NANTUCKET, Mass. — In years past, residents of this small island off the Massachusetts coast who were traveling to the mainland liked to say they were going to America. I'm doing the opposite: leaving America for the island. My aircraft — a plane so tiny it looks as if it could have been assembled from a child's model airplane kit — gives me pause. In the end, however, the world-class destination awaiting me wins out.
Nantucket is a blend of wind-battered sand dunes where roses grow wild, seaside cottages, three lighthouses, historic harbors, marshes and moors, cranberry bogs that turn the landscape crimson, chowder shacks, boat houses and mansions of former whaling captains, along with 80 miles of beach.
It is known fondly as the "little gray lady of the sea," for the billowing fogs that roll in during the winter, causing the island to disappear inside the thick folds.
But I'm here on a glorious week in May, and there's nary a tendril of fog to be seen. Instead, the entire town is swathed in showy white flowers, which I find out are a form of cherry blossoms common in New England.
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On the surface, it might be easy to define Nantucket in terms of statistics: 30 miles south of Cape Cod; 50 square miles in size; a year-round population of 12,000 that swells to 55,000 in July and August.
But Nantucket has always been more complex than that. It owes its distinctive poetry and culture to both natural and human forces.
As for nature, it was formed by a glacier millions of years ago which, upon its retreat, sculpted the island into its half-moon shape. It's regularly battered by nor'easters, gales and all manner of inhospitable weather, making its year-round residents a hardy lot indeed. You can imagine the mental quotation marks when they talk about the "summer people."
If the elements helped define the island, so did the human forces, beginning with the Wampanoag Indians, who named their spit of sand Nantucket, meaning "far-away place."
Next came English settlers led by Tristram Coffin, who, in a Manhattan-style purchase, bought the island for 30 pounds from Thomas Mayhew, who had received it from the Crown. Clearly a shrewd negotiator, Coffin also got two beaver hats out of the deal, one for himself and one for his wife.
It was the next period in its history, however, that put Nantucket on the map. For nearly a century, from the mid-1700s to the late 1830s, the island, as anyone who has read Herman Melville knows, was the whaling capital of the world. When the industry was at its peak, some 150 ships made Nantucket Harbor their port.
In his definitive novel, Moby Dick, Melville described Nantucket's dominance: "Two-thirds of this terraqueous globe belongs to the Nantucketer. For the area is his; he owns it as emperors own empires."
Visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum for a look at how the industry shaped the island and the islanders. In what was formerly a candle factory, the museum houses memorabilia from exquisitely carved scrimshaw to an equally exquisite glass lens from a 19th-century lighthouse.
The showstopper, however, is the skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale that washed ashore on Christmas Eve 1998.
By 1850, the whaling industry had moved from Nantucket to New Bedford, but the wealth it created left behind a plethora of magnificent buildings — from the captains' mansions to the multitude of gray clapboard houses whose color matches that of the winter fog. Surprisingly, Nantucket has more buildings on the National Register of Historic Places than Boston.
The best way to see them is on a leisurely stroll around town. Nantucket is so compact that walking almost anywhere is easy — its scale more that of an English village than an American town. A good starting point is at Steamboat or Straight Wharf, where ferries arrive from the Cape and the neighboring island of Martha's Vineyard. Both wharves are lined with shops and restaurants offering up the bounty of the Atlantic.
A short walk from the wharves will take you to Main Street, with its cobblestones, hanging flower baskets and gas lamps. This is a shopper's paradise, with one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries, craft shops and bookstores. In Nantucket, uniformity of any kind is anathema.
Pick up a hard-to-find tome at Mitchell's Book Corner or an artfully iced cupcake at Petticoat Row Bakery, or one of the iconic lightship baskets still made on island at The Basket Shop. The prices can be steep, but the merchants have good hearts, as evidenced by the dog bowls filled with water outside almost every shop.
Detour a few blocks off Main Street and marvel at the rows of Federalist and Greek Revival mansions, remnants of a bygone era when America's "royalty" — Vanderbilts, Mellons and du Ponts — all came here.
They're still coming in droves. Locals bemoan the loss of the raffish charm characteristic of the island 50 years ago, when a "fixer-upper" was still within the reach of those willing to put some elbow grease into their efforts. Now, the towns of Nantucket and Siasconset (called "'Sconset" by locals) on the opposite side of the island have largely been priced out of the reach of all but the 1 percent.
Michael Kittredge, who bought a 10,000-square-foot home complete with movie theater and 2,000-bottle wine cellar, after selling his Yankee Candle Co. for $500 million, described Nantucket in a New York Times article as "a castle with a moat around it."
It's true that Nantucket has become the Palm Beach and Sun Valley of the Eastern Seaboard, but there are still vestiges of the island as it was a half-century ago.
Many restaurants boast Manhattan prices, but the old-fashioned drugstore on Main Street still has a lunch counter/soda fountain where a tuna sandwich and a milkshake can be had for $5.
Admission to the Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum (more interesting than it sounds) is $6 for adults and $4 for children.
Perhaps best of all, you can get the heavens and all their glory for only $20. The Loines Observatory, operated by the Maria Mitchell Association, has a summer "See the Stars" program popular with adults and children.
Mitchell, born on the island in 1818, discovered a comet as a young girl and became the first woman admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
On a chilly spring evening we gathered at the observatory to get — in addition to a heart-stopping glimpse of Saturn with its rings — a clear view through the state-of-the-art research telescope of the night sky bejeweled with its star clusters.
Proving that even on Nantucket, the best things are (almost) free.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: Nantucket Island Resorts has a group of properties providing accommodations including cottages and lofts at the boat basin and a Relais & Chateaux inn.
On this trip, I stayed in two of them, White Elephant Village and The Wauwinet; on another occasion, I stayed at the Jared Coffin House. All were excellent.
For those wishing an atmosphere evoking the island's age of whaling, the three-story Coffin House is a good choice. A former private home, it is one of the oldest inns on Nantucket, with accommodations in both the main house and the Daniel Webster Cottage. Jaredcoffinhouse.com.
The more modern White Elephant Village has three types of accommodations: deluxe rooms, suites and one-, two- or three-bedroom private residences. Amenities include complimentary bicycles and afternoon port and cheese. It is an easy walk to both downtown attractions and its sister property, the White Elephant Hotel. Whiteelephantvillage.com.
The Wauwinet is Nantucket's only Relais & Chateaux property, with accommodations in both the main building and four cottages. Tucked away on the northeast corner of the island, it borders Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge and has private beaches on both the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Bay. Its restaurant, Topper's, is considered the island's finest. Wauwinet.com.
Learn more: Massvacation.com