Nantucket

When you are married, unless you are a traveling salesman you don’t tend to travel alone. But on rare occasions I do travel alone.

Today I spent my second day traveling alone in Nantucket, a spit of land about twenty miles long off Cape Cod. My wife has a gaggle of far flung girlfriends taking over our house this weekend. Traveling to Nantucket seemed better than dealing with the noise and lack of privacy I’d have to endure. It was that and I’ve always wanted to go to Nantucket. I doubted I could coax my wife to visit it, so why not?

Nantucket Harbor Area
Nantucket Harbor Area

Martha’s Vineyard is probably the more famous spit of land off Cape Cod. I’ve been to Martha’s Vineyard but once was enough, perhaps for life. But except for Woods Hole and Falmouth, Cape Cod was largely unknown to me. This visit marks my first time I’ve to the arm of the cape. To get to Nantucket you need a ferry, and most of them go out of Hyannis, on the south end of Cape Cod.

It wasn’t just wanderlust that took me to Nantucket. I come from a family of ten. Perhaps to feel better for having a large family, my father read us Cheaper by the Dozen as children. The book relates the large Gilbreth family of the early 20th century. The patriarch, Frank, made a lot of money in the emerging field of motion study. He helped businesses find ways to accomplish manual labor more efficiently, which allowed him to prosper while having a dozen children. In the book, the family’s lengthy summer vacations to Nantucket took up a chapter or two. The family holed up near the beach at a house with two adjoining lighthouses they called The Shoe.

The Shoe still exists! I rented a bike today to see the island, and one of my first stops was Hulbert Avenue where the two lighthouses, renamed by Frank as Mic and Cyc can still be found. The lighthouses were sold to the Gilbreths and moved inland. The two light houses plus the main house were affectionately called The Shoe for Old Mother Hubbard who had too many children. The Gilbreth house has likely been rebuilt since the late 1910s and 1920s when the Gilbreths were summer visitors. The neighborhood feels upper middle class.

“The Shoe”

Since I only had two nights, I had to be selective. The guy at the bike rental shop warned me that I could not bike both sides of the island in a day, so I chose the eastern side of the island. I imagined Nantucket to be more rural and less populated than Martha’s Vineyard. It is certainly harder to get to, and a very pricey place to live. Getting to and from the island will cost you at least $50 or so. If you want to bring a car back and forth, it’s over $300. Known mostly for its summer tourists, in November, the main city at the harbor feels 75% shut down. I was lucky to be able to rent any bike, as only one bike shop remained open. Fortunately, it was only two blocks from my B&B.

For being a very new island, Nantucket has quite a bit of history. It only emerged from the ocean about five thousand years ago, after the last glacial melt. This suggests it won’t endure very long. Given our climate change crisis, it may be mostly underwater in fifty years. Naturally, Native American tribes beat the Europeans there.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Nantucket gained fame as the home of whaling. Until the discovery of petroleum, whale oil was in large demand and most of it was refined in Nantucket. Fleets from Nantucket traveled the world’s oceans and brought back the whale oil to Nantucket.

It was about the time the Gilbreth’s found the island that it found a new mission: a summer destination for well moneyed tourists, many of whom like the Gilbreths built houses. Its isolation allowed its citizens to become surprisingly progressive. There was a large Quaker community here, and people who felt exploited often came to Nantucket because no one particularly cared if you were not white.

Brant Point Lighthouse and Harbor
Brant Point Lighthouse and Harbor

Some of the earliest women in American politics came from Nantucket. Nantucket generated one of the first accredited female physicians in the 19th century. Psychologically, you feel away from it all on the island. Except for the few that arrive by plane, getting to the island or off of it involves a ferry. You can still take the old fashioned steamboat ferries, but I arrived on one of the high-speed ferries that shortens the commute to an hour each way versus two and a quarter hours for the steamboat ferry.

November turned out to be a good time to visit. While the days are short, you don’t have to fight traffic although downtown it was still hard to find a parking space. With temperatures in the fifties and abundant sunshine, biking was a pleasure. The island has many bike trails that I followed out to the town of Siasconset on the southeast side of the island. There I encountered the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in many years. Looking out to sea, I realized a seal was surreptitiously looking back at me from time to time.

Beach near Siasconset
Beach near Siasconset

Like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket today feels largely like a place for the wealthy to live or get away to. But it feels less busy than the vineyard. As on Martha’s Vineyard there are plenty of ordinary people, mostly engaged in commerce, that somehow get by in spite of the high cost of living. I paid $60 for dinner for very good chicken curry with naan and desert. To live here must mean a lot of additional expenses going to and from the island. The high cost of living is explained in part by the costs of getting goods to the island. The Steamship Authority carries a lot of loaded semis to and from the island. I watched them queue up this afternoon from an observation post on the top of the Nantucket Whale Museum.

There are no mountains on Nantucket, and it is less forested than Martha’s Vineyard. But after biking more than twenty miles of biking today, I discovered I spent a lot of calories getting up gently rising bluffs of compressed coral. You can find what looks like many multi-million dollar estates, not just on bluffs by the sea, but further inland.

In town, you get a picture perfect vision of New England island life: cobblestone and bricked streets, long wharves, Cape Cod houses, picturesque streets with eateries, boutique shops, B&Bs and rental units, most pretty close to the beach.

So Nantucket certainly does feel unique and special. That it’s hard to get to is part of its allure. You don’t go to Nantucket on a whim, at least not unless you have a sizeable bank account. The mainland is just barely visible, and only on clear days. In most directions if you look out there is nothing to see between you and Europe.

If I lived long enough, I’d enjoy spending a decade or so on Nantucket. Meanwhile, I feel privileged to have come here, however briefly.

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