Nantucket: More than a rich man's getaway

Trip Start Aug 10, 2010
Trip End May 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
HI Nantucket Youth Hostel

Flag of United States  , Massachusetts
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

After a long night with little sleep in a tween-packed dorm room, I was ready to get the hell out of Dodge. Taking an early bus, I attempted to get into Edgartown, a wealthier enclave of residential houses and art galleries.  Luckily, there was just enough space for my bike on the bus and we got into town early enough to be the only ones on the road.  The town looked quite idyllic in the morning, with its white-washed whaling church and old Victorian manors.  I get the feeling with money, there's a real residential quality in Edgartown compared to Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven.  Well, there will be more time tomorrow afternoon to discover whether this is true. But more importantly for today, I could get on my bike and get onto a bicycle path with minimal chance of collision with oncoming traffic.  From Edgartown, there is a bike path (finally!) that runs alongside the road over a stretch of a barrier beach.  On one side is the Atlantic Ocean with white sand beach and the other is an inland saltwater lagoon, rocky and protected by a two lane wide paved road.  The ride in the morning is great, wind at your back, few cyclists and joggers, beaches empty.  You stop every now and then to take some photos of the ocean or the trail.  The only thing that you watch out for the sand on the road--especially near bridges or parking lots, you don't want to be skidding out.

Getting into Oak Bluffs, everything changes back to this hectic crush of people.  Even at 10 in the morning, several ferries had already deposited a bevy of tourists, who were zooming about in their cars or window shopping the main drag.  I went to meet up with a friend coming in on ferry at Vineyard Haven, which is just as packed and just as bland as I remember yesterday.  It really comes down to what you want to do--the main streets are packed with boutiques or souvenirs shops or high budget snacks.  I got not real sense of history or meaning--what did the town originally do?  How did this place come to be before tourism?

Anyway, I met up with my friend who ferried over from Boston and we wandered Vineyard Haven for about half and hour of increasing frustration with the crowds.  In fact, we had to wait for a second bus because the first was packed with too many people trying to get to Oak Bluffs.  And once arriving in Oak Bluffs, the mobs were no better.  But here, we had a couple of hours to kill before catching the ferry to Nantucket.  Now Oak Bluffs has a shopping district centering around the ferry port and a bit in from the harbor.  There are a few historical things to see at least, which surprisingly adds to the tourist feel.  In the last century, Methodists came to the town to camp every summer.  Around the tabernacle they constructed these tiny cottages for use year after year.

You can see their gingerbread decorations from the outside and for a peek inside, there's a cottage museum (with an attached souvenir shop, of course).  The inside is actually quite workable--a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, and two bedrooms up a perilously steep flight of stairs.  The cottages tend to have large french door type windows on the front and back so there should be a nice cross breeze ventilating the spaces.  As a New Yorker, I love the idea of finding livable space in smaller scale structures and these cottages definitely have promise.  I'd love to just gut one out and refit it with all new sleek furnishings just because it's such a cool little show-off space.  

As it is, the whole area is a bit unsettling for a contemporary setting.  The forced idyllic, lace and doily-ness of the area entertains us all in a childlike, candy land kind of way, but ultimately, I don’t know how to connect with the place.  It’s a bit like being in a dollhouse—cute and playful—but it doesn’t quite feel real, more like a fantasy for what was essentially 19th century tourists, and ironically now, used to entertain modern day tourists.  But at least the campgrounds were quieter and less congested than the rest of Oak Bluffs.

Wandering out from the campground, you end up in Ocean Park, a wide open space for kite flying, tour bus catching and general open space hanging out.  It’s…nice.  But then we had to catch the ferry to Nantucket and gratefully got out of the chaos.

Suffice to say my friend’s first impression of Martha’s Vineyard—the traffic of Vineyard Haven and the commerciality of Oak Bluff—was less than favorable.  We sat in the air conditioning on the ferry having lunch and catching our breaths for an hour after wandering about Oak Bluffs and it was glorious.  There’s something so exhausting about navigating about crowds in the hot sun, especially places that have buried their history and personality underneath a mountain of magnets and seafood shacks.

Arriving on Nantucket was like winning parole.  Maybe because I had it figured that it couldn’t be much worse that Martha’s Vineyard.  But there were definitely fewer people and more importantly, fewer cars (though there were still a lot), and the actual town had something of a real historical feel, not one necessarily of vacation.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of souvenir stands and boutiques that cater to the shoppers and daytrippers, but you’ll also find lots of old buildings in that traditional Cape Cod cedar shingle style and some museums to highlight the whaling history and celebrities of the island.  For example, the Macy’s family began on Nantucket.  We learned this and more by taking a historical walking tour offered during the summer by the Nantucket Historical Association.  It’s an hour and half and ten bucks and really gives you a good sense of history of the island.

Nantucket was founded in the 1600s as a place of refuge for—ironically, those who wished to escape the rigid structure of the Puritans in Massachusetts.  Several families and their associates came to settle on the island intending to become sustainable farmers and sheep tenders.  Turns out though, the lack of running water made it hard to really process and profit from the wool, and the lack of large trees really restricted construction materials.

However, the Nantucket bay, which is quite shallow offered a haven for whaling ships as stopover points on their journeys.  Eventually, merchants and investors began to develop a whaling industry on the island, to the point where they eventually became the center of whaling for the world.  Many of the rich families owned whaling ships, oil rendering plants and candle factories.  As evidence of this money, you can find lots of mansions around Nantucket town, in a federalist and occasionally neo-classical styles.  Scattered around them are many older structures from the founding families—the oldest dates to the 1690s, which was the time of the Salem Witch trials on the mainland.

The relative religious freedom of the island, combined with an active whaling life, created an interestingly 'modern’ type of lifestyle on the island.  For a period of time much of the island were Quakers who espoused pacifism and gender equality—boys and girls were both required to be educated equally.  Whaling voyages took years to complete and were dangerous undertakings so many women became the main shop owners and breadwinners for their family.  The arrival of whaling ships from all over the world also brought many different ethnicities onto the island, where they had a relatively easier time integrating.  Nantucket was ten years ahead of the rest of Massachusetts to outlaw slavery and integrated their schools decades before the rest of the country.  Though the tour guide did remind us that though color may not have technically been the grounds for segregation, it was clear that there was the white part and the colored part of town.  In a way, that idea isn’t too different from towns and cities today.

Modern day Nantucket really came into being in the latter half of the 19th century.  As the whaling trade developed, larger ships and larger hauls became the norm, and unfortunately, Nantucket harbor was too shallow to really accommodate the influx.  Eventually the trade moved to a better location at New Bedford.  The death knell for whaling in Nantucket came with a great fire in the 1860s that ravaged the harbor and made 8 out of 9 people unemployed afterwards. 

During this period of decline, many of the inhabitants left the island to seek out their fortunes on the mainland—especially big was going to California during the Gold rush.  Many never returned to the island and the population decreased from 10,000 to 3,000.  Today the population around the year is back at 10,000 and swells to 4 times that during the summer.  And that has to do with the reinvention of the island as a vacation destination during the early 20th century.  As the cities became more crowded and dirty, developers on the island advertised the island as a place to escape.  In fact, there was originally a narrow gauge railroad that spanned the island to transport tourist bags from town to Sconset, another cottage town 8 miles to the east.

All in all the tour was informative and fantastic, especially as we wandered through the less crowded streets to see the old family houses and learned a bit about the history and development of the island.  After the tour, we picked up some reasonable priced food and got in our bikes (replete with a Nantucket woven basket) and biked the 3.5 miles to Surfside Beach on the southern coast.  The ride was down a level bike path, which meant no crazy passing cars.  And we got in just enough to take a few minutes walk on the beach and see the sunset. 

The area is basically a bunch of beach houses set a bit away from town to get maximum solitude and relaxation.  The hostel is surprisingly great, a quiet and comfortably empty structure compared to the summer camp heavy Martha’s Vineyard hostel.  We had a quiet dinner, got in a couple games of Trivial Pursuit, which was likely from decades ago and went right off to bed.  No huge parties, no intense conversations, just a quiet nice in.  And we have a long day tomorrow, including getting up early to bike to Coskata-Coatue Nature preserve in the north part of the island so we have to soak up all the serenity we can before having to catch a ferry back to Martha’s Vineyard.
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