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Archive for Sunday, July 16, 2000

Nantucket

Island has maintained its old charm but at higher prices

July 16, 2000

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— It's overcast and chilly on a late May morning, and most everyone in the 'Sconset grocery has tucked their hands inside their sweatshirt sleeves.

A college-age woman behind the counter frowns as she pushes cash-register buttons experimentally. She shrugs when asked if the small store has baby food.

Theresa Olson, left, of Leadville, Colo., walks with Carolyn Sperry
past the Sankaty Light House on Nantucket, Mass. The
3-mile-by-14-mile island, some 30 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean
off Cape Cod, Mass., has an intrinsic beauty all its own an
unmistakable passion for its whaling heritage coupled with New
England charm.

Theresa Olson, left, of Leadville, Colo., walks with Carolyn Sperry past the Sankaty Light House on Nantucket, Mass. The 3-mile-by-14-mile island, some 30 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod, Mass., has an intrinsic beauty all its own an unmistakable passion for its whaling heritage coupled with New England charm.

"Last aisle back," volunteers another woman, who is filling a postcard display.

The summer help smiles apologetically, gives up on the register and joins a few locals talking about the island's varsity lacrosse team. The team is road weary but thrilled to be in the playoffs, says a man who looks and talks like the coach but might just be a parent.

"They're tired. It's all that flying to America," he says, to nods of understanding.

"America," as locals call the mainland, is more than just a boat ride away. It's a world away to most people living in 'Sconset, or Siasconset, an eastern enclave of Nantucket that retains the yesteryear atmosphere that once characterized the entire Massachusetts island.

The same can't be said of "town," say the locals, who complain that the world is too much with them these days, especially in the summers.

You want quiet on Nantucket, they say? Get outta' (down)town.

Quiet is still out there, in the coves, on the beaches, near the lighthouses and around the local watering holes. You just need to know where to go.

Reputation lures tourists

Nantucket's dozen or so beaches are all free, and the island has no parking fees, but don't expect much parking (except at Surfside and Jetties beaches) or even many places to leave bikes.

"Town" is pretty much in the middle of the island on the north side, facing Nantucket Sound and the mainland. Once a whaling capital, Nantucket town has the historic mansions, cobblestone streets and gaslights to prove it.

That well-preserved taste of the past long lured tourists to the island, but it's only in recent decades that once affordable guest houses and inns have hiked fees. So while there are accommodations in nearly every neighborhood on the island, the prices range from $100 a night at the lowest end to $350 a night, with the majority in the middle, and two-night minimums on weekends.

Rental properties, depending on proximity to town, also vary in price, although the island as a whole is considered more upscale than not.

An image of a woman carved into a whale's tooth is an example of
19th-century scrimshaw on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

An image of a woman carved into a whale's tooth is an example of 19th-century scrimshaw on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

Still, prices have had no impact on the island's popularity, as it embraces an increasing number of visitors each year. The summer population now tops about 60,000, six times the winter population.

The neighborhoods toward the southern end of the island, between Cisco and Surfside beaches, feel much like quiet subdivisions in a paradise of gray-shingled homes. Friends share backyard barbecues that include produce from nearby Bartlett Farm and locally produced wine.

At the east end of the island, 'Sconset remains a serene community on the edge of the ocean. It's got a small store, a post office, the 'Sconset Cafe and Claudette's, a box-lunch spot with a deck for al fresco munching and tennis courts.

The streets nearest the ocean are hardly wide enough for bicyclists to ride side by side, so do not bring a car. Besides, there's no place to park it for any length of time. The good news is that the beach is picturesque -- much longer than it is wide but dominated by an apropos lighthouse at the north end -- and there are public restrooms.

A note of warning: If you go to the beach, beware the undertow. It can carry you from the lighthouse south to the Summer House restaurant and inn far faster than you'd expect. In fact, members of the actors' colony that helped make 'Sconset fashionable in the late 1800s and early 1900s (New York theaters closed for the summer because of the heat) are said to have floated in inner tubes from the lighthouse to the Summer House for cocktails each evening.

Oases of quiet

You don't see that kind of craziness at the opposite end of the island in Madaket, which is nearly as quiet as 'Sconset but not in the same quaint category.

Slightly scruffier and all around more laid back, Madaket Beach is a favorite fishing spot for locals and sunset aficionados. No rose-covered cottages here. Some properties are well tended, but none rival the mansions in other areas of the island, and some are just as likely to have a boat up on blocks in the side yard as a row of hydrangea.

Other oases of quiet include the island golf courses, but unless you've got friends with memberships in Nantucket Golf Club or Sankaty Head Golf Club, you'll have to head over to Miacomet Golf Club on the southern part of the island.

Nantucket Island Resorts has completed a multimillion renovation of the White Elephant resort, where the new two-bedroom cottages command $1,000 a night.

The $1,000-a-night price is oft-quoted by natives, who are surprised that people would pay that much to stay in a cottage for one night. As of late May, the cottages were completely booked, save for a few nights in early September.

It seems that tourists, drawn by the island's old-world charm, gladly pay the New World prices.

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