Is it possible for a place that’s frozen in time to evolve for the modern traveler—without losing its old-world charms? In Nantucket, the answer is yes.

By Carey Jones
February 10, 2017
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When I was a kid spending summers on Nantucket in the 1980s, two pharmacies stood side-by-side on cobblestone-paved Main Street. Two pharmacies-cum-soda fountains, that is: each sold egg sandwiches and tuna melts by day and—far more relevant to my childhood interests—ice cream by night. Both had kid-friendly flavors, chocolate jimmies, and counter stools on which we spun around until we felt dizzy. And both held their prices to $1.25 for a small cone. But we'd only ever go to one: Nantucket Pharmacy. The near-identical Congdon's pharmacy next door, never.

Why? Small-town loyalties, I suppose. You have your places and routines and you don't deviate. But when Congdon's closed several years ago, the childish pleasure I felt from seeing "my" pharmacy survive was tinged with a sense of loss. What's an inconsequential rivalry when the other half disappears?

Every bit of change is felt profoundly by locals when old-world charm—the cobblestone streets, the whaling captains' homes—is at the very crux of a place’s identity, as it is here in Nantucket. So many of our traditions endure against all odds: the entire town still shuts down on July 4 for pie-eating contests and a full-on water fight. There's not a single chain restaurant or traffic light on the island. And the small-town soda fountain still sells rainbow sherbet on wafer cones.

But sticking to tradition comes with caveats. What’s charmingly antique can, over the years, grow antiquated. Herein lies a paradox: How can Nantucket retain its signature old soul when its economy is so fundamentally driven by travelers and all of their modern-day expectations?

Where is Nantucket?

If Nantucket can seem somewhat frozen in time, it’s not only by design; it’s a byproduct of the island’s relative inaccessibility. Thirty miles off the shores of Cape Cod, Nantucket has always been a world apart. (Its very name derives from the native Wampanoag for "faraway island.") JetBlue and Delta may now fly direct from New York—a far easier passage than the 9-seat puddle-jumpers that were once the only aerial option—but when that near-nightly shroud of fog descends, those planes are going nowhere. Fast ferries may traverse Nantucket Sound in an hour—half the time that journey once took—but when gale-force winds kick up, good luck on that catamaran.

That very inaccessibility is also what gave the island rise as a resort town. Once a world capital of whaling—the oil industry of its day, quite literally—Nantucket thrived as an economic powerhouse through the mid-19th century. But after the petroleum industry shouldered whaling into decline, the island's grand homes, developed harbor, and endless beaches served no better purpose than summer havens.

Preserving a Historic District

Now, isolation accounts for just some the Nantucket’s preservation; the islanders themselves have done far more. The arrival of a Ralph Lauren outpost on Main Street in 2006 so incensed locals that the town passed an ordinance: From that point forward, no chains of any sort could move in downtown. (Suffice it to say there's no danger of a Starbucks taking over my beloved pharmacy.) The organization ReMain Nantucket has purchased buildings as a "benevolent landlord" to allow small businesses, first among them Mitchell's Book Corner, to keep their homes downtown. Nantucket is among the first historic districts established nation-wide, and the Historical Commission exercises real authority, with rather strict standards aimed at preserving the island's architectural character. My parents learned this the hard way when they painted their front door yellow—not an approved color.

So when local movers and shakers decided to add more luxurious accommodations to the island’s bevy of quaint inns, there was no question that their exteriors would be perfectly preserved. Behind the Victorian facade of the old Nesbitt Inn, for instance, the year-old 21 Broad may be as modern as any mainland boutique hotel, with Vitamin C-infused showers and in-room iPads. The 20-room 76 Main also slid seamlessly into downtown, its rooms re-outfitted in nautical stripes and springy patterns (some pulled straight out of the Vineyard Vines catalog). I'll admit to a twinge of nostalgia for its prior incarnation as a homey B&B, where its charming proprietor once waited on the front stoop to greet every guest on arrival. But the stately white building itself, built for whaling captain William Swain in 1883, looks all but untouched—just as the Historical Commission would like it.

Nantucket Restaurants

When it comes to new restaurants, more is being preserved than just building exteriors—the latest openings are often reinventions of old spaces, or new projects from established island chefs. Proprietors Bar & Table, among the best island openings in years, would rank favorably by Boston or New York standards with its inventive shared plates and cutting-edge cocktails—but the presence of its operators, the owners of longtime favorite restaurant American Seasons, makes it feel true to Nantucket as well. Those who mourned the closure of 21 Federal, a downtown legend known for its upscale, all-American menu, took comfort it seeing it taken over by local owners, who refashioned the space into a relaxed Italian restaurant and honored its former tenant in the new name: Ventuno, Italian for "21.” Even the Nantucket Yacht Club—a proudly set-in-its-ways institution that long acted as a time warp to the 1970s—recently went through a renovation, opening a second-floor bar with harbor views dubbed the "Burgee Bar" that's downright contemporary: think house-infused spirits and a liquor nerd’s dream of a rum list. (An entire generation of Nantucket septuagenarians now know the term "mixologist," thanks to their modern cocktails—a notion I would have laughed at even five years ago.)

Of course, old-timers and locals still bemoan the smallest of changes (this is an island where the installation of a single stop sign on Old South Road was the talk of the town for a full summer). And as anywhere, day-trippers can be blind to the island's history, to anything beyond Main Street cosmetics and the white sandy beaches. As for me: I’m thankful that Nantucket has found a way evolve without sacrificing the timelessness that keeps me coming back.

Nantucket's Top Attractions

To that end, my advice for a perfect weekend is the same now as it was in 1995: For the best fish sandwiches, go visit Walter at Straight Wharf Fish Shop on the water. Something Natural still makes the world's best chocolate chip cookies. Murray's Toggery Shop is still the best place to get outfitted in Nantucket Reds. The best beaches are still unmarked and informally named (we're talking "Fat Ladies Beach" and "40th Pole"). A rugged four-wheel drive—or better yet, a boat—is still the only way to access the island's northern sands. And while the Juice Bar makes the island's best ice cream, you can make any 5-year-old happy by heading to Nantucket Pharmacy, snagging a stool at the counter, and ordering a scoop or two. You're not going to pay $1.25 for a cone these days—but otherwise, it's hardly changed a bit.