Going Ashore

The standard gloss on Nantucket goes something like "With its soda fountains, cobblestone streets and flower-brimming window boxes, Main Street in this island's downtown area seems preserved in amber." {NYT 04.12.06} Well, almost. The town is immaculately attractive from its cobblestones up. But it's not so much preserved in amber as it is suspended in willing disbelief.

Nantucket's development follows a pattern familiar in eastern Massachusetts, but the arc of her story is unique for its extremes. The early prosperity generated in the peak years of Nantucket's whaling industry (say 1815 to the 1840s) was spectacular, world-renown, and highly concentrated among ship owners and captains. The stagnation following whaling's decline was protracted, really through WWII, though ameliorated some by tourism.

Also unique to Nantucket's evolution is the outsized influence of one man, the investor and developer Walter Beinecke. In the mid 1960s, Beinecke bought up something like 80% of the town's commercial acreage including much of the waterfront. The parcels (including the Boat Basin and a majority of downtown storefronts) have been sold a couple of times since. But with a few changes, they are still held by a single developer. {BG 04/30/05}

Beinecke's vision for the island, his marriage of 20th century money to pre-industrial aesthetics, set Nantucket on a course to what we see today. He valued old buildings, open space, and a well-off clientele. So he bought up land for conservation, spent generously to rehabilitate historic structures, and pressured his business tenants to go upmarket, to avoid the generic commercialism he saw overspreading the Cape. Quoted in TIME {07.26.68} Beinecke said "Instead of selling six postcards and two hot dogs, you have to sell a hotel room and a couple of sports coats."

Two sports coats? Ring-a-ding ding.

Forty years into this carefully constructed image, the line between what's in bounds and what's out can leave you scratching your head. It was the arrival of a Ralph Lauren store in 2004 that prompted forecasts of the apocalypse from town fathers - "If it starts a domino effect, that turns a disaster into a catastrophe." {BG 02.21.04} - and a subsequent ban on chain stores in town. {NYT 04.12.06}

Instead, the downtown features ostensibly local independent businesses that are lovingly curated by the wives of off-island hedge fund managers or Silicon Valley billionaires. {BG 08.29.12}

The economy now consists, according to the island's newspaper, of "tourism and the construction of multi-million dollar summer homes" while "the sky-high cost of living has driven more than a few islanders to the mainland." {I&M} This 20th century reincarnation as a premier summer destination has returned Nantucket to international prominence.

And the old town preserved in amber? It's hard to believe that a port devoted to the ferociously bloody business of killing whales ever looked this pretty.

{Open sources in a new window.}

Nantucket streetscape
Geoff Rand
Those irresistible downtown cobblestone streets.

One Hour Ashore

Sailing to Nantucket for a one hour visit would be a classic instance of "a long long time to be gone and a short time to be there." Most people spend two nights in the harbor in order to have a full day on the island. On a one night stay, you'll probably walk around the waterfront, go out to dinner, and resolve to come back.

Off the Beaten Path

You can rent bikes from a number of shops close by the waterfront, and a 6 or 7 mile ride out of the centrally located town will get you to just about any destination on the island. For a guide to beaches and other attractions, try here.

To get as far from town as possible, you can visit Great Point Light in the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge. The lighthouse is a 4 mile walk after a 6 mile ride.

Maritime History

The Whaling Museum, part of the Nantucket Historical Association, is just a block in from the Steamship Authority Wharf. Their focused collections and imaginatively presented exhibits on whaling history and island history are absolutely worth a visit.

Rainy Day

If you tire of the toggeries, try The Chicken Box.

quaker graveyard
Geoff Rand
Graveyard on the road to Madaket.

Facilities

  • Launch
  • Dinghy
  • Showers
  • Restrooms
  • Trash
  • Info

Launch service is available. See the navigation page for a more complete description. Dinghy in to the town dock.

For Boat Basin customers, there are restrooms and showers in several places on the wharves. For mooring customers, the facilities are at the town dock.

Be prepared to sort your trash and recyclables. The Boat Basin expects you to use see-through trash bags, provided when you sign in.

For researching events and activities, start with the island's newspaper, the Inquirer & Mirror or their Visitors Guide. The Nantucket Historical Association and Nantucket Boat Basin sites also lead in a number of helpful directions.