Nantucket is a singular New England escape. Take its sloping cobblestone streets, pink lady’s slipper orchids splitting the sandy soil, and glowing Christmas trees floating on boats in December. It is the world of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a natural splendor where rare species—such as double-crested cormorants and piping plovers—gather, and for travelers, it is a world-class destination ideal for kicking back. Easily accessible via plane from most Northeast airports, we also like to arrive on the more relaxed ferry from Martha’s Vineyard (or for those who don’t mind a longer boat ride, the six-hour ferry from New York) where drinks are served and you’ll land comfortably on this chunk of coastal New England. So much more than just a summer town, Nantucket is a beauty in winter, fall, and spring. Here is our guide to making the most of it.
Editor’s note: Given the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic—and the seasonality of Nantucket—the hours and accessibility of many places are fluid and subject to change. We advise you to contact businesses directly for updated safety guidelines and hours of operation before visiting.
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What to do in Nantucket
Nantucket is not a place where you go, go, go; people come here to slow down. If you’re visiting in the summer, that starts with a day at the beach. Every Nantucket beach suits a different purpose. Jetties Beach is your place for a do-nothing day. If you have kids, or simply don’t feel like packing snacks or traveling far from town, all good—you’re set on amenities here. The open-air restaurant Sandbar does a $1 oyster happy hour, serves cocktails and slings wings, sandwiches, and salads. With changing stations, a plastic mat that leads from the parking lot to the water, showers, volleyball nets, and a playground, Jetties is accessible and stress-free.
Surfside Beach is a little further out on the south of the island and accessible via bike path. Vast and sandy with a rougher surf, it attracts beachcombers scanning the shoreline in the mornings, kite flyers on the west end as the sun goes down, and surfcasters fishing in the evening.
On a cloudy day, walk the charming streets in town, among steepled churches and buildings with weathered grey shingles. The Whaling Museum tells the story of the dangerous and dramatic 18th-century whaling industry. The 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale is quite a sight. For shoppers, there are many gems to be found. Nantucket Looms weaves textiles at their own studio, including cashmere throws and mohair wraps. Townpool is a quirky souvenir shop that stacks an entire wall floor-to-ceiling with rubber ducks and sells rope bracelets, artsy maps, and cozy knits. G.S. Hill Gallery is a trove where oil paintings and Nantucket’s signature lightship baskets, made by the island’s artisans, can be found.
At night head to Cisco Brewers—a brewery that has expanded to include wine and a distillery that makes a 15-year single-malt whiskey. Expect food trucks, a gift shop, and live music to go with your tasting flight. For more of the outdoors, book a tee time at Miacomet Golf Club, wander along Sconset Bluff Walk, or cycle Madaket Road Path. (Rentals can be found in town, a short ride away from the start of the path, such as at Nantucket Bike Shop.)
What to eat on Nantucket
If you’re in Massachusetts, Nantucket included, you’re eating seafood. The oysters at Cru (open for the season in May) are well-known. Book far ahead and order some Champagne to pair with their oysters on the waterfront. For something upscale, head to nearby Dune for Atlantic halibut with coconut-lemongrass broth and chili-rubbed shrimp tostadas. For a good old fashioned Nantucket clam bake—replete with the essentials like steamers, mussels, clam chowder, lobster, corn on the cob, potatoes, butter, and broth—look no further than Sayle’s Seafood. Starting at $42 per person, the bake can be made to-go or catered; add-ons include shrimp cocktail, oysters on the half shell, and cheese platters.
For something more casual, Nantucket is also home to killer sandwiches. The Straight Wharf Fish Store, where locals pick up fresh catches to cook at home, also serves prepared foods like lobster rolls, chowder, and a fried swordfish sandwich. Find another one of the island’s best sandwiches at Something Natural. The BLT, on home-baked Portuguese bread is beach fare at its best; while the avocado, chutney, and cheddar is salty-sweet perfection. The famous Terry Terrific, which comes with turkey, herb bread stuffing, and cranberry sauce, is another hit.
For ice cream, everyone goes to Juice Bar. An oversize scoop of chocolate oreo ice cream in a fresh, buttery waffle cone is what you need in your life. There’s usually a line outside, but don’t let it deter you—you’ll need the wait to choose among their dozens of flavors.
For lighter fare, grab a charcuterie plate at the Proprietors (open for the season in April), margaritas in Madaket at Millie’s (open for the season in May), or peanut-crusted halibut at Sconset Café.
Where to stay in Nantucket
The hotel landscape on Nantucket is distinguished by plenty of posh stays and bed-and-breakfasts alike. The Nantucket Hotel (from $295 per night), which bills itself as the island’s only year-round stay, is a shingle mansion with a spacious wraparound porch, and has a past life as the 1891 Point Breeze hotel. Besides the hotel’s history, its homemade popovers, plush bathrobes, and complimentary ferry pick-up and drop-off service contribute to a feeling of home. (Though the two outdoor swimming pools are unlike home for most.) White Elephant (from $205 per night), a previous winner of Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards, is a luxe waterfront resort with a hotel, an inn, several cottages, and a couple lofts a walk away downtown, an excellent choice for families or groups of friends who want a space of their own. The Wauwinet (from $205 per night), a Relais & Chateaux hotel, a sister to the White Elephant, and Nantucket’s grande dame, is located on the more remote northeastern tip of the island. Wauwinet guests are often couples or families, content to be in a quiet area. It’s fancy and romantic. Life House (from $999 per night), which opened last summer, has all the appeal of a bed-and-breakfast, but with modern digs, a daily complimentary happy hour, and a beautifully designed patio where locals and hotel guests mingle.
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