By Kitty Pilgrim
There are normal beach communities, and then there is Nantucket.
Of course there are common joys to all seaside places—a pleasurable day spent riding the surf, the “ahhh” of that first stretch-out on the hot sand, a dripping ice cream cone in the afternoon sun, and the lovely taste of seafood in a lively restaurant, while nursing tender shoulders, pink with sunburn.
Nantucket has all of these things. But what draws me to the island year after year is the sense of history and heritage, literature and the arts.
I usually make two trips to Nantucket every year. The first excursion is in June for the wonderful Nantucket Book Festival, where famous authors talk about their new releases and give insights into their crafts. I have the great fortune to have a summer book release every year, and this festival serves as the annual kick-off to my book tour. The Nantucket Book Festival always attracts luminaries from the literary world as well as popular mass-market authors. What makes it unique is the good portion of local authors that sit under a large party tent, happy to sign their cherished publications and talk about life on the island.
The weekend events begin with an opening cocktail party in a lovely old whaling house on Orange Street, followed by a literary discussion at Old South Church. There, in pews that could have been filled by whalers and their families, the literary discussion begins. All weekend there are panels and readings, as well as author signings at the charming Mitchell’s Book Corner on the main street. The upstairs reading room on the second floor of this bookstore is not to be missed—a lovely place to browse books about the history of the island.
In June the weather is brisk—sweaters required at night. Hearty food seems right: creamy clam chowder and crab cakes. The streets are mostly empty until mid-afternoon. On a morning walk there are only local residents taking their dogs for strolls. I often stop into the wonderful Petticoat Row Bakery for a morning pastry and coffee. The name is evocative of the whaling era; while the men were gone to sea, the women of the island became very entrepreneurial, opening up their own shops to sell food, clothing and supplies. The shops became known as “Petticoat Row.”
The strong female tradition is thriving. The farmer’s market on Saturday features a cornucopia of local delicacies and handcrafts—the tables mostly commandeered by women entrepreneurs.
At this time of year in June, it is easy to feel the isolation of the island. Part of the appeal is the remoteness from the mainland; some 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, it takes careful planning to get here, especially in high season, July and August, when ferries are fully booked.
The Native Americans who lived here, the Wampanoags, are credited with the word natocke, meaning “far away island.” A traditional nickname for Nantucket is “Little Grey Lady of the Sea”—referring to the way the place looks when it is shrouded in fog. In June the weather can be iffy, sometimes blazing sun, at other times moody mist.
Nantucket is miniscule, compared to Long Island or even the nearby Martha’s Vineyard. Just 15 miles in length, with an average breadth of 4.5 miles, it seems like a toy village surrounded by beach.
Walking up the cobblestoned main street one can almost see how it was one of the premier whaling villages of the eastern seaboard. Nantucket was such a center of seafaring that novelist Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, wrote: “Two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.”
At this time of year, early in the season, I stay at the gorgeous Jared Coffin House on Broad Street. A wealthy ship owner, Jared Coffin, originally built it as a family home and it is emblematic of the kind of affluence that came from the trading of whale oil. A three-story brick mansion has a stately luxurious feel. Now a charming inn, the rooms look out on the cobblestoned streets. Morning breakfast is set out in the parlor, where guests convene before their day’s adventures.
My second excursion to the island usually comes in mid-August, for my birthday. The experience is totally different. This time we arrive by private boat and dock in the marina. By now the village is in full swing. The streets are crowded with vacationers, and shops stay open until late into the evening. It has a festive, nautical feel –maybe the way it was when the whaling ships came in. Tourists are buying scrimshaw and the lovely woven baskets that are so distinctive of the island. Shops are full of chic beachwear – I think that Nantucket has a very distinct style, more so than other beach resorts. Women favor Lilly Pulitzer and Vineyard Vines sport ensembles, and men often wear “Nantucket Reds,” the brick-colored cotton trousers, cinched with a needle-point belt of nautical motif - anchors, signal flags, or whales. Boat shoes are de rigeur. Somehow such traditional garb feels entirely right.
In August the yacht basin is crammed with luxury craft – handsome sailing vessels and motor yachts of enormous proportions. Walking along the dock in the evening, you are met with one fantastic vision after the next. In fact, I have taken ideas for the yachts in my novels from this very array.
I have also had the pleasure of being invited to the Nantucket Yacht Club by friends on the island. The large clubhouse has the gracious feel of an era gone by – velvet lawn, tennis courts and families gathered together having a Sunday afternoon lunch. Old yachting pictures are on the walls—sepia, or black and white. There are heavy wicker lounge chairs, with upholstery in navy nautical stripe, and Nantucket baskets hold brilliant blue hydrangeas blossoms and white and pink snapdragons.
Sitting with friends one evening looking out at the beautiful lighthouse at the mouth of the harbor, they tell me of a century-old tradition of the island. When leaving by sea and passing the lighthouse in the harbor, a two pence coin cast into the water will ensure safe passage and a return to the island. That afternoon when our boat was leaving, I scrambled for my wallet. “Two pence” was all that was required, but I threw a quarter into the waves –probably too much, but I intend on coming back to Nantucket for many years to come. •