The 'New' Nantucket

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By John Rosenthal
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2003

Nantucket-bashing is much in vogue these days. Among island residents and property owners from a certain era, it has become increasingly popular to lament days gone by, when the island wasn't so populated, so trendy, so expensive.

I never knew the Nantucket they pine for. My wife and I discovered Nantucket only six years ago, about the time the Massachusetts island started going to seed, in the opinion of the plaid-pants set. And though we have returned annually ever since, we are still arrivistes compared with families who have summered there for generations.

But we are not deterred. Despite the grousing, Nantucket's greatest attractions are the ones that have drawn vacationers for hundreds of years: the cobblestone streets, the cedar-shingle houses with manicured rose gardens and the wide-open moors ranging out to the sea. Nantucket is one of the few places on the East Coast where, even on a glorious July Fourth weekend, we can still find a stunningly deserted beach to call our own. It's still a place where I can walk a lonely dirt road to the sea with the three things that would get me kicked out of McDonald's: no shirt, no shoes and a dog.

Nantucket does not lend itself easily to the casual traveler. To get there from points south, you must shell out a small fortune in airfare, or brave the automotive mosh pit known as I-95. Many a ferry has sailed one car light from Hyannis, Mass., because a rookie failed to account for several hours of stop-and-go traffic.

Then there's the ferry. The crossing takes about 21/2 hours -- long enough to dissuade day-trippers -- but the entire process takes months. That's because if you want to bring a car on a prime summer weekend, you'll need to book in early February, when berths are opened to non-residents.

And still we are not deterred. The tourist literature advises first-timers to leave their cars behind, but we know better. We bring our car to Nantucket so we can enjoy the parts of the island that have the least traffic. The Nantucket we dream about the other 51 weeks of every year is not within walking distance of the ferry wharf, where the shops and restaurants are. It's out on the edges of the island, where the bunnies are.

In the open fields and farms, in the conservancy lands and nature preserves that protect some 40 percent of the island from development, jack rabbits mow the wild grasses, little molested by people or predators. You can get to the outer edges by taxi or shuttle bus, but without your own wheels, you can't get lost on dirt roads that weave through thickets of beach plums before dead-ending at placid bays. You can't park yourself in Madaket on the western end with a couple of beers and watch the sun set sail for the mainland.

As for lodgings, Nantucket hotel rooms come in the following price ranges: very expensive, extremely expensive and "Would you like a separate suite for your valet, Mr. Vanderbilt?" But even this does not deter us. After years of paying staggeringly high prices for dismayingly small rooms, we now rent a house for a week. This doesn't save us any money -- rental prices are only slightly less obscene than guesthouse rooms -- but it does liberate us from Nantucket's equally expensive dining scene.

Starting the trip with a visit to the Stop & Shop and filling a grocery cart with food makes us feel like natives. From the number of beach umbrellas for sale at the market, it's apparent that most of the customers are renters like ourselves. But you simply can't help but feel right at home while buying fresh-caught sea bass and a few bottles of merlot.

One restaurant we make an exception for, however, is the Lobster Trap. This no-pretenses lobster, clams and chowder spot is our opening-night tradition. It's too expensive to be called a joint -- it's still Nantucket, and it still charges Nantucket prices -- but it's the perfect place for an inaugural dinner of seafood served plain and simple. There's usually a wait on a summer Saturday evening, but there's invariably a ballgame on the TV. And if Bob is tending bar, it's often a Yankees game, as he is inscrutably a Yankees fan in a sea of Red Sox faithful.

After dinner, it's back to the house for a night of listening to the waves crash on the sand. There are plenty of other options in town, ranging from ice cream cones to a thriving singles bar scene. But for our first night away from it all, we really want to be away from it all. Indeed, from the moment the ferry pulls out of Hyannis, we relish that feeling of crossing the finish line, of leaving all the racing around and busyness behind on the mainland.

The house we rent is in Siasconset (or 'Sconset, as everybody calls it), six miles or so from Nantucket Town, at the island's easternmost end. You can't get much farther away from it all than 'Sconset. It's home to a convenience store and a few restaurants, but if you're looking for anything other than a day at the beach, you're in the wrong place.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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