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The Best of Nantucket

In the past decade, Nantucket residents, both year-round and migratory, began to grow restless. "There are too many new houses here," they muttered to one another. Too many cell phones, too much traffic, too many people. As the year 2000 approached, islanders tightened building limits, made planes fly offshore on approach, and circulated bumper stickers that read twenty is plenty (as in miles per hour). These were worrisome years on the Faraway Island, as some have translated Nantucket's ancient Indian name.

Through it all, the blue Atlantic sent perfect waves onto white sands. On Main Street, farmers sold produce off the backs of trucks. Climbing roses bloomed by the thousands up cottage walls in Siasconset, that most English of New England villages. Sandcastles were created on Children's and Jetties Beaches. Bluefish blitzed at Great Point and striped bass ghosted along the flats off Eel Point. Ice clinked in glasses. Slabs of fish crackled on grills. And in the spring of the new millennium, the essentials of paradise endured.

the lay of the land

"Take out your map and look at it." So Melville wrote of Nantucket in Moby Dick, perhaps as a tacit admission that he had never been to his protagonist's island. Officially it's all one town, but in reality there are several distinct neighborhoods. Where you choose to stay will affect your overall experience.

Nantucket town: Nantucket has more than 800 pre-Civil War houses in its historic district. Most were built around the harbor in "town" (as everyone calls it) during the island's reign as capital of the whaling business. Wandering the streets lined with 1700's and 1800's captains' houses is an architectural education in itself. West of Steamboat Wharf begins the land of generously porched summer retreats built in the post-whaling period.

Siasconset: At the island's extreme eastern end, the heart of this miniature fishing village—"Sconset"—is almost unchanged from the early 1700's, when Nantucket town residents began summering here. On either side along the bluffs are later-vintage summer places.

Madaket: Across the island from Sconset, both geographically and temperamentally, lies Madaket. Nothing is ever scruffy on Nantucket, but Madaket is laid-back enough for some people to sniff at. If you didn't clip your hedge for a season, none of your neighbors would notice.

Quidnet, Quaise, and all the rest: Each of Nantucket's smaller neighborhoods has its own flavor. For your purposes: North of Polpis Road, where Quidnet and Quaise are located, think old family compounds on winding roads. South of Milestone Road, think subdivisions by the sea.

top bike routes

The sublime six-mile Hummock Pond loop starts just east of where Cliffs Road intersects with Madaket Road. • For the best sense of the inland island, mountain bike the occasionally steep, three-mile-long Barnard Valley Road, from its start at the intersection of Hoicks Hollow and Polpis Roads. Take drinking water and a decent map and make your way across the moors to Altar Rock. • Of the many paved bike paths, the Polpis Road route is one of the best. It winds alongside marshes and beside ponds and cranberry bogs, and passes the Lifesaving Museum.

walk this way

Left over from the days of looking for whale spouts from shore, the Sconset Bluff Walk is a studiously unadvertised public way that takes you right through the front yards of the island's choicest shingle-style masterpieces, rivaled only by those on Hulbert Avenue and Cliff Road in town. It begins deceptively enough: at the end of Front Street in Sconset is a sign that says FOOTPATH ONLY, NO BIKES, which appears to refer to a very steep and narrow trail heading down to the right to Codfish Park. The path you want is the less obvious one to the left, through the privet hedges and on along the lip of the land. Residents are accustomed to the parade of strangers, but if you do the bluff walk at cocktail hour, don't expect to be invited up onto the porch for a drink.

best fishing

All Points Bulletin: A bluefish or a striper has at some time been hauled out of the surf along every yard of Nantucket's south and east shores. But to be alone, try below the old military reservation at Tom Nevers. When in doubt about where to go, join the all-terrain armada at the points: Smith's and Great to heave big plugs into the surf, Eel to wade for bass with a fly rod.

where to stay

On Nantucket, rooms are often small and prices high, which is only partially due to supply and demand. With a few notable exceptions, most of the lodging is in guesthouses built before 1900. Unless noted, the following hotels are in Nantucket town, and prices listed are for high season, which begins in July.

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