Cast 30 miles off mainland USA, out in the Atlantic Ocean, there's a quaint pair of islands with micro-cultures that reject the stereotypical USA fast-food-and-mega-malls way of life. Historically cobbled and tree-lined streets straddled with boutique shopping and not a chain restaurant in sight, the islands attract a glossy crowd in pursuit of a low-key yet high-end holiday. Both islands are flooded with wealth, with its coastlines peppered with impressive clapperboard New England mansions with private jetties for mooring their gleaming super yachts.
The first (and arguably more famous) island is Martha's Vineyard, notorious for being the holiday spot of choice for US Presidents. The second is Nantucket, affectionately known as Ack, the cooler, more informal sibling to grand old Martha's Vineyard and the one that seems to takes life a little less seriously, especially considering Nantucket's gritty maritime past as one of the whaling capitals of the world. In the decades since then, life has lightened up considerably as Nantucket became a draw for second-homers and tourists, attracted to its remote-enough location, nautical charm and sandy beaches. Now, holidaymakers potter around the towns of Nantucket and Siasconset (just 'Sconset, to those in the know) in their yoga wear, perusing the tiny shops that were once homes to whalers and their families.
In summer, as temperatures rise and the Atlantic fog lifts, Nantucket comes into its own. Shops and restaurants throw open their doors for the season, the atmosphere becomes excitable and palpable with long beach days, boating, and eating and drinking in the months ahead.
EXPLORING NANTUCKET ON WHEELS
Although cars are generally discouraged by the cost of ferrying them over to this diminutive island, an influx of 4X4s hit Nantucket in summer, the ideal vehicle to bump over the cobbles then head over the sand to find a remote picnic spot on the beach, perhaps somewhere on the far-reaching slender finger of the island, pointing north-west toward Cape Cod. Thanks to an impressive network of cycle trails all over the island, traffic of the two wheeled variety spikes too and the local bike hire vendors do a roaring trade renting out all manner of bikes, from funky fat tyre bikes to mountain bikes with trailers and tag-alongs for families.
If you hear the clanging of a vintage fire bell, that will be The Nantucket Hotel's unmistakable 1940s fire truck passing by, ferrying its guests from the resort to the beaches in its mirror-shine red livery. The hotel also has a vintage bus, immaculate as the day it entered service, that transports guests around the island and adds to the historic charm of Nantucket with its cheerful chugging engine.
The Beaches Of Nantucket
Children's Beach, as the name suggests, is an ideal spot for a family to spend a day on. The sandy beach and gently lapping water aren't the only kid-friendly aspects of this beach - a handy playground, with different areas for different ages, keeps the fun going once the sandcastle competition is sewn up. There's a bandstand that attracts entertainers in the height of summer to while away long summer afternoons, and Children's Cafe for refreshments. This is a bustling little spot with a lively atmosphere, thanks to the pretty boats that come and go and the red, white and blue flags and bunting that festoon the houses that overlook the bay.
Jetties Beach, also with its own playground, is another family-friendly option, this one with a more expansive sand beach and livelier surf, but still calm enough for little ones. For choppier seas, head to Surfside Beach on the south of the island, where you'll still find beach amenities like food trucks, public toilets and lifeguards.
The Heritage of Ack
Even when the warm sunshine beckons you to a sunny terrace, try to resist it to spend an hour or two at The Nantucket Whaling Museum. This is a carefully curated, excellently presented museum describing the intriguing history of Nantucket's whaling past. A 46-foot sperm whale skeleton takes centre stage in the main atrium - akin to the dino at the Natural History Museum in London - that will please adults and children alike. Kids will also enjoy the dedicated kids playroom, filled with learning activities to give them a more hands-on experience.
Thankfully a ban on commercial whaling means there is an abundance of whales in the seas around Nantucket. So whale watching to spot Humpback and Finback whales is one of the most popular activities for visitors to the island between June and October. Whale watching isn't the only reason to get out on the water, there are fishing trips and seal cruises too. Or, for a real hands-on experience, a clamming excursion will have you thigh deep in water to learn how to catch clams - and you'll keep the ones you catch! Try Shearwater Excursions for a variety of on-the-water fun.
Such are the historically tricky waters around the island, lighthouses were lifesavers in the long, fog-filled months of the days of whaling off the coasts of Ack. Now, although in service, they are also pretty backdrops to photographs, their presence encapsulating Nantucket's nautical heritage. There are few more idyllic than Brant Point Light, that even boasts its own Instagram.
Cisco Brewers is part of Nantucket's more recent history, but none-the-less part of the fabric of this island. The brewery is more than just a contribution to American's craft beer movement, it's become an entertainment hub on Nantucket where visitors are treated to live music and a host of food trucks - including raw bars and lobster trucks. Tours and tastings are on offer all through the summer season. However satisfying the local ale is, there's a vineyard and distillery if wine and spirits are more to your liking.
Shopping on Nantucket
Housed in the pristinely painted shops behind picket fences and with window boxes bursting with pink and blue hydrangeas are boutiques selling beautiful clothes, galleries with original local paintings and photography, and apothecaries luring you in with enticing promises of health, beauty and wellness. Browsing the beautiful shops of Nantucket is an activity to dedicate serious time to.
The Skinny Dip, found on Old South Wharf, sells an eclectic mix of clothes and accessories and is the perfect stop off if you find yourself on Nantucket with a far-too-formal wardrobe than what's considered appropriate on this laid-back isle. Expect cotton sundresses, towelling blazers, oversize tote bags and preppy t-shirts.
After a few hours on the island, you may twig a general penchant for bright, neon prints. A little outlandish and overtly chirpy at first, these blindingly happy prints will grow on you as they feel at home on this vibrant little haven. Chances are the prints that are dazzling you are from Lilly Pulitzer, another homegrown 1960s American brand that's growing into a fashion powerhouse and can now be found up and down the States.
Nantucket is the kind of spot where sporting some Polo Ralph Lauren will never be out of place. And to that end, Polo has a loud and proud (but none-the-less, aptly beautiful) presence on the main street in downtown Nantucket. With a steady stream of shoppers heading in, the big wigs at Polo must feel Nantucket ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to targeting their prime demographic - the casual-wearing, big spending, logo-loving type.
Away from the abundance of fashion boutiques, if you're a bookworm with a little time to curl up and relax, on Main Street will be right up your alley. Sure, you'll find the bestsellers here if you need a holiday read, but you'll be impressed by the local books on offer in this cosy little nook of a bookshop. It even has a smoothie station tucked into the back corner.
Where To Eat On Nantucket
Juice Bar - sounds pretty healthy, yes? Don't let the long queue heading out of the door of this establishment on Main Street fool you into thinking that all those kids are waiting for fresh fruit smoothies, although they are on offer. Juice Bar is the place to go for the island's most delicious ice cream. Walk through the door and you're hit by the sickly sweet smell of warm waffles too.
On a casual morning stroll, such is the way of life on Nantucket, make sure your route includes a wander along Center Street to visit the idyllic Petticoat Row Bakery. If you've got kids in tow, they'll undoubtedly request one of the bright blue whale biscuits, but choose a Morning Bun for yourself, if you don't mind a zero-nutrition option. These baked pastry-come-doughnut domes of deliciousness are gooey, sugary, sticky and cinnamony and one is plenty for two to share.
The chaps at Nantucket's bACK-yard BBQ are a proud bunch. And rightly so - their establishment of smoky and tasty BBQ meats freshly prepare each and every sauce - no jarred or bottled mass-produced flavours here. The New England menu stalwarts of Lobster Mac & Cheese, Lobster Roll and Clam Chowder are on offer, but it's the House Smoked Kielbassa and Heritage Pulled Pork Shoulder and other meaty options that really makes this restaurant stand out.
Summering on Nantucket is relaxed and outdoorsy, so regular picnics on the beach are obligatory. Which is probably why Something Natural, a sandwich store selling all manner of breads, fillings and accompaniments does a roaring trade. Couples, groups and families all swing by on their bikes in the morning to pick up their essentials for the day ahead.
Despite being the home nation of Starbucks, it's not always that easy to find a truly decent coffee here. For a coffee that's worthy of a contribution to your daily caffeine quota, a pitstop at Handlebar Coffee on Washington Street is a must. Plus it's good place to catch up online with super speedy wifi.
On at least one occasion during time on Nantucket, your dinner needs to come out of a box (a pizza box, to be precise), with your feet dangling over the edge of the wharf as you watch the boats coming in and out of the harbour. Don't settle for anything less than a pizza from Oath Craft Pizza, these guys are serious about their pizza, controversially putting cheese on before the sauce (thus maintaining the crispiness of the base - sensible, no?) before blasting in a pizza oven for 90 seconds. The result? Probably the best meal out of a box you'll have in a long while.
CHOOSING WHERE TO STAY ON NANTUCKET
Although it's not exactly brimming with hotels, with many opting to hire a summer vacation home instead, there are some typically New England-style inns for cosy getaways, and a couple of outstanding resorts for those after the ease and comfort of a hotel.
But forget opulently sumptuous five-star abodes - life's too laid back for that sort of thing on Nantucket. And not a multi-national in sight, you'll leave Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and the like back on the mainland. The Nantucket Hotel, a relatively recent addition to the Nantucket hotel scene is charmingly nautical and its own version of luxury. Guest rooms - varying from typical doubles to suites and apartments with kitchenettes - are comfortable and individual, with definite nods to its location with suitably seasidey furnishing and decor. Expect sea rope tables, Breton-striped cushions and maritime artwork. If you like a pool, but your budget doesn't extend to a mansion with its own, The Nantucket Hotel boasts two, surrounded by comfy loungers. You'll also find complimentary yoga and a decent gym - health and wellbeing is a recurring trend on Nantucket.
White Elephant Hotel is probably the most famous resort hotel on the island with a plethora of facilities and a loyal clientele that return season after season to enjoy it's waterside location. This hotel also offers lofts off-site along Main Street to be away from the resort and in amongst the hustle, and cottages for family getaways.
Veranda House is a boutique option overlooking the harbour. With just 18 rooms, this is a cosy inn where you'll find yourself in the heart of Nantucket, stumbling distance from her best bars and restaurants. Ideal if you're a couple travelling sans children.
Getting To Nantucket From the UK
Nantucket has its own airport, so you can fly here from Boston or New York. For a more leisurely journey, hire a car from Boston and spend a few nights on Cape Cod before hopping on a Steamship Authority ferry for an hour from Hyannis.