Visit Nantucket when the crowds are gone

Brant Point Light, at the entrance to Nantucket Brant Point Light, at the entrance to Nantucket Harbor. Photo Credit: MCT, 2007

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Got your bike helmet strapped on? Then you're ready to explore the island of Nantucket. Thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Nantucket is as famous for its more than 30 miles of bike trails as for its 80 miles of spectacular beaches.

"You can bike everywhere, and everyone is really nice," said John McGlainn, 14, who has been spending summers here where his grandmother has lived since he was a baby. "You can have more freedom here than at home."

The island of Nantucket -- just 14 miles east to west and 3.5 miles north to south -- is that rare place that is prettier than a postcard with its picturesque, weathered, gray- shingle houses, roses climbing white picket fences and cobblestone streets. It offers a unique combination of history, beaches, outdoor fun and good eats.

After the decline of the whaling industry in the late 19th century, Nantucket began to attract well-heeled tourists, including artists and theater people from New York. Today, tourism fuels the island's economy, swelling the population from 10,000 most of the year to as many as 60,000 in the summer.

Visit in fall

advertisement | advertise on newsday

That's one reason locals say fall is the best time to visit, when the summer crowds are gone but it's still warm enough for the beach and there are special festivals -- such as the Cranberry Festival (Oct. 5), when you can watch the berries being harvested as they have been since the 1850s.

Nantucket, which means "faraway place" in the native Wampanoag language, was home to generations of whaling captains (nantucketchamber.org). Check out the 46-foot sperm whale skeleton and the fully rigged whaleboat at the excellent Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum (nha.org). Today, some of the ship captains' beautiful homes are bed-and-breakfasts; others are private summer homes. There are no traffic lights or fast-food franchises here. The entire island is a designated National Historic Landmark.

We stayed in The Veranda House (theverandahouse.com), which comprises three historic buildings -- 32 rooms in all -- that is walking distance to everywhere from the ferry to the Whaling Museum to bike shops and restaurants. (Kids must be 10 to stay here.) Another time, we brought our pooch and stayed happily at the pet- and kid-friendly Cottages and Lofts (thecottagesnantucket.com) right at Nantucket Harbor.

And because there is only one main town on the island -- and shuttle bus service all around the island -- you can get along fine without a car, hopping the hourlong Fast Ferry from Hyannis. We came on Hy-Line (hylinecruises.com); there's also The Steamship Authority (steamshipauthority.com). Fares are a little more than $70 round-trip for adults, less for kids.

Leave your worries behind

Even a lost cellphone and a broken bike chain in the middle of a 25-mile ride on the popular Polpis Bike path couldn't keep us from having a good time. "It seems everyone comes here and is happy. They leave their worries on the mainland," said waitress Trishana Strachan, who served us oysters at the Brant Point Grill overlooking the harbor.

Cook's Cycle Shop not only brought a new bike to us at the other end of the island, in Sconset, but also charged us for only one rental. That certainly left us smiling.

So did the three-course complimentary breakfast outdoors on the porch of The Veranda House and dinners at CRU (crunantucket.com), known for its seafood and views of the water, and Òran Mór Bistro (oranmorbistro.com) spread out across three rooms in a historic Nantucket home.

Everyone we meet has a story of why they are here -- even David and Susan Hamilton, owners of The Veranda House. They arrived 20 years ago from Pittsburgh on vacation and decided to make innkeeping on Nantucket their second act. Now their 30-year-old daughter, Hillary, is the manager.

"Nantucket isn't a drive-by place," said David Hamilton. "It takes a commitment to get here."

The hardest part -- after deciding what to do each day -- is leaving.

You also may be interested in: