July 24, 2014

Ah, Nantucket

There’s a place in my imagination that I know so well. Its vast expanse of hard-packed beach is fringed with dune grasses. Separating beach from dune is an old fence: skinny sticks of weather-beaten cedar (maybe from an ancient fishing boat?) strung together with wire. Half-buried in places by windswept sand and random clumps of wild roses, it’s not so much constructed as draped, like the tail of a kite taken down by the wind.

Just beyond the fence, on a rise overlooking the sea, is a large Victorian house, shingled in unpainted gray cedar with whitewashed trim. Its wooden floors are polished to a rich patina, helped along, I imagine, by generations of bare summer feet. It has high ceilings and delightfully odd-shaped rooms. 

It has gables and a wide porch and old-fashioned windows made to fling open to catch the sea breezes. A thick green carpet of lawn rolls gently down to the harbor where sailboats are flitting past a pretty red and white lighthouse.

Behind the house is a sea of rugged moors and, nearby, a charming village with rose-covered cottages tucked into narrow lanes. I imagine a weathered rowboat or two, washed up among some reeds, forgotten. I can see children raking the sand for clams, and grownups gathered around wooden tables piled with seafood baskets and vases of summer hydrangeas. I imagine the distant wail of a ship’s foghorn.

I don’t know where all this came from. My best guess is a picture book I loved as a child, with a healthy infusion of the Emily Brontë novel, Wuthering Heights, and perhaps a touch of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Last summer, purely by accident, I stumbled across my imagined place, or rather a composite of it. The house was just as I pictured; so were the storybook cottages and rose trellises, the windblown fences, the hydrangeas and even the abandoned boat.

This place, as maybe you guessed, is the small island of Nantucket. Not so much the island’s biggest town, also named Nantucket, but a collage of the island’s parts.

Nantucket town is in many ways a sister to Naples. The arts and shopping district of this famed seaside resort destination swells to several times its population during the July-to-August “season.” Excellent museums, upscale boutiques and restaurants are tucked into and among sea captains’ houses and historic buildings, sharing the landscape with ice cream and souvenir shops.

The harborfront itself is an objet d’art, with its faded wharf buildings leaning into each other, heavy with flower boxes and hanging baskets. This is exactly why so many day-trippers catch the morning ferry in from Hyannis (Cape Cod), spend the entire day strolling around historic Nantucket town and then hop the last ferry out without ever leaving the harbor area. This, in fact, is what we almost do.

Originally, the two-part focus of our long, lazy weekend was: 1) great quantities of the island’s famous clam chowder, and 2) Capt. Blair Perkins’ whaleboat. The clam chowder part is easy, but we can’t agree on whether to take the whale-watching excursion or the cruise to a remote island to see a colony of gray seals. So we book both days, back to back.

What we didn’t expect were the rough seas that postponed our whale trip by a day, combined with the serendipitous opportunity to ride along with Ryan Grant, director of hospitality for Nantucket Island Resorts, as he gave a new employee a driving tour of the island.

Who knew that the 18th-century whaling capital of the world, with its picturesque wharves and art colony, also has rugged moors and heathlands right out of a Brontë novel? Not to mention cranberry bogs, sheer cliffs and a remote, 1,100-acre wildlife refuge accessible primarily by foot or boat.

So it is that I found the tiny vine-covered cottages of my imagination, perched on the edge of a cliff in the village of ’Sconset. (Technically it’s Siasconset, but only outsiders call it that.)

Once an actor’s colony on the island’s southeastern shore, it consists mainly of a charming café (and package store), a miniature post office and a grocery market/deli/bakery/general store.

A narrow road connects even narrower lanes named for berries, birds and pretty ladies of the past century. There, the cottages—some of them seaside shanties dating back to the 1700s—are clad in unpainted gray cedar with white trim. There are white picket fences and rose trellises, including my favorite one, which drapes over the roof and covers the entire cottage.

Lobster traps, buoys, clam rakes and other necessities of seaside village life add ambiance to the minuscule gardens. I’m charmed to see a pockmarked wooden picnic table, perfect for my platter of lobsters and vase of fresh-cut hydrangeas. A steep path leads down to the beach, and there is my fence in the dunes. Seals bob in the waves near the shoreline as frothy breakers crash onto the hard-packed golden sand. 

As for my grand-scale house on the hill, there are actually two: The Wauwinet at the end of a winding road on the northeast shore, and the White Elephant in Nantucket Town at the nautical entry point to the island.

The Wauwinet lies at the gateway to the untamed Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, between the wild Atlantic Ocean and the northern tip of Nantucket Harbor. Technically not a house at all, it is a gracious seaside inn dating back to the mid 1800s. Once, it fell into ruin and spent years vacant and forlorn, until a woman named Jill Karp (who must have had my same dream) acquired it with her husband, Stephen. Mrs. Karp spent several years transforming it, and today it’s among the most acclaimed small hotels in the world. The Wauwinet is everything I imagined, with added bonuses such as Pratesi linens, fresh flowers from the gardens and artful amenities that one would expect from a Relais & Chateau hotel, which it now is. All 32 rooms, each unique, are pretty much perfect. For sheer romance, my personal recommendations are dormer rooms 302 and 303.

It’s said that a magnificent white elephant appeared to the mother of Buddha in a dream. It presented her with a lotus flower, prophesying Buddha’s birth. A beautiful story after which to name a beautiful place, but that is not the origin of the name of one of America’s most distinguished hotels. Instead, “white elephant” is what islanders called the idea of a certain Elizabeth Temple Ludwig back in 1919, when she began buying old Nantucket cottages and setting them down at the mouth of Nantucket Harbor. Her vision was to connect them with gardens and transform them into a hotel. As it turned out, she had not only exquisite taste but also an exquisite sense of humor, because when her lovely hotel was complete, that is what she named it. Nearly a century later, an artful white elephant sculpture presides over the lush green lawn, where arriving and departing ferries, sailors and fishermen can pay her homage. The cedar-shingled hotel, with its gables and hydrangea gardens, matches my dream place, right down to the white wicker chaises.

The White Elephant and the Wauwinet are both now owned by Nantucket Island Resorts.

 

See, Taste, Explore

Sankaty Lighthouse

About a mile from ‘Sconset at the end of Baxter Street, the beautiful red and white lighthouse, built in 1850, recently was moved back 400 feet to keep it from tumbling down an eroding 90-foot bluff.

Sayles Seafood

At the far end of Washington Street, past the Nantucket Town Wharf, the front porch of a plain wooden shack is packed with locals feasting on huge baskets of mussels, cod, lobster, crab and clams. Imagine three-quarters of a pound of “steamers” for $7.75, or a crab cake for $4.50! Dress code: Whatever.

Topper’s

At the other end of the spectrum is Topper’s at the Wauwinet, as sophisticated as Sayles is laid back. Without argument the finest restaurant on Nantucket, it racks up top culinary awards, including the coveted Wine Spectator Grand Award. This never actually appeared in my dream, but I hereby incorporate it forevermore. With its wine cellar of more than 1,450 selections (alas, we tasted only three), the magic of Executive Chef Kyle Zachary and an authentically warm and gracious service staff, Topper’s, we agree, is one of our best-ever dining experiences.

Shearwater Excursions

Capt. Blair Perkins—commercial fisherman, boat captain and naturalist—has been plying the seas around Nantucket for 30 years. With his wife, Rachael, and son, Alex, they work with universities and research organizations, and also offer whale-watching excursions and seal cruises on their 47-foot catamaran, Shearwater. The half-day whale excursion (bring your lunch) goes about 25 miles offshore, where Capt. Blair follows humpback, finback and Minke whales. If we don’t see a whale, he says, we get a ticket for a return trip.

The two-and-a-half-hour seal cruise visits remote Muskeget Island, breeding ground of 3,000 gray seals. The curious creatures don’t wait for our arrival. They brave the potential danger of their worst enemy, the great white shark, to meet us a mile or so out, poking up their whiskered, hook-nosed faces for a closer look. Capt. Blair says they’re just out for a swim, but I prefer my story.

The whale excursions ($148 adult, $130 children) and seal cruises ($90 adult, $70 children) run from mid-June to mid-October. The company also offers ice cream harbor tours, cocktail cruises and private charters. (508) 228-7037.

Whaling and Shipwrecks

The skeleton of the 46-foot sperm whale suspended from the rafters of the Nantucket Whaling Museum dwarfs the 1700s-era spears and harpoons displayed behind it. Gifted storytellers, artifacts and interactive exhibits bring this intense period of Nantucket’s history to life. The panoramic view of Nantucket from the roof is well worth the modest $17 ticket price.

Getting Around

Catch a NRTA shuttle for $2 or less to bike paths, beaches, ‘Sconset and points of interest.

Coming Up On Nantucket

Daffodil Festival Weekend, April 29 to May 1. Three million daffodils, give or take a few thousand, appear on everything from antique cars to ladies’ hats. www.nantucketchamber.org. (508) 228-1700.

Nantucket Wine Festival, May 19–23, www.nantucketwinefestival.com, (508) 228-1128.

Nantucket Restaurant Week, June 6–12. Three-course meals ranging from $25 to $45. www.nantucketrestaurantweek.com, (508) 228-3643.

Nantucket Film Festival, June 17–20. A top-notch event with eminent board members, including Ben Stiller and Brian Williams. www.nantucketfilmfestival.org, (508) 325-6274.

And More…

Autumn brings discounted hotel, shopping and restaurant prices, and wonderful “insider” events such as a chowder contest, a cranberry festival and other artful events. www.nantucketchamber.org. (508) 228-1700.

Getting There

Several small airlines, including Cape Air, fly directly into Nantucket. We drove from Boston to Cape Cod, lingering overnight at a wonderful bed and breakfast called Annabelle in the historic town of Sandwich.

The pale yellow, two-story inn with stunning gardens was designed in the style of the 1759 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House in Cambridge, Mass., making it hard to believe it’s almost new. Our Beach Rose room is $235 per night, May through October. www.annabellebedandbreakfast.com, (508) 833-1419.

After an elaborate and sumptuous breakfast prepared and served by innkeepers Paula and Brian Murphy, we had a leisurely drive to Hyannis to pick up the Steamship Authority high-speed ferry at 11 a.m., arriving at noon. Rates: $67 round trip. www.steamshipauthority.com, (508) 495-3278.

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