Nantucket, the Gray Lady of Massachusetts

Nantucket is a small triangular island 30 miles south of the famed Massachusetts Cape. It is a windswept, fog-laden spit of land only 7 miles wide by 14 miles long. It earned the nickname “the Gray Lady” because of the thick fogs that regularly roll in from the sea and blanket the island. While that sounds rather bleak, Nantucket is bursting with a certain character and swagger that comes from over two centuries of seafaring history. In the early 1800’s, Nantucket was the world’s leading whaling port and supplier of the very finest candles that lit all of New England. The whaling industry faded over time, but Nantucket lost none of its charm and charisma.

Today there are around 10,000 year-round residents, but with summer colonist and tourists, the numbers swell to 50,000 during the summer season.  High season generally runs from mid-June to Labor Day, when the temperatures average a very pleasant low to mid-70’s F (approximately 20 C). Earlier in the year, the weather is often cold and rainy, but September can be a great time to visit. The crowds have generally left, the water and weather are still relatively warm, and prices are a bit lower.

To get to the island, you must arrive by air or sea, as there are no bridges! There is a small airport that handles commercial service from Boston and private aircraft. High-speed and traditional ferry services operate from Hyannis on the mainland Cape (2 hours drive from Boston). Ferry is the only way to take a car to Nantucket, but cars really aren’t necessary. A local shuttle bus circles the island, or walking within town are the most convenient ways to get around and avoid parking challenges. Bikes are also very popular, with 29 miles of bicycle paths on the island that are separated from the roadways.

Once there, visitors will find plenty to do. The cobblestone streets of downtown are lined with shops that represent Nantucket’s rich history. There are loads of fine antique shops, book sellers, and gourmet shops. Jewelry, clothing, specialty and gift stores are also abundant, so there is no excuse to go home without a Nantucket souvenir.

Beach lovers will not be disappointed with Nantucket. There are plenty to choose from around the island. Seven of them have lifeguards but at many you will have the stretch of sand all to yourself.  The south side of the island has surf, while the north side beaches have few waves and are great for families with small children. The water is warm, contrary to what many believe, due to the Gulf Stream and the protection of the Cape. At the far west end of the island are some of the wildest and most unspoiled beaches. You will need a 4-wheel drive and a beach driving permit and there are no services there, so go prepared, but you might spot grey seals!

46 foot skeleton of a sperm whale, photo courtesy Nantucket Whaling Museum

 

Two favorite museums on the island are the Nantucket Shipwreck & Life-saving Museum and the Nantucket Whaling Museum & Historic Sites . They depict the innovations, challenges and hardships of seafaring life from the heyday of the whaling period. Children and adults are fascinated with the extensive collections.

Of course, vacationing usually works up an appetite, and you will not be disappointed with the many options available in Nantucket. There are numerous fine dining restaurants as well as some family dining and casual cafes. Dining prices are relatively expensive, but frequently early bird specials are advertised in the local paper.

This delightful small island just exudes charm and is a wonderful place for vacationing families or romantic couples to spend long summer days biking, swimming, shopping, and eating. Step back in time and slow down to enjoy visiting the Gray Lady.

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