Destination: Nantucket

By Taylor Smith | Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Located approximately 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Nantucket is a compact island popular with generations of vacationers. The island was first sighted by Captain Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England, on his way to Virginia in 1602. In October 1641, William, Earl of Sterling, deeded the island to Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts Bay. Shares of the island were eventually sold to nine other purchasers. These 10 original owners were eager to attract tradesmen to the island, and the total number of stakeholders gradually expanded to 27 shares among 31 owners. Names like Coffin, Folger, Gardner, Macy, Starbuck, Hussey, and Swain still have a large presence on the island today.

When the Englishmen arrived, the island was already home to an estimated 1,600 Wampanoag Indians. The influence of European disease, alcohol, debt, and servitude took a toll on the native population, and it is chronicled that the last Wampanoag (Abram Quary) on the island died in 1885.

The settlers innately understood the value of the cold waters at their doorstep, and sought the guidance of established New England whaling captains to learn how to hunt whales from a boat. At the time, whale oil was used to light lamps.

Eventually, a new species of whale was discovered in Nantucket’s waters — the sperm whale. Although smaller and more difficult to catch than the right whale, sperm whales housed huge quantities of oil (spermaceti) in their heads. The oil was also considered to be a much higher grade and drew larger profits. Nantucket whalers developed a reputation of being fearless and sought to pursue sperm whales from Bermuda to the Arctic Circle.

By the 1830s, the price of whale oil had begun to drop as kerosene rose in consumption. It is said that the last whaling ship left Nantucket’s shores in 1869, never to return (Nantucket Historical Research Library: www.nha.org/research/research-library).

Improved mass transportation and the advent of the railroad signaled the arrival of the tourism industry. In an effort to draw wealthy vacationers, locals began to build rental cottages and luxury hotels, taking out advertisements in New York City and Boston newspapers. Ferry service was established between Cape Cod and Nantucket in 1920. City-weary folks were attracted by the promise of fresh sea air, mild temperatures, untouched beaches, and quietude. In fact, the name “Nantucket” is recognized as an adaptation of an Algonquian word meaning “faraway island.”

The National Park Service designated Nantucket as a National Historic Landmark District in 1966, thereby influencing and regulating all subsequent construction and development. As such, modern-day visitors are quick to  feel a sense of traveling back in time, the natural dunes, beach grass, and shingle-style homes easily recalling the island’s historic aesthetic as a New England seaport.

Nantucket has featured prominently in literary and popular culture. Perhaps most notably, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) has Ishmael departing for his voyage from Nantucket. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) is the only complete novel written by Edgar Allan Poe. Described by the New York Post as “the queen of the summer beach read,” American writer Elin Hilderbrand is a full-time Nantucket resident and sets the majority of her novels there.

Speaking of books, one of the island’s most treasured community centers is the Nantucket Atheneum (www.nantucketatheneum.org), which is open year-round. From lectures to classes, performances, and workshops, the Atheneum offers programs for all ages. Residents and visitors can browse over 1.6 million books, CDs, DVDs, and downloadables. The adult “Book of the Day” highlights trending recommendations. The library also maintains a vast collection of works by local authors. Standing tall on India Street, the white pillared structure has gone through significant renovation since 1847. Graced with artworks and artifacts, the Atheneum is a unique emblem of Nantucket’s proud historical heritage and vibrant modern day culture.

Families joke that “to summer” on Nantucket is a verb and, chances are, there will be no shortage of high-profile sightings. Famous second-homeowners on the island include former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, actor/director Ben Stiller, and actress Drew Barrymore, to name a few.

Getting to the storied island takes some pre-planning. For those who prefer a long, relaxing boat ride and want to bring their vehicle on-island, the Steamship Authority (SSA) is a 2 hour and 15-minute ride that requires advance reservations. Offering “the lowest fares to the island,” the SSA’s route travels first to Martha’s Vineyard and then onward to Nantucket (www.steamshipauthority.com).

Seastreak ferries (www.seastreak.com/daytrips-and-getaways/nantucket) offer service from New Jersey/New York City and New Bedford, Mass., to Nantucket, and Hy-Line Cruises runs high-speed ferries from Hyannis to Nantucket (www.hylinecruises.com/schedules-rates/nantucket-ferries).

Nantucket Airlines offers frequent daily, year-round flights between Hyannis and Nantucket (www.nantucketairlines.com). Cape Air/Nantucket Air provides year-round service from Boston, Hyannis, and New Bedford to Nantucket (www.capeair.com). Seasonal service is offered from New York’s JFK Airport to Nantucket. United Airlines departs from Newark, N.J. (EWR) to Nantucket. Tradewind Aviation flies seasonally from White Plains, N.Y. (HPN) and Teterboro, N.J. (TEB) to Nantucket (www.flytradewind.com). Other commercial airlines servicing the island include American, Delta Airlines and JetBlue. Charter company options range from Blade (www.blade.flyblade.com) to Fly the Whale (www.flythewhale.com).

Lastly, before you pack the car, drive to the airport, and/or set sail for Nantucket, take a moment to review Princeton Magazine’s suggested list of highly recommended hotel accommodations, dining, beaches, lighthouses, and assorted activities. You won’t be disappointed.