Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Nantucket - Great Off Season

For good reason, Nantucket is the hideaway of choice for America’s investment bankers and captains of industry. The island is gorgeous, in that Ralph Lauren kind of way, removed, but not too far, and blessed with several charming towns, lovely heaths and moors and 50 miles of beachfront. You can choose from a surfer’s beach, a children’s beach, a nude beach and scores of others with waves ranging from tiny to titanic. There are golf courses, tennis and yacht clubs, bike paths, stables and plenty of gourmet food. But do not visit this magical paradise in summer. During the high season of June, July and August, traffic and parking are a nonsense and prices are insane. By contrast, Nantucket in the off-season offers a premier US holiday destination for the independent traveller who loves to travel but is highly allergic to tourism.

However you come to Nantucket, once you arrive, you will begin to relax. For me this feeling results from the smell of ocean and scrub pine, the sound of waves and birds and an old-fashioned scruffy Yankee ethos that even the island’s new money enjoy imitating. Old but cool cars, dogs with bandanas, bleached red trousers and beat-up shoes are the order of the day.

Although flights are quick and easy, I prefer the romance of arriving by boat. The ferries ( or ), which depart from Hyannis, Massachusetts, have gotten faster over the years. It now takes just an hour, except for the car ferry which takes just over 2, although sadly the ships have lost some character. The cell phone brigade keeps calling their offices and the interior seats and tables resemble fast food furniture. Still, there are fun moments that remind you that you are off to a far away place. The crew look weather beaten and speak with a Massachusetts accent so thick it almost begs for subtitles. On my last passage from Hyannis to Nantucket, I saw a team of high spirited girls with lacrosse sticks returning to the mainland after a game on the island. I thought at the time, “This sure beats getting on a school bus.”

Perfection is carefully managed on Nantucket and for an island full of marauding capitalists, the town fathers have taken quite a socialistic approach to community living. No matter how much money you have, your house can not be seen to mar the good taste of the island. You may not change either the colour of your window trim or the shingles on your roof without permission. Anything built today is clad in cedar shingles and creeping roses are everywhere.

While the style police seem to be holding back the tackiness tide on the micro side, on the macro side, the amount of building going on all over the island is disturbing. With 30% appreciation in real estate prices per annum, according to the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce, the pressure to build is immense. The beauty and special character of the place drives the understandable urge to own a piece of this paradise. But, one wonders, how much more can be added before one reaches the tipping point. I take comfort in the idea that Nantucket has been grappling with development issues since the whaling boom of the 1700s and can only hope that it will survive this boom as well.

With all this building going on, you still will be challenged to find affordable accommodation on the island. If you have followed my advice and stay away from high season, most of your troubles are solved as hotels, guest houses and bed & breakfasts are on offer at 50 to 60% less than the top rates. Good negotiators may be able to do better than that. The Nantucket Chamber of Commerce is a good place to start narrowing down the type of accommodation and island location you prefer. All class and category are available from small and charming B&Bs to ultra-luxe hotels.

Incidentally, in the 20 years that I have been coming to Nantucket, I have never brought over a car. If you have a bike, bring it, or you can rent one easily at the dock when you get off the ferry. There is also a shuttle bus service and cabs are easily available if somewhat pricey ( From the ferry to an outer destination like Madaket is $15. Siasconset might be more.). Cars can be rented on the island as well. But my advice is to stick with the bike. There are wonderful bike paths to virtually any place you would want to go and even riding with small children is safe, easy and relaxing.

If you do bring or rent an off road vehicle, one of the surprising things you can still do, even though the island suffers from terrible erosion, is drive on the beach. And if you get stuck in the deep sand, Harry of Harry’s Towing, who has stapled his business cards onto little bits of driftwood and twigs in all the locations on the island where a car is likely to get stuck, will get you out. He can find you anywhere and strangely knows where you are, even if you do not. My friends on the island have all used Harry at one time or another. They love him, even if his prices are painful.

On Nantucket, food can be delicious but is always expensive. Even the grocery stores pack a wallop. We spent $45 for a (good) picnic lunch for 3 consisting of some chicken salad, guacamole, chips and drinks. Still, you can source fresh fish from local waters at fair prices that are terrific. Restaurants range from simple to ultra serious. The newly reopened Brotherhood of Thieves is a popular bar and restaurant downtown named after an abolitionist pamphlet attacking the Island’s clergy for not doing enough to free the slaves. The restaurant serves a good selection of informal fare and everyone in town is likely to be there. The SeaGrille Restaurant , located just outside of town and open for lunch and dinner year round is a great place to go for fresh and well prepared seafood.

For holiday makers who like activity, Nantucket accommodates with a full calendar of events. The day I arrived in early May, one could attend a “Dancing with Dogs” class advertised as a Canine Freestyle demo and workshop. During the same month, one could visit a chocolate tasting, listen to the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club Concert, go on a Bird-a-thon walk and much more. Not bad for off-season.

But my final and most important advice for navigating this latter day Garden of Eden - be sure to watch the weather reports.

While my visit to Nantucket was near perfect, getting off the island became a drama of huge proportions. With a birthday and the university graduation of a son to attend on the mainland, I was asleep at the wheel as a large storm known as a “Nor’easter because of the direction of the strong winds, blew in overnight, shutting down all transportation on and off the Island. Even Captains of Industry and Directors of the Global Economy were stuck. As the weather worsened, the number of panicked people trying to get off grew, including nine guys with tickets to a Red Soxs baseball game for that night who were prepared to swim.

After 24 unsuccessful hours at the airport, I took the decision to go for the sympathy of the airline personnel. I tell them my story. Mother of four, who has travelled all the way from London to be at her son’s graduation, desperately needs priority handling to get off the island. The young man who made the mistake of sending my bag, but not me, on yesterday’s only flight out, (he went for the Red Soxs fans) has decided to take on my quest. And, when the first 10-seater plane arrives from Hyannis, I have Seat Number 1 and all the airport personnel cheer as I board the plane.

The wind is howling at 50 MPH and my pilot looks like Woody Allen. I like Woody Allen and his films just fine, but I would feel better if this particular pilot looked more like Harrison Ford. As we take-off, blowing first left and right and then up and down, I found religion. “I’m in God’s hands now”, I thought. In the end, we landed safely, I had an uneventful drive to New York City, made the graduation and had this story to tell.

Despite the departure travails, my off-season visit to Nantucket was holiday bliss. The residents were happy to see me which would probably not have been the case in high summer. The weather, glorious for most of the time, did take a dramatic turn for the worse but I’ve had that happen in plenty of places that had none of Nantucket’s charms. I was able to walk for hours on beaches and moors without seeing another human being, although I saw plenty of wildlife. I ate great food. I enjoyed the architecture, the cobbled streets, and the independent and very good bookstores. I love this island rich in history, tradition and natural beauty and I'll be back as soon as the summer crowds depart.


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