Nantucket - There was an old man from...

Main St in 'Fall'


Nantucket is truly picture perfect. I had the tremendous luck to live there for a Summer at the age of 19 on a “J1” visa, tons of memories, tons of jobs, tons of parties, tons of stories, but that’s for another ton of time. This time round I had one weekend to convince Dom of my 10 year long petition for us to sell everything we have (including grandmothers) to buy a weekend house on Nantucket (the weekday house would be a brownstone in New York City of course, duuhh - a girl can dream). 

As the ferry churns across the Atlantic from Cape Cod, about 30 miles out, the little foggy gem that is Nantucket comes into view. I like to think it hasn’t changed much from it’s Quaker days hundreds of years ago. The Quakers used to run the island, more to the point, the Quakers ladies ran the island. It’s probably most famous for being a whaling town. When the men were on their extended whaling trips the women would keep everything ticking over. These strong women shaped and moulded the original founding families, some of the names we still know today…

Rowland Hussey Macy, yes, as in the department store, he was a Nantucket whaler who moved into the dry goods business. He had a red star tattooed on his hand which went on to be the companys logo. Murray’s Toggery shop at the top of the Main St in Nantucket holds claim to the site of the first ever Macys!

Folgers, the coffee people, they were another founding family on the island. One of the Folger women was mother to an ambitious boy called Benjamin Franklin. As we know he was an inventor and politician and in his fight for colonial unity became known as “the first American”... at last, somebody to blame ;)

Starbucks, (ringing any bells?) they were another of these 9 founding families. They didn’t start the coffee empire but they did inspire Herman Melville to name the first mate ‘Starbuck’ in his book Moby Dick. The book was set in Nantucket and Starbuck was a common name on the island at the time. One of the founders of Starbucks coffee houses was a fan of the book, the rest is history. As a side note did you know the 3 founders of Starbucks were taught how to roast coffee beans by Alfred Peet. If you live in San Francisco you will know Peets Coffee, who knew Starbucks (Peets biggest rival) were his proteges! (Maybe only interesting if you’re a San Franciscan/coffee snob).

Ironically for Starbucks, they are not allowed to operate on the island. Nantucket does not allow fast food places, chains, billboards, traffic lights or neon signs. For these reasons alone I love Nantucket. Despite spending a Summer there I never made it across to it’s big sister/rival Martha’s Vineyard. I hear The Vineyard has traffic lights and neon (shaking my head in disgust) sounds like Vegas to me!

During the 1849 gold rush, Nantucket lost 60% of it’s population to California. These days the biggest industry on the island is tourism. But it does attract creative types as it offers affordable housing to artists (blogging is an art, right? I’m all over it!). I was impressed to learn that the island has it’s own winery and a brewery (cisco brewery).

When you drop anchor at this historical whaling station, you stroll directly up Main St. It’s got everything that makes me go weak at the knees; cobblestones, olde worlde shop fronts, hanging baskets, tree lined lanes branching off to the side (I love an ole tree, its the simple things in life that make you smile the most). 

Dublin 3,250 miles
The first left turn you take off Main St brings you to a historical painted compass which lists off how many miles Nantucket is from various cities in the world. The Summer I lived there, the town woke up one morning to see that some young upstarts, in the dead of night, had enscribed, in their own penmanship, the distance from said compass to Dublin. For a whole weekend, before their handiwork was painted over, these people were legends. Many a J1er had their photo snapped beside that improved compass. Who were those legends? Sharon, (my Nantucket co-hort) any thoughts ;)

Nantucket isn’t just about rich retirees or dainty day-visitors. There is a living, working, year round community of regular joes going to work, going to the (one) public school on the island (if they want to play another school in a sports match, they have to leave the island!), and going to party. Yes, the island has a reputation for fun.

There are lots of bars, I took Dom on a tour of the ones I could remember! We started in the Rose and Crown, a self described British bar that is as American as all hell. On to the Sea Dog which serves drinks in jars. We rounded the evening off in the Club Car, it’s one of the oldest spots in town, set in a train carriage original to the island. The place is tiny and was packed with a heaving 60th birthday party in full swing. They had layered themselves around the small piano to drunkenly belt out Billy Joel numbers. I mightn’t be 60 but I’m not exactly 19 either so I may have done some chair swaying to ‘the piano man’ as we polished off dessert. I don’t drink anymore so I gotta get my kicks somehow! 

My new summer home
As we alighted from the Club Car we clacked across the cobblestones to our cute B&B. We stayed in the 76 Main St Inn, it was a very beautiful classic clapboard house. Everything inside was blue and white and there was a Nespresso machine in the room (it’s all about the touches). Nantucket actually has rules on how houses should look, either grey shingle, brick, or clapboard (back in the day clapboard was a sign of wealth, you were ‘putting up a good front’ apparently!). There is even a committee that has to approve the height of your fence and the colour of your doors etc.

On yer bike
As we were there in October the weather didn’t really allow for bike rides but it is something I would highly recommend. There are 4,000 bikes on the island and 40 miles of bike track. There are buses and cabs if you didn’t bring your car on the ferry but the true beauty of the island is best seen as you pedal power past lighthouses, beaches, the famous cranberry bog and breath taking homes.

Sconset area has the best real estate voyeurism, where a beautiful street named ‘Hedge Row’ has been nicknamed ‘Hedge fund Row’, chaaaa-ching! Cottages covered in trellises of roses rent for 800 dollars a night. The book store in teeny Sconset village was a front for a speakeasy during prohibition, too cute. 

Lighthouses are almost the symbol of Nantucket. People estimate that there are 700 shipwrecks off the island’s coast (I’m guessing those lighthouses didn’t work out so well, yikes). The red and white Sankaty light house is the postcard moment.

There are 80 miles of beaches and its where a lot of people camp out for the Summer. Not literally camp out as camping is not allowed on the island. If you were to chance it, the up side is there are no racoons or skunks, just deer.

If golf is your game there are a few clubs on the island but at least one of them is famous for its elitism - invitation only, 200 member cap, subs cost half a million a year, and they turned down a visiting Bill Clinton cos they don’t make exceptions! (I wonder did his political persuasion also played a part).

As you explore, you’ll notice that a good number of houses have ‘widow’s walks’, these are a small fenced area atop the roof, so wives of sailors could watch to see their husband return, often in vain, I love the idea of a Widow’s Walk but if every house had one and we all used it at the same time, wouldn’t we all just be staring at each other? one wants that!

There are a few quaint little museums (the Whaling museum) and curiosity shops you can peep in and out of as you knock around downtown. The industrious Quakers definitely had a big impact and get mentioned a lot. What ever happened to the Quakers, back in the day they seemed to turn up everywhere, the Irish Famine, who rocked up with a bowl of soup… the Quakers. Richard Nixon was a Quaker (What?!). Nowadays, aside from the guy on the front of the oatmeal box, I know no Quakers (kinda sad).

An interesting little fact about the Quakers...some of the old houses we passed had a smaller house out the back. The Society of Friends (aka the Quakers) didn’t allow divorce but they also weren’t fans of discord so if a couple weren’t getting on they would build an ‘out house’ where the husband would live! A precursor to the man cave, ha.

A ferry isn’t the only way you can get to Nantucket, it has an airport. I happen to be very familiar with it as that is where I waitressed. Of course I insisted we go there for lunch. It has different owners now and I wasn’t blown away by the waiting staff. The young girl completely ignored me, talked only to Dom, checked her phone twice and brought the wrong food. Aw, it was like watching my 19 year old self in action ;)

The airport is a bit random and remote but it was the basis for the TV show Wings and it is where all of the US fighter pilots for WW2 were trained as the weather off the island was considered close to the weather in the British channel.

After showing him every square inch of the island, Dom took a nap in our summer house/B&B while I took a stroll down memory lane. I was drawn into a gorgeous chocolatiers, Sweet Inspiration, where a very nice lady convinced me to buy some chocolate covered local cranberries, delightful.

That evening we went for dinner in the superb Black Eyed Susans (thanks for the top tip Kerrie!). The food was rustic, authentic, sublime. One of those experiences where afterwards you really feel like you ate a hearty healthy meal. On our way home we spotted a bistro with an Irish name, so I insisted we pop in for dessert. As with everywhere in Nantucket, it was packed and everyone merry, as long as you don’t mind semi drunken strangers chatting to you, you’ll enjoy a night out in ACK (that is the airport code for Nantucket and for some reason it appears on t-shirts, baseball caps, etc).

On our amble home, to my delight, we came across a book store that stays open as late as they can. I love walking around book stores, the older the better, there’s something uniquely calming about it.

I was still raving about the book store as we put our key in the door of the B&B for the last time. I was sad to leave a place that has such strong happy memories for me but I think my mission to convince Dom of its charm was a success. Now, I just need to win the lotto!

Closer to home, I have some California stories, one about our adventures driving north and another about a road trip through southern cal, which will I write up first, wait and see...

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  1. What a lovely place by the sound of it! Thanks for all the little titbits of information Sheilagh.

    Good timing to write about a quaint island in the fall..


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