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Its name floods the imagination with images of cobblestone streets and rich whaling tradition.
Stepping on its shores gives one a feeling of the past and the present colliding in the best kind of salty, sweet way.
Sitting thirty miles off the shore of Cape Cod, Nantucket cannot be seen from the mainland, unlike its sister island Martha’s Vineyard. For this traveler, however, that is part of the allure: the fact that one must leave the mainland behind to explore a slice of island paradise.
Upon docking in historic downtown Nantucket, there is a sense of peaceful symmetry. The first site of significance visible to the eye is Brant Point Lighthouse.
Brant Point on a clear day by Christopher Setterlund
This diminutive beacon, with its long boardwalk, is perhaps the most photographed lighthouse on Earth. There is actually a replica of Brant Point Lighthouse in Hyannis Harbor as well, helping see off visitors leaving the Cape en route to Nantucket.
Stepping onto dry land on Broad Street is like strolling into a painting from a forgotten time.
Whether stopping to rent a bicycle at Young’s Bicycle Shop (situated within sight of the ferry), taking the WAVE (Nantucket’s public transportation), or simply using your own two feet to navigate the classic downtown area, you really cannot go wrong.
Looking out of Straight Wharf on Nantucket
What makes Nantucket special and worth the trip? Where does one begin?
It could be the charming cobblestone streets of downtown. This in and of itself gives the island an untouched ambiance that few other places can approach.
Amazingly, these iconic cobblestones were almost history themselves. In 1919, there was a great debate as to whether the streets should be converted to asphalt, as the arrival of automobiles and the poor condition of said cobblestones had people thinking about change.
Luckily, with the help of donations from summer visitors, the stones were improved, and to this day, they help Nantucket retain its strong link to a simpler time.
Wagner Memorial Fountain on Main Street by Christopher Setterlund
There is nothing quite like an early morning or late evening walk along these streets. One can almost hear the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages meandering their way through years gone by; for a moment, it feels like the 19th century, something quite rare in today’s world.
If cobblestone streets aren’t for you, there are, of course, the beaches. Nantucket is home to eighty-two miles of coastline, with the majority of beaches open to the public.
These sandy spots range from the very well known, such as Madaket (pronounced mad-uh-kit, as I discovered, and amazing for sunsets), to the semi-hidden gems like Steps Beach.
Dusk at Steps Beach on Nantucket by Christopher Setterlund
Steps Beach is located a just few minutes from downtown, yet it is a bit hidden. At the end of Lincoln Avenue, where it meets Indian Avenue, one finds an unassuming engraved stone welcoming visitors to Steps Beach.
There is little else to alert you of its presence. The view of the surrounding ocean from the top of the steps, however, is simply awe-inspiring.
Indeed, this is what gave Steps Beach its name, and while Madaket, Surfside, Jetties, or ‘sconset Beach might be more acclaimed, Steps Beach is a genuine treasure.
Steps Beach on a sunny day by Kindra Clineff
Even if the beaches get a tad congested during peak season, visitors can find peace and quiet.
Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, which spans 1,100 acres of land in the northeast section of the island, presents a pristine natural habitat that remains serene even as Nantucket’s population swells.
Coskata-Coatue is a joint conservation land, combining the Coskata Woods and the Coatue Peninsula. The two properties merge at Great Point, which is home to one of the most secluded lighthouses around, a location where seals can outnumber people by a large margin.
On an island with many beautiful beaches, Coskata-Coatue has one of the best. Photo by the North American Indian Center of Boston
It is a breathtakingly removed area, especially given Nantucket’s modest size. There are guided tours of Coskata-Coatue during the season through The Trustees of Reservations and off-roading is another option, so long as you have the appropriate vehicle and an off-road permit.
If driving out onto the sand is not a prime objective, there is a less remote and equally spectacular adventure to be had in the eastern village of Siasconset. ‘Sconset, as it is commonly known, was originally settled as a fishing village.
‘Sconset Café during summertime by Michael Galvin
An old fishing shack named ‘Auld Lang Syne’ sitting on Broadway in town is believed to be date from the 1670s. There is also Sankaty Head Lighthouse, perched near the highest point on the island and beckoning with spectacular views.
Sankaty Light on Nantucket by Michael Galvin
‘Sconset Beach and the ‘Sconset Footbridge extending over Gully Road are fabulous as well, but in my opinion, it is the Bluff Walk that might be the village’s best-kept secret.
Gloriously anonymous save for a ‘Public Way’ sign at its beginning, the ‘Sconset Bluff Walk gives travelers two separate views in one.
Stretching out roughly a mile and running parallel to the ocean, the Bluff Walk shows the majesty of Nantucket’s natural side, paired with magnificent seaside homes built by its residents. Leave your bicycle or car behind and enjoy this helping of pure Nantucket.
Spring is rolling into summer. The weather is warm and nature is in full bloom. Sitting thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod is a throwback, an island delight both unique and familiar.
Inside the Nantucket Whaling Museum by Christopher Setterlund
Cobblestone streets, delicious restaurants, one-of-a-kind shops, glittering beaches, and history by the boatload all await you once you step off of the ferry. Summer will be beautiful and summer on Nantucket will be even better.
Christopher Setterlund is a 12th-generation Cape Codder. His second and third books, one featuring Nantucket and the other featuring Martha’s Vineyard, will be available from Schiffer Publishing at the end of 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisSetterlund.
Photo at the top courtesy of Michael Galvin.