A Nantucket Vacation: Making it Affordable and Easy, From Hotels to the Best Beaches
There once was a man from Nantucket…and because he was a local, he knew exactly what to see and do on the island. For the rest of us, Nantucket is trickier. Not only is it one of the priciest destinations in the United States (in high season), but its limited facilities can also make planning a trip feel like a exercise in compromise. Plus, the Massachusetts isle offers such an unusually rich mix of history, nature, and active activities that many visitors get to the end of their vacations and realize they didn’t do a fraction of what they had planned to. Wanna avoid making rookie mistakes? Read on.
Nantucket’s name probably comes from the Wampanoag word for “faraway island.” That's the first clue that it’s not simple to get to it. Nantucket sits some 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Some people make the island the endpoint of a road trip, taking their cars aboard a 2.5-hour ferry from Hyannis. But that’s a pricey approach, considering that taking a vehicle costs $400–$500 round-trip. My advice: Leave the car behind and sail as a foot passenger (cost $37.50/adult round-trip on the regular ferry, $77–$90 on fast ferries from Hyannis, New Bedford, and Harwich Port). Or better yet, fly. Midweek prices direct from New York City on JetBlue have been known to dip as low as $55 each way with advance purchase.
There aren't many hotels on Nantucket, which means they can pretty much charge what they please. In fact, Nantucket is the only place in North America to regularly exceed the high prices of New York City in the summer; we’re talking $450/night and up! Those in the know tend to either rent rooms in private homes or secure entire houses through such sites as HomeAway, Airbnb, and VRBO. That strategy cuts the cost of lodging in half, especially if you can travel in a group and amortize the rental fee of a cottage. In addition, the island has a cute hostel that’s isn't just a lifesaver for travelers—it’s also in a 19th-century lifesaving station.
Cut to the 1880s. The last whaling ship had departed the island in 1869, but savvy islanders soon discovered another potent source of income: tourism. They realized right away that to keep the charm of Nantucket intact, they’d need to pass strict preservation laws. So while the island’s structures weren’t built with tourists in mind, they were certainly protected for the good of tourism. Even today, all new homes must have pitched roofs (not flat ones) by law and they must be sided with unpainted cedar shingle that turn a gentle gray and give the settlements a soothing consistency.
But there’s more to beach-going on Nantucket than just the water. Great Point (beach permit and four-wheel drive required) and Sankaty Head (pictured) have lovely lighthouses to admire—and to climb, in the case of Great Point. You can’t beat the sunsets at Madaket. And Great Point and Eel Point are also de facto public zoos thanks to the number of seals that loll on their shores in summer. Click here for our rundown of the pluses and minuses of each beach on the island.
Pictured: Oyster shooters at Breezes Restaurant in the Nantucket Hotel.
Yes, the line at The Juice Bar often stretches down the block in August. But getting a cone at this ice cream parlor is an iconic Nantucket activity. The sweets, all made on-site, are truly scrumptious.
Nantucket bans national chain stores, which has protected the character of the shopping. You’ll find darling boutiques side-by-side with scrimshaw-laden antique stores, old-timey soda fountains, and touristy t-shirt shops. Nantucket Town is also home to the first bricks-and-mortar pop-up of the website Goop. Pictured is Murray’s Toggery, where one can purchase famous “Nantucket Red” slacks and shorts. Alas, the prices at these stores are not old fashioned, but hey, window-shopping is free.