By Ted Weesner
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 1, 2010; 1:30 PM
Wake early. Roll out of bed. Trip down a flight of stairs and out the door and along a path of bramble, rose hip and sand. Skitter down a powdery cool dune and fall upon: more than 10 miles of untouched beach. Endless ocean, endless sky, fiery sun peeking over a shockingly broad horizon. Not another mammal in sight. Only piping plovers, which flirt with the Atlantic as it glides in and snaps up twirls of spray and froth. What should you do? Really, do you have a choice?
Yes, you take off your clothes, dash toward the waves, dive headfirst into a 70-degree breaker. If great white sharks hadn't been sighted over the summer, you might bob in the water all morning. It all feels very primal, as if you might have been swept ashore from one of those old shipwrecked whalers. Bobbing there in the dazzling light, empty beach on one side, empty ocean on the other.
Welcome to Nantucket in the off-season. Welcome to the sort of experience awarded the nonconformist traveler whose wallet isn't exactly plump - and whose wallet is plump these days? It's an unforeseen if lucky consequence of countering the herd, whereby this typically precious fancy-pants island offers itself up in rawer, more sensual form.
Or as a ferry shuttle pilot put it, "A week after Labor Day, the crowd is cut by 80 percent."
A mere scattering of passengers is on the Friday morning steamship in mid-September. This is the "traditional" slower boat, which takes two hours instead of the "high-speed" version's one. And yet the chug-chugging slow boat, with its great open decks and comfortable interior booths in the style of QE2-era poshness, presents a soothing immersion in the more languorous rhythms of what you approach.
Once off the ferry, the newly minted islander will need to secure transportation, which some would say consists of a single form on Nantucket. A car feels too large (and costly) for this place. A simple bicycle is the way to go, and two thriving rental options, Young's and Nantucket Bicycle Shops, sit just off the wharf. At the same time, you'll not want to forsake the combustion engine, i.e. the occasional shuttle bus or taxicab ride. An island that's 14 miles long and five miles wide and exclusively pedaled will translate into aching muscles and rear end, unless you're possibly Lance Armstrong looking to train in seclusion.
And yet exhaustion may not be such a bad thing if you've chosen, as I did, to stay in the island's one hostel. The Star of the Sea is on the south side of Nantucket, a beautiful red former Victorian life-saving station circa 1873, built back when whalers were trying to navigate the perilous shoals lurking offshore. It closed for the season at the end of September, but a fascinating array of people were holed up there during my stay: an astringent elderly German woman, a lovey-dovey middle-aged couple from Baltimore, a young businessman buried in his laptop, a troop of Girl Scouts with almost as many hovering den mothers. I slept in a bunk bed in the "male dorm" along with two dozen others. Incredible seaside location, incredible historic ambiance, and a steal for $35 a night, but also a cacophonous symphony of snores filtering up after the lights dimmed. Fortunately I'd so wrung myself out from biking that I slept the sleep of a burrowed surf clam.
On an island that's known in the summer for rampaging tourists, semi-endangered un-ironic prepsters and New Yorkers with Wall Street bonuses to burn, the off-season dining scene is far mellower. At most of Nantucket's hottest boites, I turned up unannounced and found an open seat.
Not to say that these establishments were anything like empty. Hardly. The dining room at the celebrated Straight Wharf, which overlooks the port, was brimming, and yet I found a nice spot in the bar and feasted on halibut ceviche, green gazpacho and a perfectly cooked skirt steak surrounded by late harvest vegetables. The dessert, a molasses cookie sandwich paired with verbena ice cream, nearly launched me into the happiest of food comas. The bike ride back to the rumbling hostel inched me back toward mostly sentient.
Restaurant bars in general are excellent places to skirt the stunningly high entree prices on Nantucket, which don't exit with the crowds. At a deservedly popular place such as American Seasons, where entrees top out at $37, you can order from an inventive bar menu of "small plates," each a more affordable $6. The old island classic Languedoc, with its tin bar and romantically low ceiling, serves a mean burger with garlic fries for only (gulp) $16. Another island classic, though less Old World pricey than New World dirt cheap, is Sayle's on the south side of Nantucket's quaint town center. It may be a ramshackle joint, but the seafood is perfectly fried. Commandeer a plastic table on the outdoor balcony and the staff brings out a plate of flounder, along with clam chowder, boiled red potatoes and coleslaw, all for $11, that you'll be hard-pressed to finish.
If you have any energy after a day of biking, swimming and dining, a taste of genuine Nantucket night life awaits, from the tonier Club Car, where drunken prepsters are certain to be found singing gleefully, extremely gleefully, around an upright piano, to the more low-end. Sample the latter and you're in for some wicked fun. Unlike that very forgettable place islanders refer to as the "mainland," where bars cater to a specific demographic, on Nantucket you glimpse a Wall Streeter in whale-festooned pants alongside a Bulgarian roofer who's chatting with a line cook from Jamaica.
Of course there's a world of flora and fauna to explore. About 45 percent of Nantucket is under conservation, far more terrain than you're likely ever to stroll or bike. On the east side of the island is the town of Siasconset, home to the not-to-be-missed bluff walk. On the opposite end are more knockout beaches to visit. Fortunately the gulf stream buffets the island, so the water temperature is relatively mild into the fall. But if it's raining or chilly, a half-day can easily disappear inside the well-stocked Whaling Museum. You leave this place feeling that you've brushed against the rough and tumble, historic dimensions of this now super-civilized getaway.
One location not to miss: Cisco Brewers. Along a nondescript length of road, the compound is open all year, and if the weather is right, features a beer/wine/booze garden. Unwind at one of the outdoor tables in the still-dangling sun, grooving to a live bluegrass band and sipping your chosen beverage, and you'll find yourself wondering: How's this place - like all of Nantucket in the off-season - not overrun?
Weesner, a Boston-based fiction writer and journalist, teaches creative writing at Tufts University.