Nantucket’s Golden Time
By Sandy MacDonald
Don’t tell anyone, but Nantucket was just awful this past summer. No, wait – do get the word out, because thanks to an invasion of “influencers” and their sheeplike influencees, the place was mobbed. Mile-long traffic jams became the norm – and the crescent-shaped island is only three miles wide, bayside to ocean. Several excellent, long-standing restaurants had to shut their doors, unable to find willing workers – or rather, places for house willing workers, given that a cliffside mansion can go for $36 million and an average house runs one-tenth that price.
But still! The place has a timeless beauty, if you can turn your back on its more pretentious aspects and focus on what drew admirers long before this glorified sandbar went chichi. Locals and long-timers know that the very best time to be on island is after the tourist hordes – both moneyed and aspirational – have fled.
It’s not just the fact that the water is more welcoming, having had all summer to warm up, and the midday sun less punishing. Post-Labor Day, you can walk into Downyflake (as early as 6AM!) and actually snag a booth. The breakfast special (turkey hash, maybe) comes with a child-pleasing finale: a homemade donut. Fortified, you might hit the one of the nine trails maintained by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. We’re partial to Squam Swamp (not as forbidding as it sounds), which offers an interesting array of terrain. If feeling especially energetic, we’ll check out the osprey nests posted about the sprawling 275-acre Linda Loring Nature Foundation on northwesterly Eel Point, which happens to harbor a whole string of inviting bayside beaches (Dionis is a favorite). You did know that in contrast to that territorial “other” island off to the west, all of Nantucket’s beaches are open to anyone?
The Nantucket Regional Transit Authority offers low-cost bus routes year-round, but biking (35 miles of trails!) is the way to go – or perhaps a mix (the buses have bike racks). Choose the quadrant you wish to explore (the main roads – which is to say two-lane blacktop – essentially form a big X) and be prepared for meadow vistas gradually turning a glorious gold.
You’ll earn a hearty lunch. A massive sandwich plus carrot cake at Something Natural (picnic tables, a stranded boat for kids to play on)? Or, for a touch more sophistication, the café terrace at the Corner Table in town. While there, sure to check out the venerable Nantucket Atheneum – 18th century fancy talk for “library “– where Frederick Douglass gave his first speech. Hit up a few high-end stores, if you must — we like Vis-a-Vis — and definitely see what’s going for a song at the Nantucket Cottage Hospital Thrift Shop (the rich give great rummage).
Most afternoons, Cisco Brewery has a local band playing. While in the neighborhood, stop by the seventh-generation-run Bartlett’s Farm. What was once a greenhouse cooler offering some produce and staples has morphed into a massive natural/gourmet market. If you ignore the turn-off to the farm, you’ll end up at Ladies’ Beach, usually less crowded than popular destinations like Surfside.
‘Sconset, on the far east end of the island, pretty much rolls up its sidewalks come September, but you’ll still want to head out to view the picturesque cottages and also do the “Bluff Walk,” which – given encroaching erosion (Mother Nature always gets her way) – may not be there much longer.
For an outdoor supper plus optional swim, I’d suggest two options. The open-air Sandbar at Jetties Beach (American staples, maybe a guitar player) is near the shallow bay of that name, where the receding tide reveals flats to explore, against a moving backdrop of passing ferries. For the most budget option of all, we often find ourselves gravitating, at sunset, to The Surf, a burger shack at Surfside Beach.
One gruesome shark sighting is all it took to dissuade me from enjoying the vigorous ocean surf this past summer, but now that the crowds (AKA “bait”) have dispersed, I might venture it. If not, there’s always next year. The self-anointed “in crowd” may come and go – and I do hope they’ll anoint another hot spot soon — but the ocean’s call is eternal.
Sandy MacDonald is a travel writer and theatre critic. A Nantucket summerer for 25 years, she divides her time between the island and New York City. @sandymacdonald