The secret that used to be Nantucket has long been out. Each summer, the island receives an increasing influx of tourists in the months between Memorial Day and Labor Day who come to experience this unique place. Outside that time period, though, Nantucket is a much different world. In fact, a long weekend in mid-May may be the perfect time to experience the real Nantucket.
Sitting on the deck of the slow ferry this time of year for the trip is by no means a sunny ride, but braving through it will be worth it. Thick fog and brief, intermittent rain storms occur seemingly every day this time of year, but bundled up inside a sweater and jacket, the ocean spray and salty wind can be comfortably enjoyed. After a two hour ferry ride through a dense cloud covering the sound, the small lighthouse at Brant Point is the first structure that peaks through the early spring fog as the ferry nears the island. The wharf, which will soon be loaded with yachts and other conspicuous boats in the coming weeks for the annual Figawi race, is quiet. The docks are sparsely occupied with small watercraft and fishing vessels. Compared to peak season, the island is semi-deserted; it feels calm and is quaint in appearance.
The calm before the storm
On land, the island feels remarkably cosier without the usual bustling mass of summer visitors. In the absence of crowds, the real Nantucket can be appreciated: rugged nature, unique ecosystems and history hidden in nooks and crannies. A leisurely jog through the trails and tall grasses of Madaket is accompanied by a remarkable number of birds – robins, cardinals, sparrows, doves, finches – all squabbling and flitting around the entire way. A walk around the town center is also lovely, the soft pink flowers of the trees along Main Street and surrounding streets having fully bloomed by early May, their arms cascading and casting shadows over cobblestones.
Perhaps one of the best advantages of visiting Nantucket this time of year are the culinary choices that are much more accessible. restaurants that are otherwise seemingly impossible to get into during the bustling July and August weekends are relatively uncrowded, especially on on mainstream. Nautilus—a relative newcomer with rave reviews and a long waiting list during peak season—serves up what one TripAdvisor reviewer referred to as “Japan Meets New England in Spain.” Locals flock to Le Languedoc on Broad Street for innovative brunch dishes, while Seagrille is a known for its award-winning clam chowder and vinegary cole slaw.
For a slightly more upscale meal, head to Cru, one of the newer establishments on the island offering casually elegant cuisine in a visually stunning waterfront setting on Nantucket harbor. Menu favorites include the crispy Calamari with Pickled Sweet & Hot Peppers & Harissa Aioli, fresh Nantucket Lobster Roll, Steamed Cape Cod Mussels, Soft Shell Crab Sliders and a wonderful Fried Chicken Sandwich. Beachcombers flock to The Galley to sink their feet into the sand as they dine al fresco. (See Noshing On Nantucket for more ideas).
The island’s beaches should be fairly empty, making for great beach walks, undisturbed. Surfers will enjoy Cisco Beach and Nobadeer Beach on the south shore. Waves normally rise to five feet but rip currents are strong. Rent a jeep and drive to Sconset Beach. Don’t forget your fishing poles. Striped bass and bluefish abound. Hire a captain to take you on a whale-watching trip. Although the island was once the whaling capital of the world and was instrumental in nearly making the mammals extinct in the 1800s, the graceful creatures can still be spotted off shore.
Though island inhabitants are comparatively few this time of year, you can still manage to find a party if you’re in the mood for some fun. Cisco Brewery, Nantucket Vineyard and Triple Eight Distillery, located all together on Bartlett Farm Road, are the perfect place to engage in a little festive behavior. Though the vineyard is not yet open, the friendly local bartenders from the brewery will happily serve a large assortment of freshly brewed craft beer, including their famous Whale’s Tale Pale Ale.
As for dining, spots like Millie’s and Fresh won’t be serving until the season starts, but Boarding House is open and ready to conjure up tasty dinners and celebratory champagne for early comers. Club goers may not be able to find a wild crowd, but if you’re up for a bit of dancing and a few Dark N’ Stormies, several bars in town are filled with fun groups of locals.
There is something remarkably cozy and calming about heading 30 miles out to sea and casting yourself away on an intriguing island that feels a few centuries behind the mainland. Maybe it’s the mysterious gray fog or maybe it’s because Nantucket is home to one of America’s largest concentrations of pre-Civil War structures. Maybe it’s the test of getting there – if you’re travelling to the Grey Lady from anywhere else besides Cape Cod, you can expect a full day dedicated to travel. Or maybe it’s something completely intangible that makes this island so enchanting. Regardless, when you arrive and step onto the dock, you can’t help but feel like you’ve travelled back in time and removed yourself from reality.
Of course, you’ll eventually need a place to rest your head and this time of year should fetch you a pretty good deal on hotels, rentals and other lodging options. For great harbor views, check into the 90-year-old, 53-room White Elephant Hotel. Smiling staff members greet you by name. Rooms have comfortable living areas and balconies. Photographs of vintage trawlers and sailing vessels line the wall. Beds are enveloped in cream-colored organic linens lovingly hand-embroidered with white elephants. For a more luxurious stay, the hotel runs the White Elephant Hotel Residences. Each of the one-, two- and three-bedroom residences has white-oak floors, large modern kitchens and dining areas and expansive bathrooms.
The Nantucket Hotel & Resort (aka “The Nantucket”) opened its doors in the summer of 1891 and, today, still embodies the spirit of that age. Early advertisements boasted of the hotel’s running water, gaslights, billiard halls, croquet lawns, sea views, and orchestra. Guests danced across the Hotel ballroom’s polished, wooden floors or reclined in rocking chairs on the verandah. The more adventurous guests even allowed themselves, in the words of a newspaper from that period, “the invigorating and delightful indulgence of sea bathing.”
In the summer of 2012, The Nantucket, re-opened its doors after the most extensive refurbishment in its history. The Hotel retains the authentic feel of its historic exterior, while inside, it embodies a completely new, casual-style atmosphere and 21st-century, family-friendly comforts. The Hotel’s new name pays tribute to the Point Breeze’s predecessor and neighbor, “The Nantucket,” which was the first grand hotel built on Nantucket in 1885.
With its two outdoor heated swimming pools, The Nantucket Club, Breeze restaurant, and Grand Ballroom, The Nantucket offers the all-suites’ accommodations and amenities that guests expect from a world-class hotel that is within close proximity to the beach and heart of Nantucket’s historic, old town.