Nantucket Island has been the subject of countless books, legends, poems and song for hundreds of years. With its history as the center of the whaling industry in the northeast (in the late 1700s, Nantucket had 60% of New England’s whaling fleet) and its more recent popularity as a tourist destination, there’s no lack of information on ways to enjoy the island. Personally, I love to walk the streets of Nantucket when the quiet and peace of winter have set in. While it’s true many of the shops and businesses are closed for the season, there’s still plenty to enjoy. Since I grew up on Cape Cod, Nantucket was always just a ferry-ride away. We’d go over as a family once or twice in the summer, especially if we had out-of-town visitors. Nantucket was always my favorite of the two islands (Martha’s Vineyard being the other). It was more far flung, less accessible, and, to me, more rough and rustic.
Stepping off the high-speed ferry from Hyannis, there is an immediate sense of the island’s history. Downtown is compact and very well-preserved. You can walk for hours up and down the cobblestone streets, viewing historic captain’s houses, old cottages, The Old Mill, meetinghouses and churches. I’ve always loved the “widow’s walks,” platforms enclosed by a railing that top many houses and are said to have been used by sea-wives watching for their husband’s return.
Nantucket Historic Cemeteries
Our first stops were Prospect Hill Cemetery and the Old North Cemetery (Gardner Burial Grounds). We walked among the headstones, dominated by several large families: Folger, Coffin, Starbuck, Swain, Macy, Bunker. If some of these names sound familiar, it’s that a number of Nantucketers became very successful business-people. The Folger is “that” Folger of coffee fame, and Macy is the founder of “Macy’s.” We remembered seeing the headstone of a young sailor from Nantucket in the graveyard of a church in New Zealand when we visited there. It’s amazing to think of the arduous journeys these young men made, staying out at sea sometimes for years at a time.
Whaling creates ties to Cape Verde and the Azores
Nantucket also has interesting ties to some unexpected places. Cape Verde, one of the archipelago islands about 400 miles off Western Africa was a common stop for the whaling ships in the 19th Century. They made up an important part of the crews, and many men ended up later making Nantucket their home. Although Nantucket remained segregated, with Black islanders and Cape Verdean immigrants living in a small community on the outskirts of town in an area known as New Guinea (now called Five Corners), there was a strong abolitionist movement among the Quaker community, and runaway slaves were welcomed here. A visit to the African Meeting House is highly recommended.
After walking for a few hours, lunch was had at Seadog Brew Pub on Water Street. The chowdah was hot, beer cold and food tasty. We devoured our sandwiches and enjoyed the warmth of the cozy booth. They had several styles of beer, a stout and IPA were chosen per usual. After lunch, further walking was in order, and we head to the Whaling Museum.
Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum
The Whaling Museum is partially housed in a former candle factory that was used up until the end of whaling in Nantucket in the 1860s. In one room of the restored factory you can still see the giant beam press (the only original beam press still in place in the world) that squeezed bags of spermaceti from the sperm whale’s head to create valuable sperm oil and spermaceti wax. The other side of the museum displays an impressive sperm whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling. The museum also includes lots of information on the early days of whaling, tools of the trade, captains and their families, galleries of decorative art and scrimshaw and a roof deck observation platform with great views down to the docks. The 1849 Fresnel light from one of the lighthouses on display at the entrance makes a lovely centerpiece. We watched a video on Nantucket history followed by a very well-done multimedia presentation called “The Whale Hunt.” The museum is open with regular hours from the end of May through Nov. 1. It’s also open weekends in December and for a few days up to New Year’s Eve. Entrance fee at the time of writing is $20 for adults. Most other historic sites are open late May through mid-October.
Nantucket Historic Sites
After our time at the museum, we walked up Sunset Hill to see Jethro Coffin House (Oldest House), a saltbox house built in 1686. Sunset at this time of year is early, about 4:30 pm, but we pressed on in the dark to the Old Gaol, the Old Mill (oldest functioning mill in the country) and through the Five Corners area, part of Nantucket’s Black History Trail.
Finally, Brotherhood of Thieves was our host for dinner. Originally an 1840’s whaling bar, you can feel the history as soon as you duck in off the street. The dark wood bar and fireplaces burning provided a time-warp back to the Nantucket glory days. We downed few hot libations along with some local seafood for the perfect end to a winter Nantucket Tour.
The Annual Nantucket Historical Association Festival of Trees runs from December 6th through the 31st. This is the 20th year that the association has hosted the event. Various areas around the town are transformed into a winter wonderland. From inside the Whaling Museum to the sidewalk of Main Streets you can enjoy about eighty uniquely decorated trees to celebrate the holiday season. A couple of our favorites included the Fire Department’s “Lessons Learned Make Us Safer” as well as one decorated with a “Monopoly” board game themed “A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned” by Nantucket Bank.
On a Future Visit
Of course warmer seasons have different draw, and we’d love to return to cycle the bike trails that crisscross the island, check out the lighthouses and hit the beaches! We’ve also got it on good authority that there are some great geocaches to be discovered. We look forward to finding those as well!