Pocket Guide to Nantucket Vacations
Nantucket, an Island 30-miles south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, is the only Island in America that’s also a county and town. Once the whaling center of the New World, it’s now a magnet for those seeking an escape from city life to a vacation filled with natural beauty, scenic walks, pristine beaches, and a generous dose of history.
This guide will explore what makes Nantucket Vacations unique and why it remains one of the best-kept Island secrets in New England.
Nantucket is best experienced on foot or bike. It’s just 14 by 3.5 miles in area and most places to visit are within walking distance of the town.
If you want to visit a conservation area or one of the outlying beaches, then you can take a tour, or rent a bike for the day or the length of your stay – the island has a number of bike paths.
Here’s a map of Nantucket so you can follow along as I describe things to see and do during your visit…
Unlike its sister island of Martha’s Vineyard to the west, Nantucket isn’t a day trip from Cape Cod. The Island isn’t a destination you get to quickly, rush around the sights in a few hours, and return to the mainland in time for supper.
Plan to stay at least a couple of nights – more if you can – and take time exploring – you’ll be amply rewarded.
What makes Nantucket so special? Well, we have to quickly go back a few hundred years…
Before the Vacationers:
It was really in the 1950’s that Nantucket was discovered as a vacation destination, but there’s centuries of interesting history that went before.
When Europeans came to the island in the 1600’s they found over 3,000 Native Americans living off the land and ocean. These Indians were friendly and showed the settlers the crops to sow and the fish to harvest. Nantucket Island became part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691, and the island soon became its own county. Nantucket once served as a leading whaling port, and played a prominent role in Herman Melville’s tale of Moby Dick.
By the time the Civil War broke out, whaling prospects hit a slump and the island entered a period of declining economics. Hardships continued into 1846 when the main town was engulfed in flames after a fire started in a shop but spread quickly to storage buildings containing whale oil.
The “Great Fire” destroyed much of the town and hundreds of residents were left without a home. Poverty settled over the area and many members of the community left Nantucket for good.
The silver-lining of all this misfortune is these events and its remoteness is the main reason so many of its pre-Civil War buildings remain intact, and why it offers visitors interested in New England’s architectural history, a paradise of perfectly preserved original buildings to tour.
By the 1950s, visionaries visited the island, purchasing large plots of land with a wave of restoration in mind.
Developers wished to create an atmosphere that would accommodate wealthy individuals and families living in the northeastern part of the United States.
Today over 45% of Nantucket Island is protected from future development.
Through the efforts of private and public conservation groups, land has been set-aside for the public to enjoy outdoor activities, such as bird watching, ocean beaches and miles of hiking.
Things To Do and See On Nantucket Vacations:
Main Street with its cobblestone roads invites exploration of its historic houses and the wharf area – completely rebuilt after the fire of 1846.
Popular sites to visit include Pacific Club, Pacific National Bank, Thomas Macy House, and the Henry and Charles Coffin Houses.
If you’d like a more organized affair then you can join one of the Nantucket Preservation Trust Architectural walking tours held between April and November. Another popular walking tour is the 1 and 3/4 hours Nantucket Ghost Walk that starts at the Atheneum – an imposing Greek-Revival building that serves as the island’s library – check the inside out and you’ll see it’s so much more than just a place for books.
Two museums to include on your schedule are the Nantucket Whaling Museum and the Life Saving Museum.
The Whaling museum showcases Nantucket’s whaling past and includes a complete 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale, the perfectly preserved 1849 lens from the Sankaty Head Lighthouse, and many artifacts from Nantucket’s history and pre-history. The museum was expanded in 2005 to accommodate more of their scrimshaw collection.
The Life Saving museum celebrates those who risked their lives to save others off the Island’s treacherous shores and shoals.
Nantucket has 10 public beaches scattered along its 80-miles of shoreline. 4 are within easy walking distance of the town, and the rest can be reached by bike or shuttle transportation.
And talking of bikes, there are seven bike paths that traverse the island from east to west, connecting beaches and communities. Plenty of bike rentals are available in town.
A variety of tours and cruises allow visitors to experience the history of Nantucket and the wildlife of the island in comfort. Nantucket Island Tours and Barrett’s Tours both offer bus tours of the island taking in the lighthouses, historical sights and the picturesque fishing village of Siasconset or just ‘sconset to the locals.
Nantucket Adventures cruises out to Muskeget and Tuckernet Islands to see seals and the birds of these islands, and offers a beach adventure on Tuckernet as well.
For a little extra effort make your way out to Great Point and experience the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge National History Tour. While Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge may be best known for Great Point lighthouse, many miles of white-sand beaches, and world-class fishing, the Refuge is a complex ecosystem that features rare habitats, plants, and birds. The natural history tour is about 2.5 hours and runs from June to fall, and starts at the Wauwinet Gatehouse.
While on your Nantucket vacations take time out to enjoy a relaxing game of golf at one of the four courses, and if you’re a theater buff enjoy a dramatic presentation at the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket (Methodist Church, Centre Street).
Other pastimes to enjoy the refreshing waters of Nantucket Island include: scuba diving, kayaking, sailing, and deep-sea fishing. Rentals for ALL these activities can be had in specialty shops located around the town center.
The charm of Nantucket Island is one that shows through in the Daffodil Festival during the late April (where more than 3 million flowers bloom across the island) to the historic lighthouses scattered about the land.
Located high above the beaches, Great Point stands at the northern tip of the island, while Sankaty Head sits atop Sankaty Bluff in the east. Situated close to the town center, Brant Point Light was originally constructed in 1746 and is known as the second oldest lighthouse in America – the first was in Boston – and certainly Brant is one of the most photographed.
Additional historic gems about the island include the Oldest House (Sunset Hill Road) and the Old Windmill (South Mill and Prospect Streets), which showcases salvaged wood construction dating back to 1746.
Getting To Your Nantucket Vacations:
Access to the island is provided through ferry service or by air. Hy-Line Cruises, Freedom Cruise Line, Inc, and Steamship Authority Ferries (the only line to accommodate automobiles) provide seasonal and year-round service.
When on the island the best way of getting around outside walking or a bus tour… is by bike. There are many two-way paved bicycle paths, and a choice of bike rental shops can be found right by the ferry dock.
Lodging For Your Nantucket Vacations:
During the height of summer don’t leave home for Nantucket vacations without a lodging or rental reservation. You’ll find a large assortment of accommodation available from luxury hotels to resort suites and many bed and breakfast Inns.
To discover where to stay deals, and compare rates and amenities with a trusted and professional travel organization then check out Nantucket lodging and accommodations.