Nantucket Island: from land, air and sea

By | Category: Travel destinations
spermwhale skeleton in Nantucket

the skeleton of a sperm whale


“Is that Nantucket below us?” I enquire of our pilot, Daniel.  The flat, verdant, crescent shaped spit of land with Caribbean white sandy beaches is directly beneath our plane.  It boasts large grey shingle houses that are dotted all about. The pilot replies, “It is indeed Nantucket and we will be landing in a few moments”.  There is no separate, enclosed cockpit on this propeller plane that carries a maximum of ten passengers.  I can speak to the pilot directly as he is only a few feet in front of me. Oh, and in the case of our flight, it is ten + 1.  A kitten is also being transported and she mews in distress when we are on the ground — but doesn’t make a sound once in the air.

The island is striking from the air; the vast, blue Atlantic Ocean that surrounds this tiny island’s land mass is mesmerising.  The houses below, with a few exceptions, are constructed of clapboard or white cedar shingle which quickly turns to a weathered grey colour under the influence of the sea air.

Cape Air’s small planes fly here at least two times per day from Boston’s Logan Airport and also from surrounding areas. A much quicker alternative for visitors than the ferry service.

Nantucket lighthouse

a lighthouse, a key part of Nantucket’s heritage

During the summer, people come from nearby New England, the East Coast and from all over the world to spend time here when the weather is hot…but not too hot.  Sunbathing on the beach, golfing, sailing, kayaking, biking, surfing and just strolling around the main street or enjoying the town’s marina are activities that entice visitors.  Harbour cruise and whale watching tours are incredibly popular as well, while the new Shipwreck Museum and the Whaling Museum enjoy a booming business all year round.


Nantucket Island is quite a mystical place; its story based on survival and the sea.  It is unique from other islands, even tragic, with its tales of a peaceful Indian tribe that die out from European disease when settlers arrive; of ship builders and sailors who created an entire industry; of the candle makers that were another important element of the whaling industry and then the sudden demise of whaling after the discovery of petroleum collided spectacularly with the California gold rush.  This carries us well into the next part of the island’s story, the resurrection of Nantucket as a tourist mecca.

remaining whale- captain's house

a whaling captain’s house

It is breath-taking to imagine that this tiny 14 x 7 mile bit of land was once the supreme whaling capital of the world.  The whaling ships built during the 18th century were made to travel to the far ends of the earth in their hunt for sperm whales and this whale’s unique oil.  These men were explorers as well as entrepreneurs and fishermen.  The ships’ captains became wealthy and built enormous houses many of which stand tall and sturdy to this day.  Most of these houses have widow’s walks, decks installed on the roofs of even the most gracious homes. Captain’s wives would ascend the staircases, often in their nightclothes, and use a spy glass to search the horizon for returning vessels.  If the first flag, the ship’s flag, was up right, the captain had survived.  But if the flag was upside down, then the woman peering through the spy glass had become a widow.

When petroleum began to be used in the mid-19th century, it quickly took the place of the oil from sperm whales.  Soon after, when gold was discovered in California, all the whaling ships set off around Cape Horn in search of the mother lode.  Most of these ships were abandoned in San Francisco Harbour, never to sail again. Nine of the families who had left, returned by land and eventually set the groundwork for a new economy for the island, tourism.

Coffin family home

the oldest home in Nantucket belonged to the Coffin family

The Whaling Museum on the premises of Nantucket’s former candle factory will put you in the picture on much of this part of the island’s history.  There is twice daily screening of the film – Nantucket – A film by Ric Burns – which tells the story of the island and its relationship with the sea and the whales. There is a display featuring a whaling boat with harpooning equipment plus an entire sperm whale’s enormous 46 foot skeleton suspended from the ceiling. Walk through the door from this area into the original candle factory built in 1845 after a fire burnt down much of the town. This is where the whale’s oil was used to make top quality candles.  This is now a well signed exhibition with the exhibit on scrimshaw being of particular interest.  Sailors were illiterate and encouraged to create pictorial stories on whale bone and teeth.  This is early American folk art form at its most intriguing and beautiful.  The sailors having to man the lightships (floating light houses) weaved sturdy little baskets as a means of entertaining themselves.  The ones that are decorated with scrimshaw are the most engaging.


There is something else unique about Nantucket.  The ground, the actual earth, is full of iron and so flowers grow to be huge and forests flourish.  Heirloom tomatoes in the restaurants here taste fresher than anywhere else and produce is astonishingly good.

Nantcket shop front

even the shop fronts reflect the heritage of the sea

There are some first class restaurants on the island.  For fine dining, Galley Beach and The Summer House in Siasconset (6 miles from the main town and reachable on public transport) are both extremely good.  In town, Prime located in the historic Jethro Coffin House on 6 Sunset Hill Lane, is gaining in popularity.  For views of the marina while you dine try the Brant Point Grill, very good breakfasts though it’s known for excellent seafood.

If you were to visit during the autumn, long after most of the tourists have left, you would be aware of the deer grazing on the island.  Particularly, should you choose to hike off into the wooded areas of Nantucket.  The deer swim here from neighbouring Martha’s Vineyard and are now hunted as they are beginning to over populate the island.

Nantucket windmill

the only surviving windmill in Nantucket

At this time of year, the locals spend their time cranberry harvesting, clamming, hunting, ice skating and enjoying a well-earned break after working their socks off during the influx of visitors in the summer. City dwellers with country homes on the island will still come on weekends to sail on private yachts or just chill out and walk their dogs.

But whether you come at the height of the tourist season or visit during the autumn or spring, you will always be able to find something relaxing and engaging to do on this unique historic island.

Lynn stayed at the White Elephant Hotel when visiting Nantucket Island. There are over 20 inns and hotels that are available for overnight stays as well as houses, cottages and even a timeshare.

For more information about Nantucket, click here

For information about New England  and Massachusetts in particular, click here.




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