In his classic novel, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville wrote, "Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore . . ." More than 100 years later, this tiny island 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod still defines itself, in part, by its isolation. At only 3 1/2 by 14 miles in size, Nantucket is smaller and more insular than Martha's Vineyard. But charm-wise, Nantucket stands alone -- all the creature comforts of the 21st century wrapped in an elegant 19th-century package.
The island has long appealed to wealthy visitors, and the ultrarich are more visible than ever. Locals shake their heads over the changing demographics. "If they can't get a reservation at a restaurant, they buy the restaurant," one islander said. Nevertheless, this is still a terrific spot for a family vacation or a romantic retreat. After all, window-shopping at the island's exclusive boutiques and soaking up the sunshine on the pristine beaches are both free of charge.
The Nantucket we see today is the result of a dramatic boom and bust that took place in the 1800s. The whaling capital of the world, the Nantucket of Melville's time was a bustling international port whose wealth and sophistication belied its size. But the discovery of crude oil spelled doom for the whale-oil industry. Nantucket sank into a severe economic depression until the tourism industry revived it at the end of the 19th century. Stringent regulations have preserved the 19th-century character of Nantucket Town, and today 36% of the island (and counting) is maintained as conservation land.
Nantucket Island's one town, also called Nantucket, hugs the yacht-filled harbor. This sophisticated burg bursts with bountiful stores, quaint inns, cobblestone streets, interesting historic sites, and pristine beaches. Scores of shops and galleries occupy wharf shacks on the harbor. The rest of the island is mainly residential, but for a couple of notable villages. Siasconset (nicknamed 'Sconset), on the east side of the island, is a tranquil community with picturesque, rose-covered cottages and a handful of businesses, including a pricey French restaurant. Sunset aficionados head to Madaket, on the west coast of the island, for the evening spectacular.
The lay of the land on Nantucket is rolling moors, heaths, cranberry bogs, and miles of exquisite public beaches. The vistas are honeymoon-romantic: an operating windmill, three lighthouses, and a skyline dotted with church steeples. Although July and August are still the most popular times to visit the island, Nantucket's tourist season has been lengthened considerably by several popular festivals: the Daffodil Festival in April, Nantucket Harvest Weekend in October, and the month-long Nantucket Noel, the granddaddy of all holiday celebrations in the region. Off season a vacation can be more tranquil, and certainly less expensive. The "Grey Lady's" infamous fog is liable to swallow you whole, but you may well learn to relish the moody, atmospheric weather.