About Nantucket Island

Nantucket

The town and county of Nantucket, MA is made up of three islands located about thirty miles south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts: Nantucket Island (the largest of the three), Tuckernuck (no public access) and Muskeget (inhabited only by seals).  Together they are home to fewer than 10,000 year round residents, though during the summer months that number grows to over 50,000 with an influx of summer residents and tourists.  Nantucket is significant in the history of New England and early America; that its natural beauty make it a very popular place to live or visit.

Anyone thinking about moving to Nantucket either permanently or just for the summer will love the fact that there is so much to do and see.  Vacationers on Nantucket or, if they’re lucky, Tuckernuck--Muskeget has no ferry terminal, no services or amenities, one house and is home to thousands of seals--will have no shortage of great things to enjoy.  From the climate to the historic architecture to fabulous restaurants and, of course, to the amazing ocean beaches, Nantucket truly has something for everyone.  AND, for those of you who love to bike, Nantucket has miles and miles of bike paths so you can bicycle at your own pace without worrying about other vehicles.

Geography

The Laurentide Ice Sheet formed the Nantucket archipelago thousands of years ago during the Wisconsin Glacial Stage.  It was shaped by by the moving of the glacier over its northern section, the glacier’s melting water running in wide rivers to form the plains of southern half, and became true islands after the glacier melted enough to raise the ocean between 300 to 400 feet over a period of 15,000 years, creating islands approximately 6,000 years ago. Nantucket County has a total area of about 303.5 square miles, but 84.25% of that is water.  The island of Nantucket is 47.8 square miles or around 30,000 acres.
Some additional interesting facts about Nantucket include that the islands of Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod make the triangular area known as Nantucket Sound.  The highest point of Nantucket is Folgers Hill, only 109 feet above sea level.  Altar Rock comes in a very close second at 108 feet above sea level.

Road into the moors on a misty day on Nantucket
Road into the moors on a misty Nantucket day

Nantucket Climate

With incredibly beautiful summers it is no surprise that so many people love spending time on Nantucket.  Lying directly in the Gulf Stream, weather on Nantucket during the summer months ranges from the upper 60’s to mid 80’s as highs and rarely gets below 55 in the evening.  For the same reason winter temperatures are typically warmer than inland cities at similar latitudes.   The precipitation is spread out fairly evenly over the year with a typical month getting about 2.5-3.5 inches of rain.

Map on Nantucket
Map of Nantucket
Nantucket beach roses overlooking the Atlantic
Nantucket beach roses overlooking the Atlantic Ocean
On the way to the beach, Nantucket
On the way to the beach, Nantucket
Great Point Lighthouse, Nantucket
Great Point Lighthouse, Nantucket

History of Nantucket

The town’s name most likely comes from a Native American tribe known as the Wampanoag, the last Native Americans to reside on Nantucket.  The specific word or meaning which was translated into Nantucket has been lost to history, but most believe it meant something like “in the midst of waters” or “far away island”.   Many visitors refer to the main island by its nickname, “The Grey Lady of the Sea,” earned from the way it looks when approaching the island by boat in the fog. 

The island was primarily a refuge for Native Americans who were displaced in the region while Europeans began to populate the areas now known as New York and Massachusetts.  Earlier, about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, the Paleo-Indians of the Lithic Period moved into the region of North America followed by the Early and Late Archaic Indians of the Archaic Period around 8,000 years ago. The Paleo-Indians were the first humans to live in the Cape and Islands area after the glacial retreat. The Paleo- Archaic Indians arrived in the area on the coastal plain that would become the outer islands of Southeastern Massachusetts well before Europeans settlers came this continent to live.  Nantucket was mostly undisturbed by Europeans until 1641 when the island was deeded to wealthy merchants Thomas Mayhew and his son by the English authorities.  There was still fairly little population by Europeans on the islands until Thomas Mayhew sold his interest in the islands to a group of investors.  Shortly after this time the islanders began hunting whales for meat and whale oil, initially in the North Atlantic but eventually, and most famously, in the South Pacific, on journeys that would last from three to five years. 

Nantucketers became famous around the world for their whaling.  The island was even mentioned in Herman Melville’s famous American novel Moby-Dick; it is the island where the characters Ahab and Starbuck were from.  Moby-Dick was the story of the whaler Essex, whose journey and disastrous encounter with a white whale also prompted present day island historian and national bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick to write his book In the Heart of the Sea, now being adapted into a screenplay for major motion picture.  The wealth generated by that trade built huge mansions on Main Street, Orange Street and Union Street, as well as large and beautiful houses elsewhere in the center of town, although its early prevailing Quaker ethic limited the showiness of the early houses until it was supplanted in the second quarter of the 19th century.

Nantucket lost most of its population in the 1850’s when a number of things happened that damaged its economy: whaling declined after the discovery of an alternative lighting fluid, petroleum; the harbor silted over, which made large whaling and trading ships decline to enter its port; and the Great Fire of 1846, when forty acres in the central portion of the town and waterfront burned in a fire fueled by whale oil and lumber, destroying most of the infrastructure of the whaling industry.  Many residents left at this time for those reasons (and many joined the California Gold Rush).  The island’s population declined precipitously in the last quarter of the 19th century.

During the long post-Civil War period Nantucket slumbered, awakened only gradually by the rising tide of vacationers, when its salubrious climate was thought to protect visitors from the bad summer air of cities.  The village of Siasconset, at the island’s east end, became a mecca for stage actors in the early 20th century, attracting performers whose shows were closed during the summer.  Some of these visitors bought summer houses on Nantucket and in Siasconset, furthering the island’s economic revival.

Although Nantucket simultaneously became known as a healthful vacation spot, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that developers began purchasing land to create high end homes for wealthy individuals living in the Northeastern United States.  Land development was very regulated by the investors and developers themselves.  This helped to create one of the most exclusive areas in the country.

Because its hundred years of prosperity were followed by an almost equal period of stagnation, Nantucket contains an unparalleled trove of Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival period architecture.  Today over nine hundred buildings built from 1750 to 1850 are still in everyday use on Nantucket, the largest such collection in the United States and one that affords visitors and residents the extraordinary experience of walking streets substantially unchanged in the last two hundred years.  Recognizing the value of that experience led to Nantucket Town being the second location in the United States (after Charleston, SC) to be denominated a National Historic District, in 1966, followed by its extension to the entire island in 1972.  As a result, all new and remodeled building since then has been subject to regulation by the Nantucket Historic District commission, to assure its compatibility with existing architecture.

Demographics

The island of Nantucket is famous for being the summer home of many of America’s elite.  While the median income of the island is only $55,522 for individuals and $66,786 for residents, that number is actually quite deceiving.  These numbers are primarily for residents who live on the island year around, whereas many of the rich and famous residents are only there during the summer.   Over the past twenty years the permanent population of the town of Nantucket has increased by 64% going from 6012 in 1990 to 10,172 in 2010 during the last census.

Summer Homes and Vacation Destination

With the population of Nantucket growing by over five times during the summer months it is obvious that this island has a lot to offer.  Many of those who come to the island live there all summer and others stay only for a week or two for a beautiful vacation.  There is no shortage of things to do while visiting the island of Nantucket.

There are homes, cottages and timeshares for rent for those who want all the comforts of a luxury home during their stay on the island.  There are also a number of hotels and inns spread in town and throughout the island for visitors to enjoy as well.  For those who can afford it there are luxury resorts which offer incredible accommodations looking out over the ocean.  These resorts are popular vacation destinations for individuals and families who want to be pampered during their visit.

Getting to Nantucket is not especially easy at any time, especially during the popular summer season, but it can be done either by sea or by air.  There are two commercial ferry services making regular trips back and forth from Hyannis, on Cape Cod.  (It is also possible, of course, to come to the island on a private boat, although dockage and mooring charges are high). Nantucket Memorial Airport, which has three runways, serves the island.  The airport is located on the south side of the island, and is actually the second busiest airport in New England during the summer, handling more flights in and out than Boston’s Logan Airport.  Many of these flights are the private planes used by wealthy summer visitors.

Once on the island there is an island-wide seasonal shuttle bus service that takes both residents and visitors to a variety of destinations throughout the island; there are also car and bicycle rentals.  There is no active rail system on the island, though until 1917 there was a narrow-gauge railway.  Many visitors rent bicycles since the terrain is gentle and easy biking for virtually anyone.

Things to Do While on Nantucket
Whether here for the whole summer or just vacationing for a short time there are many different sights to see and activities to enjoy.  Nantucket is famous for having some of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in the world, which attract thousands of people every year, but there are many cultural activities as well.

Beaches

The north shore beaches offer gentle to nearly calm waters, ideal for children.  One notable exception is Brant Point, which has a stronger current that should be avoided by anyone who isn’t a strong swimmer.

The south shore beaches face out toward the Atlantic Ocean,, resulting heavier surf, great for surfing and body boarding.  These beaches are popular with adults and families with older children, but not all are provided with lifeguards.  Frequent rip tides make south shore beaches more dangerous than other island beaches, so visitors should be sure to swim where there is a lifeguard.

East shore beaches are narrower with deeper water right at shore. They are best accessed by bike or shuttle bus as there is very limited parking.  The barrier beaches of Great Point, Coatue, Smith’s Point and parts of Eel Point and the north shore require permits to drive onto as well as a four-wheel drive vehicle, and are closed during certain periods when protected sea birds are nesting.

Art and Culture

For individuals who are looking for something a little more relaxed while on Nantucket there are many different options to choose from.  Nantucket has a rich history in the arts and offers many great galleries and shops that sell beautiful pieces.  Many of the galleries offer artwork from local and internationally-known artists.

Visiting one of Nantucket’s antique dealers is a great way to find a wonderful souvenir or decoration for the home while also learning about the fascinating history of the island.  Choosing from Native American antiques or pieces representing the long history of whaling on the island is a great way to spend a relaxing afternoon.

There are several great museums to visit throughout the island as well.  Museums dedicated to the history of whaling, Nantucket shipwrecks, island arts and more are all available for locals and visitors to enjoy.  People of all ages love visiting these impressive museums to have some fun while learning about the island.

Nantucket also has a long history of dramatic productions, beginning with the Actors’ Colony in the eastern village of Siasconset from the 1890s through the 1920s.  In the 1950s local theater resumed in Nantucket town and continues to this day with the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket and other smaller groups, who present professional-quality theatrical productions using trained and amateur actors.  The Dreamland movie house and the Starlight movie house show first-run movies all year round as well.  There is a classical music concert series which presents world-renowned musicians and singers weekly during the months of July and August, and the Atheneum, Nantucket's public library, presents many and varied speakers all year round.  Local non-profit organizations offer house and garden tours, church fairs and a variety of outdoor activities raising money for local and national charities.

Boating and Fishing

It wouldn’t be a trip to Nantucket without some time spent out on the water.  There are a variety of great options to choose from when it comes to renting boats for individuals, families or large groups.  One of the most popular choices for visitors to the islands are seal or whale watching excursion boats.  Guests are taken out onto the ocean east and southeast of the island to see playful seals and majestic whales swimming through the pristine waters.  Taking videos or photographs of these incredible animals is encouraged, though the memories will undoubtedly last a lifetime.

For those who love fishing there are charter fishing boats to go out into the Atlantic Ocean for deep sea fishing.  Catching one of hundreds of different species is an amazing experience most people won’t find anywhere else in the world.  It is also possible to rent smaller boats and kayaks to take out on the waters around the island to spend the day relaxing and fishing.

Sailboat and powerboat rentals are available both with a captain and to take out with the family for those who are experienced on the water.  Inhaling the salty air and looking out over the Atlantic Ocean or toward the island is an experience people remember for the rest of their lives.  For many visitors the island itself is more of a home base from which they can spend most of their time out on the water fishing and relaxing, an excellent way to get away from it all and enjoy some time alone or with the family.

When visiting Nantucket there is no shortage of things to experience.  This is one of the many reasons why so many people continue to come back to the area to live or vacation year after year.
For more information, please see the websites below:

Nantucket Visitors’ Services
Nantucket Chamber of Commerce