. Nantucket hibernated.
In the language of the Wampanoag, Nantucket means “Faraway Place.”
And for a while, again, it was.
Until the next gold rush arrived: tourism.
Nantucket’s virtual abandonment and lack of industrial development made it all the prettier and more perfect for the 20th and 21st century traveller.
The museum itself has an observation deck that brings these points together, inviting visitors to look across the harbour to see Nantucket as it would have been then.
As it is now.
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En route to the deck, it showcases whale-bone corsets, intricate scrimshaw, oil portraits and a fascinating story about the Nantucket Quaker tradition and its role in the progression of women in science (America’s first female astronomer, Maria Mitchell, was both a Quaker and a Nantucketeer.)
And then on the rooftop, you can look again at that welcoming Nantucket harbour.
Through the summer sun, I can see another ferry arriving, visitors spilling with excitement onto the dock, as we did only a day before.
Beyond that, the foam settles quickly on the deep sea of blue.
“Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two-thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.'' Moby Dick.
They’re captivating, haunting words. But we all know what happens to Empires.
And so I leave this museum behind, head back to the sand and the surf, the lighthouses. Cycle and scrunch my toes in the sand with the rest of them, ending the day by a campfire, toasting my Nantucket s'mores, before retiring to luxurious cotton sheets and dreams.
I drift asleep on the waves of the deep, chasing the tale of the whale.
And wake to a news alert on my phone, one that makes me smile in more ways than one.
The local whale population is recovering, with sightings from the not-so-far-away urban Manhattan.
There once was a girl from Nantucket
There once was a girl from Nantucket. Despite all the gloss and glamour, one word about Nantucket and filthy limericks bubble up like unwanted corpses at the start of a murder mystery. Not ideal when travelling with a toddler. Unlike corpses, though, at least the limericks are funny. Head here to find out what they’re all about and to keep this family site clean
As you'd expect for such a lovely spot, accommodation is in short supply so lock in those bookings as early as possible.
I'd recommend the stylish bijou hotel known as 76 Main. It's part of a small local chain, called/run by Lark Hotels and these guys know what they're doing. The bedrooms are beautifully designed and there's a s'mores station. Need I say more?!
Nantucket offers everything from fine dining and pub grub to bakeries and take-outs.
Gallery Beach - Want to dine like the stars? The likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Robert De Niro are rumoured to have eaten here. This highly rated restaurant has earned praise from magazines such as Vanity Fair and Zagat. The menu at Gallery Beach includes lobster crepes, roasted halibut and sirloin steak.
Brotherhood of Thieves - This spot serves classic pub meals alongside an inspiring message. You'll also find artisan liquors, 10 beers on tap and wine suggestions to pair with each main dish on the menu.
Fog Island Cafe - This local institute dishes out generous portions and regularly offers specials, such as the Tex Mex skillet. The Fog French toast is always a popular choice.
We travelled to Nantucket as part of our epic road trip through Massachusetts from Boston. Read the full, detailed itinerary here.
Our partner for this trip, Norwegian, serves Boston with a daily non stop service between London Gatwick and Boston Airport. To book visit www.norwegian.com/uk or call 0330 828 0854
Although cars are allowed on the island, they're actively discouraged and it will make taking the ferry that much harder. Plus, half the fun is learning to live without
Hire a car to travel through the rest of Massachusetts. Leave it behind for Nantucket.
We rented a car through Hertz. The booking and collection process was simple, but what makes the service even better is that they have an American Road Trip Planner. It makes drafting itineraries so much easier.
If you register with Hertz Gold Plus Rewards BEFORE you make your reservation you receive better deals, the chance to skip the queues and to use the Gold Plus Rewards counter. It's free to register and only takes 60 seconds, so it's worth doing.
Disclosure – This trip was made up of some self-funded aspects and a mixture of paid/unpaid partnerships with Hertz, Visit Massachusetts, Norwegian, and Cellhire. As ever, all opinions remain my own. Otherwise, what's the point?!
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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