There Once Was a Man: Nantucket Past and Present

If the only thing you know about Nantucket is the inappropriate limerick, you’re missing out.  This tiny island off the coast of Cape Cod is one of the most beautiful, quaint, and surprisingly educational places I’ve ever been.  In fact, on a recent trip I discovered that with the right guide, the island of Nantucket can be as interesting and informative as any stuffy old museum.  And Nantucket has sunshine and sailboats, cobblestone and quahogs. Take that, British Museum!

Upon arrival, I wandered around town for a while, stopping here and there to take photos (because, well, that’s what I do).  You could pass a perfectly lovely day doing just this–along with some shopping and dining, of course.  But you could have an even lovelier day if you dig a little deeper.

One option is to add one of the excellent guided tours offered by the Nantucket Historical Association–and that’s exactly what I did.  The tours leave from the Whaling Museum several times per day and are, in my opinion, one of the best travel bargains you’ll find.

Because  I was visiting in the middle of the week, my tour group was comprised of exactly three people–myself and a woman and her mother.  Our guide was Sue Ellen, and she was a treasure trove of information.  She was also very understanding of the fact that I took notes on almost everything she said–feverishly typing into the memo app on my iPhone.  While the tour was chock-full of interesting facts, tidbits, and history lessons, I’ll share only a few of the highlights.  For the rest, well, you’ll just have to take the tour yourself.

Things I Learned on my Nantucket Walking Tour

  • Whale oil was a really big deal in the 1700s.  It was pretty much the only fuel people had.  This made Nantucket really, really important.  I imagine it to be a sort of eighteenth century maritime middle east.
  • Because whaling was so important–and because whales are finite resources–whalers would have to go farther and farther to find them and bring them back to Nantucket.  Eventually they were sailing as far as the pacific islands.  This completely blows my mind, as I cannot imagine traveling that far–from Nantucket, around the tip of South America, and yet farther north and west.  In a really small boat.  To kill whales.
  • Rowland H. Macy was a failure of a sailor from Nantucket.  He hated being at sea, and got a tattoo on his hand in the south pacific–a red star–to remind him of the time he almost drowned at sea (and to remind him why he should never go back to sea again).  After several also-failed attempts at starting a clothing store on Nantucket, he moved to another island and bought some land.  His store is still there today–on W. 34th and Broadway.
  • Nantucket was settled by Quakers.  Because of this, it has always been a center of learning, as Quakers value education.  Additionally, because of this, it was one of the first places to abolish slavery; Nantucket Quakers wore only wool–not cotton–because cotton was part of the slave industry and they did not want their money to be part of that industry.  (This story made me feel much better about my refusal to eat at Chick Filet.  But that’s a rant for a totally different blog.)

Our tour took us all through Nantucket town–along the harbor, down narrow alleyways, and ending inside the old Quaker meeting house.  The focus was always on the history of Nantucket; trust me, history is much more interesting when you are standing in the place about which you are learning.  It was one of the most enjoyable and informative tours I’ve ever experienced.  Yes, that’s right–I loved a tour that did not include food or drinks!   Behold the power of  well-narrated history lessons.

After the walking tour, I should have stopped for lunch.  But stopping for lunch would be so unlike me; after all, I only had six hours on Nantucket.  I had to make the most of it.  So forsaking anything caloric (or even thirst quenching) I moved on to my next goal:  get out of town.

I visited Nantucket many years ago when spending the summer on Marthas Vineyard; at that time, I mainly went to have lunch and to check out the Whaling Museum, and I did not venture from the very small town center.  This time I vowed I’d get out of Nantucket town proper and explore more of the island.  And so, having planned absolutely nothing in advance, I walked into the Nantucket Island Tours office and bought a ticket on one of their tours.

While the town walking tour gave me great information about the history of Nantucket, the bus tour was full of information on modern-day Nantucket.  We learned about building codes–which sounds boring but is really the reason Nantucket is so darn quaint.  We learned how certain houses got their names–most houses on Nantucket have names–stopped at the Sankaty lighthouse (overlooking a golf course), and drove through the impossibly cute town of Sconset.

The oddest part of modern-day Nantucket is the Nantucket Serengeti–a stretch of cleared land that really does resemble the Serengeti plains (though I’ve only seen the real thing on National Geographic shows–and the fake thing in Walt Disney World).  To make this land even more Serengeti-esque,  someone at some point decided needed giant plywood animals and made it his or her job to construct them.  Thus, the land is now dotted with painted forms of zebras and elephants.  It’s actually pretty amusing.

After the bus tour ended, I had maybe twenty minutes until it was time to board the ferry.  I used my time wisely–by visiting the ice cream shop right by the ferry dock.  I can’t think of a better ending to a perfectly lovely day in one of the most beautiful–and educational–places on earth. Though here’s a tip:  if you are going to stand in line for the ferry while eating an ice cream cone in the sun, grab some napkins.  Trust me.

How to visit Nantucket from Cape Cod

Nantucket makes a wonderful day trip from Cape Cod–that is, if you can make yourself leave the cape for even one day of your vacation (and in my opinion you should–the Cape is amazing but so are the islands.)  I took the Hyline Ferry from Hyannis Harbor.  The ferry leaves several times per day, though a typical day-trip visitor will take the 9:10 ferry to Nantucket and the 4:35 ferry back; this is what I did.  The standard summertime fare for the fast ferry is $77 round trip (the traditional ferry, while slower, is also less expensive at $45 round trip).  However, visit in shoulder season and you may find some great deals.  For example, right now they are running a special that includes lunch for the same cost as a fast-ferry ticket.  Check out the website HERE for more information.

Have you visited Nantucket or Marthas Vineyard?  They are two of my favorite places in the world–in fact, Martha’s Vineyard may be number one on my list of best places anywhere–so I’d love to hear your stories about these two islands.  Please share in the comments section below! 

Disclaimer:  While this post is full of links, no one made me add them.  Heck, no one even encouraged me to add them.  I chose to participate in both tours and purchased my own tickets for both. I have provided links simply to help you plan your own day trip to Nantucket.  If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to ask in the comments section.  I reply to all.


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