Thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod lies the elite, crescent-shaped island of Nantucket, known for its history of whaling, pristine shoreline, and world-class summer homes. With three well-known lighthouses, over twenty-five beaches, a quaint downtown area with cobblestone streets, and plenty of boutiques, restaurants, and museums, plus a brewery, winery, and distillery, it is remarkable that this charming escape is only fourteen miles in length. Accessible by public ferry, boat, or plane, the most common line of travel is by high speed ferry, through Hy-Line Cruises, or passenger/vehicle ferry through The Steamship Authority.
Upon arriving at Steamboat Wharf in Nantucket Sound, you can catch a glimpse of Great Point Light, a white speck in the distance, and greeting you in the harbor is Brant Point Light. In the summertime, the docks are filled with luxury yachts and fishing boats and you can barely see the harbor waters. In the off-season, the docks are basically empty and you can clearly view the swells of the Atlantic shimmering in the autumn sunlight. Much of the architecture around the island is carefully planned pre-Civil War colonial-style homes with weathered, grey cedar shingles and white trim.
Downtown, historic Nantucket is almost all cobblestone with very narrow, one-way streets, packed with restaurants, boutiques, museums, galleries, theaters, places of worship, and beds and breakfasts. Since there is only one town, Nantucket, the villages surrounding the town are known as neighborhoods. Off the western shore is Tuckernuck Island, a former whaling port, and beyond Tuckernuck lies the uninhabited, Muskeget Island, home to native Muskeget or Beach Vole, a type of small mammal.
With many homes dating pre-Civil War, it only makes sense that Nantucket is home to two of the oldest known historic structures in the Unites States. The first being the Old Mill, built in 1764, the oldest operating windmill in the United States, still grinding corn into cornmeal to this day. The second is Brant Point Light, one of three lighthouses on the island, and one of the top ten oldest light houses in America.
The are only three lighthouses on Nantucket, versus the five on Martha’s Vineyard and twenty-two in Cape Cod. They are, Brant Point Light, located past the Coast Guard Station on a beach downtown, Sankaty Light, stationed on the eastern shore in the neighborhood of Sconset, and Great Point Light, based on the tip of the remote Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge.
Things To Do Off-Season
One of the few museums open off-season is the Whaling Museum. Take yourself on a self-guided audio/visual tour, starting with the earliest recorded days on the island, detailing life before and after the days of the booming whaling industry. With multiple interactive exhibits and an impressive room of ivory artifacts and impossibly detailed scrimshaw. The museum is home to a massive forty-six foot Sperm Whale skeleton, and an eighteen-foot jaw bone from a Bull Sperm Whale, among many other rare and worldly artifacts.
Visit the sought-out, sixty-foot historic and, almost, impossibly remote Great Point Lighthouse on the sandy shores of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, open year-round and managed by The Trustees. The lighthouse is roughly three miles from the gatehouse. Renting a four wheel drive vehicle already equipped with an OSV (over sand vehicle) permit is advised and will make your excursion much more enjoyable. The Trustees advise waiting until low tide to venture out and deflating your tires to 15 PSI in order to gain traction and protect the dunes. On the way out, after the gatehouse, there are two free pumping stations to refill the air in your tires.
The journey out to Great Point Light is unlike any other off-roading excursion, with a three-hundred and sixty degree view of the refuge with the ocean waves cascading inches from your vehicle. At one point you are driving in a narrow sand bar with ocean on both sides! The great thing about visiting in the off-season is there is much less vehicle traffic and it is grey seal mating season. You can catch the colony of grey seals sunning, adjacent to the lighthouse, and poking their heads out of the ocean in pure curiosity.
A trip to Nantucket isn’t complete without catching a glimpse of the dazzling sun seemingly floating on the water during sunset. Additionally, much later in the evening when it is pitch-dark, staring in awe at the many twinkling stars in the sky. During the off-season, take a late night drive to Sankaty Lighthouse, where there is little to no light pollution, you will feel like you were placed in an observatory.
Tip: When driving, especially at night, take caution not to frighten the numerous deer that come out at night to feast!
Why is Nantucket Called /Nan-Tuck-It/?
The Wampanog people were the earliest known settlers of the island, connected with the Algonquin natives of southern New England. The name, Nantucket, derives from the Algonquin word ‘Natockete’ meaning ‘faraway place’. Therefore, Nantucket is known as the faraway island.
According to Wampanog natives’ legend, a great giant named Maushop, was asleep the shores of Cape Cod, and woke up with sand in his moccasin. He grew weary and kicked his moccasin into the ocean, and it formed Martha’s Vineyard. He went back to sleep, to awake, yet again, with sand in his remaining moccasin. He kicked that moccasin even further into the ocean, forming Nantucket.