What do you know about Nantucket Island? If you said, “not much” I think you’re in good company. I can admit that pretty much the only thing I knew about the island was that there was a dirty limerick about it (and to be honest I didn’t even know the rest of it) and that my mom’s oldest friend has a house there. My mom had been there once before and talked about how beautiful it was and told me that I needed to read Ahab’s Wife because it was about the island and the whale trade that made it famous. So when my parents called me up last summer and asked if I wanted to go with them on their vacation I hesitated for about three seconds and then said, “yes!”
The island has an airport, but you can’t take a direct flight there. I took a red eye from LAX arriving in Boston at 5:30AM then hopped on our 45 minute flight to Nantucket. Flying into the airport, ACK, is a trip, we flew through some very thick fog almost like we were coming into a imaginary world. There are several hotels to stay in on the island, including ultra swanky The Wauwinet on the far eastern corner which feels almost like you’re in another time. Or the Jared Coffin House in Nantucket, a historical house turned hotel. Renting a car will help you see more of the island, especially if you are staying outside of Nantucket.
Tip: When someone on the island says “Nantucket” they are referring to the main area of the island, kind of like the downtown part of a city.Where to stay: The Wauwinet
The house we stayed in is on the east side of the Island in an area named Siasconset, but everyone just calls Sconset. There are a lot of big houses with private entrances to their personal beaches mixed with smaller, older houses like the one we stayed in, that are cozy and classic Nantucket style. Almost all the houses on the island are cedar shingled. The cedar is a light honey brown color when the shingles go up, but after not long in the salty air they turn the traditional gray color.
Sankaty Head Light
The first place we visited is the Sankaty Head Light in Sconset. There are three lighthouses on the island, two of them are easily visited and the third requires an off road vehicle and sand driving permit. (Great Point Light) Sankaty Head was built in 1850 – the same year that California became a state – and was moved back 400 feet from the cliff in 2007 to protect it from falling. As you drive to the lighthouse, you’ll notice that there are very few houses on the right side of the street. Most of them have been moved because of the danger of the failing cliffs.
Just beyond the light house is a large body of water called the Sesachacha Pond. I would call it a small lake because of it’s size. I don’t know of any pond you can sail a boat on. Anyway, it’s only separated from the ocean by a few feet of sand dune so the water is kind of brackish but totally swimmable. Drive around the pond on Quidnet Road to Sesachacha Road to find the sandy beach to set up your blanket and chair for a day at the beach. I was surprised by how windy it was there, so just be sure to keep your things secure, especially food wrappings and such so they don’t go flying down the beach.Where to stay: Martin House Inn
The town of Nantucket has a lot of things to see. It has a very New England vibe, with narrow cobblestone streets, roundabouts, and beautiful Georgian architecture. First things first we hit the Nantucket Whaling Museum. This is a really cool museum that covers the history of whaling on the island. Whale oil was pretty much the only exported good (except corn – more on that later) used in lamps until kerosene was invented. Probably the most famous whale is Moby Dick, that elusive white whale that Captain Ahab and his buddy Queequeg were chasing. And by now you’re probably aware (thanks to the movie starting Liam Hemsworth) that Moby Dick is based on a true story of a whaling expedition gone horribly awry with sailors surviving over 300 days at sea by turning to cannibalism. Well, those sailors were from Nantucket. And the whaling museum has a really great exhibit dedicated to it. It also includes great exhibits featuring scrimshaw (carving on bone), lightship baskets (famous handwoven baskets made on the island), art done by sailors, and the newest exhibit the Hadwen-Barney Candle Factory, the restored 1847 whale oil candle factory showing how a whale was made into a candle and oil. Lastly, be sure to head up to the top floor for a 360 degree view of Nantucket from the rooftop deck.
Tickets are $20 but includes admission to five other historic places operated by the Nantucket History Association. We were able to use it to also visit the Oldest House and the Old Mill.
The Oldest House is the house of Jethro Coffin, the grandson of one of the original English settlers. It was built as a wedding present in 1686 and was continuously lived in until the Civil War left most of the island abandoned. The house is now owned and operated by the Nantucket Historical Association. We were given a lovely tour by an older gentleman who took us around the first level in the kitchen, sitting room and baby’s room, then we got to go upstairs and see the rooms up there. We were sent upstairs by ourselves so it was cool being able to explore it without a guide. I think it was because the tour guide was in his 80s so don’t be shocked if you are escorted to the top level when you visit.
The Old Mill is the last of three mills that ground corn into cornmeal on the island. Corn was the only thing that grew in the hard island soil. Eventually it got too expensive to process and they ended up importing everything instead. The other two mills were dismantled for lumber. This mill is still functioning and they operate it a few times a year. You’ll get a tour of the inside of the mill and an overview of how it works and what it was used for. It’s really awesome seeing how all the gears fit together and make it work without any modern machinery. You can even buy corn that is milled there! Near the windmill you’ll find this house, and many others like it. This is the style of architecture in Nantucket – cedar shingles, complete with rose trellis and hydrangea bushes. Almost all the houses on the island are cedar shingled, and you can only use the approved colors to paint your house so everyone blends together.
When you head back into town be sure to stop on Federal Street for a bit of window shopping or people watching. The cobblestone street lined with stores and cafes and even an ice cream shop is not something you usually see in southern California. We took a leisurely drive through the city on our way back to Sconset. Every house you pass makes you gasp and wish you lived there. The cobblestone roads don’t make for great driving but at least it makes everyone drive slowly! If you aren’t in a hurry (Why would you be? You’re on vacation!) you’ll deal with the one way roads and inevitable back up much better.
And when you inevitably get hungry from all that sightseeing eat like a local at Sayle’s Seafood down on Washington Street, almost to the end of the road. My mom’s friend brought us here specifically to get the fried clams. They have two options for clams, either strips or the full clam with the neck which is what we ordered. This was hands down one of my favorite meals ever. The clams were very lightly breaded and in some cases even tasted a little bit sandy, which sounds gross but it actually adds a great layer of flavor to the meal. We also got clam chowder and fried calamari but there are lots of other options to choose from too including some non fishy options for those people in your group who have an aversion to seafood. This is definitely a meal worth splurging on!
Brant Point Lighthouse
Before we headed home for the day we drove over to the Brant Point Lighthouse. This one is on the harbor at the top of the island and is the cutest light house I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a lighthouse as short as this one. As with every place we visited on the island it was beautiful and serene.
My last day in Nantucket was a relaxing one. We drove to Miacomet Beach, on the south end of the island. It is a bit of an adventure getting to it, and I glad we had someone who kind of knew where they were going to guide us. I remember going past some kind of gravel plant and then we drove down a dirt road that was just big enough for the car to fit through. Once we cleared the woods the path got a lot easier to follow. The best part was that we were pretty much alone on the beach. Later in the afternoon other people started to arrive but there were still less than ten people there. You can’t find that in California! It was pure bliss. We brought sandwiches and drinks and just swam and lounged all day.
When we started getting hungry for dinner I looked up some places on yelp and decided we needed to visit Cisco Brewers. Once we got there I knew we had made the right choice. This place was awesome! I wish the breweries near me were this much fun. On site they have the tasting room pouring beers from the brewery, the Triple Eight Distillery with various spirits and liqueurs, food trucks and an oyster bar plus they have live music almost every day. The space they have is big enough to hold a few hundred people without it feeling like you’re at a festival. They’ve got all their classic beers on tap plus a few seasonal. I started with a scottish ale named after Groundskeeper Willy from the Simpsons and then found the Whale’s Tale English Pale Ale which was fantastic. For dinner we all got lobster rolls from the Lobster Truck and my parents got some oyster shooters. The environment was really relaxed, like a backyard party with your friends. Check online before you go to see the schedule of performers.
Before we drove back to the house my dad decided he wanted to watch the sunset. We drove west until we ended up at a beach and arrived just in time to watch the sun sink behind the horizon. There were people down the beach digging for clams in the water and small boats tethered off shore, bobbing in the surf. It was just the picture perfect summer in Nantucket.
Author: I’m Erin of The Thrifty Travelista, a Southern California native who started traveling at a young age. Since returning home after teaching English abroad in South Korea and Germany I have been focusing on thrifty travel destinations and finding unique and free things to do and see in the cities that I visit. I’m trying to change the perception that travel has to be expensive – travel is for everyone!