“Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies;” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Once a whaling village in the 19th century and then part of the then-booming whaling industry that swept the globe, Nantucket, Massachusetts is a cornerstone of early American history. The characters that filled the island back then inspired some of the narration in Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick and a visit to the island might bring some of the old maritime lore back to life. Like all the former old whaling ports along the east coast, Nantucket was a booming town at the peak of the whaling industry but fell into decline and decay as alternate sources of fuel made demand for the coveted whale oil fall. In recent times some of these old whaling ports have been resurrected, the towns revitalized, and prices for the coveted real estate soared. Now they are hangouts for the wealthy and other vacationers alike. Visiting Nantucket made me think about the cycles of industry and the lessons to be learned from Moby Dick about ambition turned to self-destruction. I wondered about how much I would see of that on a brief day trip to the island.
We took the Hy-Line ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket very early one summer day. Hyannis had been a nice place to visit on our road trip, and we had stayed overnight at an AirBnb in Cape Cod. It was a short drive to the ferry stop where we parked our car for the day and awaited the ferry along with what appeared to be a crowd of locals, judging by the everyday looking t-shirts and jeans they were dressed in and the disgruntled looks on their faces. It occurred to us that these were the workers of Nantucket, commuting to their jobs early each morning. Perhaps you are wondering why we were there so early. Unfortunately, our stay at the AirBnB had not been that great, and we ended up escaping with our bags around 4am, having barely slept through the night. We were tired, hungry and cranky by the time we board the crowded ferry, armed with cups of coffee and danish we’d gotten at a nearby grocery store. We nibbled on our pastries as the ferry swayed gently on the waves.
So, the minute we had landed my first order of business was a proper brunch, and I was happy to walk right into a good brunch spot, the Fog Island Café [5 Amelia Drive, (508) 228-0009]. My friend wanted to go for a run, which was his way to relax. I decided to settle into a table by myself, sipped a cup of tea and looked over the menu. When half an hour had passed, I ordered myself some breakfast, ate and waited. He had said it would be a quick run. The café was empty, and as I gazed around at the cheerful, honey-colored wood paneling on the walls and the grey and white houses staring back at me through the window, I thought the island was surprisingly charming and peaceful. All the rich people must be spending a lazy Sunday morning in their homes. I was wrong. Around 10:00am the line started forming out the door of the Café. It turned out that this was one of the hottest brunch spots in town, and it seemed like half the island had woken up and decided to go there for breakfast that Sunday morning. I couldn’t loiter around, soon I had to pay and give up my table to the next hungry customer in line.
While I understood, I was also annoyed. My friend was not picking up his phone. I roamed the streets of Nantucket, admiring the pristine white flower boxes in the windows and ancient cobblestoned streets.
I was getting tired. Finally, my friend appeared, having had a stellar run around the town. He was full of energy and starving. I had just eaten, so we didn’t know what to do. Finally we sat down on a bench near the water. It was already feeling like a long day. We agreed to get some lobster rolls for a light early lunch, and cheered up as we passed rows of charming Cape Cod-style house to The Nantucket Lobster Trap, [23 Washington St. (508) 228-4200] where after eating some delicious rolls brimming with lobster salad and munching on some fries we were both in much better spirits. Time to hit the whaling museum.
The Whaling Museum
We bought a one-day pass at the door (Adult ticket $20), which lets you see the Whaling Museum and five other historic sites (The Old Mill, Oldest House & Kitchen Garden, Fire Hose Car House, Old Gaol, and Greater Light), but we spent the next hour just at the museum. It is run by the Nantucket Historical Association, which also gives tours. We toured Gosnell Hall, envisioning what it was like to be part of the 18th century whaling trade. There is an amazing display of the entire skeleton of a whale there.
We learned what scrimshaw was and viewed an impressive collection of these carvings that sailors made on whale teeth to pass the time during their long voyages.
There is a gallery that tells the story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, which partly inspired Melville to write his novel. Climb the staircase to the roof walk on top of the museum for lovely, sweeping views of Nantucket.
On our walk along the wharfs on our way back to the ferry, we marveled at the charming cottages that dotted the landscape. All of the houses in Nantucket have to abide by a code and be built in the typical Cape Cod style. The median home value in Nantucket is just over $2 million (Fisher Real Estate). There were little fisherman’s shacks that lined the wharfs that were renovated and could sell for even more than that.
In my brief one-day voyage of sorts, it appeared to me that I was not finding either just early American history or signs of the ambitions of the wealthy, but rather a charming blending of the two. There is still much to explore on Nantucket, such as beaches, historic houses, lighthouses, fine dining and strolls along the Nantucket sound. I will just be patient and let the time for the next visit come as it may.
Date trip taken: August 2016