Sink local craft beers and cocktails, watch the sun set from Madaket Beach and learn to kitesurf on this Atlantic island, where New England‘s smart set go to play.
Despite its tiny size, the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, just off Cape Cod, has 82mi (132km) of Atlantic shoreline, much of it covered in sand dunes. Cedar-shingled buildings, weather-beaten wharves, cobblestone streets, steepled churches and upscale boutiques dominate the main town. Arriving by ferry (from Hyannis, Harwich Port, New Bedford or New York), you’ll notice that a good portion of Nantucket’s architecture bears witness to its past as an 18th- and 19th-century seaport town. Indeed, the sinking of the Essex in 1820 inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 tale Moby Dick and vestiges of the island’s seafaring history an be uncovered today at sites such as the Whaling Museum. Here’s how to explore the shores of Nantucket.
The 32-room, four-cottage Wauwinet, in the northeast corner of Nantucket near the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, welcomed its first guests in 1875. While rooms feature fine Italian linens, the Wauwinet is largely committed to celebrating all things local – hence the fresh Nantucket wildflowers in the rooms. Similarly, the restaurant, Topper’s, highlights New England cuisine by serving up island produce and seafood. Those oysters on the half shell? Cultivated just round the corner from the restaurant.
This luxury landmark is a sister hotel to the Wauwinet. Guests can book chic, light-filled rooms with balconies and excellent harbor views, garden cottages, luxurious residences or nearby lofts. Opportunities to relax and unwind are plentiful. You can lounge in the outdoor heated pool, take off on a nature hike or book into the White Elephant’s Spa by Darya for downtime and ocean-themed treatments, such as a detoxifying algae wrap or a detoxifying salt polish.
Jetties Beach, outside Nantucket town on the north shore, is one of the most popular beaches on the island – likely because it has the amenities a beachgoer wants for the day: a souvenir shop, water sports rentals, a skateboard park for the kids, a bike rack in case you cycle to the beach, restrooms, tennis courts and plenty of parking. Swing by the open-air Sandbar for fresh seafood, hearty lobster rolls filled with New England’s finest and a raw bar serving oysters.
Learning about oyster farming and clamming is the easiest way to go local in Nantucket. Shearwater Excursions offers an oyster farm tour so you see how oyster farmers work. There’s also a hands-on clamming excursion which will have you wading in thigh-deep water as you dig for clams. In true New England etiquette, “You dig ’em. You keep ’em.” Tours depart from Children’s Beach Pier, behind the White Elephant hotel.
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Drink in a bit of whaling history with a pint of Whale’s Tale pale ale at Cisco Brewers, creating wine, beer and spirits since 1981. Whale’s Tale is a nod to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and the brewmaster claims: “Whale’s Tale is full of character and goes down easy.” They also brew Shark Tracker lager and donate the proceeds to OCEARCH, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving white sharks in the Atlantic.
Locals say many things about Madaket Beach, at the far western end of the island: the sand is soft; the surf can be heavy; the sunsets are spectacular. Amenities are few, though, so you’ll want to bring your own food and drink. Regular sunset-watchers suggest ordering takeout tacos at nearby Millie’s. If you’re carless while in Nantucket, no worries. There’s a shuttle bus service in summer and a 6mi (9km) paved bike path, too.
Learn about the protected coastal lands, native plants and wildlife of Nantucket, as well as local conservation efforts and the history of the Native Americans and European settlers on the island. Operated by Nantucket Walkabout, this outing is part botany hike, part bird walk, part geology tour and part coastal exploration. You’ll also learn how deer arrived and thrived on Nantucket Island. Walks are led by local nature guide Peter Brace, author of Nantucket: A Natural History (2012).
Purveyor of handcrafted cocktails Galley Beach, operated by the Silva family since 1958, sits directly in the sand overlooking Nantucket Sound. On nights when the ocean breeze is chilly you can sit in the canopied lounge next to the firepit. The innovative drinks list includes the Lily Pad, a heady concoction of goji berry-infused Absolut Elyx, Dry Curaçao, St-Germain liqueur and lemon. Dinner might include miso butter-poached lobster and Faroe Island salmon. Reservations are recommended about 14 days in advance.
Why not learn something new on vacation? The instructors at KiteTucket, the very first kiteboarding school on the island, are certified by the International Kiteboarding Organization. Meet at Pocomo Beach for both private and group lessons held in Nantucket Harbor, where you’ll find flat, shallow water conditions, ideal for learning this new sport. More advanced riders can take a kitesurfing lesson in wilder waves on the South Shore.
These recommendations were updated on September 27, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.