Just saying the word “Nantucket” makes me dreamy. I’m not sure why I’ve been infatuated with this little East coast island for so long; I can’t remember how or where I first heard of it, and I can’t remember anyone talking to me about this place. It seems to me that I’ve been in love with Nantucket since my teenage years, so I can’t really explain why it took me so long to visit.
Stopping by Nantucket on our way from Rhode Island to Cape Cod was the best move of our entire road trip. The only problem was that we didn’t stay long enough! Still, because the island is so small and it’s so easy to bicycle around it, we left with a sense that we had come to know the place well and with a deep longing to return for a week, at least.
As soon as we set foot in Nantucket’s small harbour at the very bottom of Main St., we were overwhelmed with the impression that we had just stepped onto a film set. The weather was a bit gray, having just rained, the cobblestone street was all glossy, and everyone looked perfect; perfect tans, embroidered shirts, designer raincoats, seersucker bermudas, fancy bags, luxury SUVs.
Throughout our stay in Nantucket, we encountered this glossy, perfect finish everywhere we went, but fortunately we also discovered a great deal of substance beneath the beautiful façade. For one, a true conservation effort rules the place: many buildings are historical and perfectly preserved. The architectural style is quintessential East Coast: washed out neutral colors, aged cedar shingles, shutters and wrap-around galleries make the houses feel warm and welcoming. Although it’s obvious that most of these homes were built for the wealthy, their effortless style makes them seem more modest than they probably are.
We also admired the visibly conscious effort to keep Nantucket free of chain restaurants and stores. No Starbucks, McDonald’s or The Gap in sight; instead, the coffee shops each have a different personality and are locally owned, clothing boutiques carry local designer brands (except for the one ubiquitous Ralph Lauren store, of course) – even the souvenir shops are charming. I have not found online evidence that Nantucket has passed regulations to prevent invasion by chains but it seems obvious to me that with the touristic popularity of the island and the average income of the typical visitor, many companies would have jumped at the business opportunity given half a chance.
Although I have nothing against chain coffee shops, restaurants and stores, there’s something truly refreshing in walking through a town where all the brands, logos and signs are new to you. As I researched the local restaurant scene, I discovered that each restaurant has its own unique story. Given the fact that they are isolated, most abide by the locavore philosophy, making the most of what each season has to offer. Of course, fish and seafood are prominently featured, and surprisingly enough for such a small place, international cuisines are also well represented.
We had unforgettable meals, cycled around the island, relaxed on the beach, and lounged in our beautiful B&B when it was raining. If it sounds like we had the perfect time, it’s because we did. In fact, I don’t think I have come down from my Nantucket cloud yet. If you think the place is all superficiality and no substance, please give it a chance: It has a secret power which can capture even the most doubtful heart.
Going to Nantucket: Logistics Advice
See full address book at the very end of this post.
When to go: Although it’s a beautiful place in summer, I hear it’s haunting in autumn and in the spring, when the crowds have left and you can wander the streets, feeling like you have the island all to yourself. It’s also a great time to benefit from lower, off-season accommodation rates, leaving you more headroom to enjoy the many fabulous restaurants Nantucket has to offer.
How to go: I absolutely don’t recommend crossing to Nantucket by car: not only it is very expensive to do so (round-trip up to $400 per car in the summer, around $250 in the off-season), but the narrow streets easily get jammed. It’s best to leave your car in Harwich (parking is free if you take a day trip, or $17/night) and take the passenger-only ferry from there. Round trip is $74/adult. The Harwich ferry arrives right in the town center, so you’ll most likely be able to walk to wherever you’re staying, or you can take a taxi.
The other benefit of leaving from Harwich is that you’ll avoid chaotic Hyannis. This small town’s harbour is very busy during the summer season and I hear there can be hours of wait. Aren’t you on vacation to relax?
Going around: The whole town center is easily walkable – and you really should wander aimlessly as there are so many beautiful alleys and side streets to discover. Rent a bike to ride all over the small island, which is only 3.5 miles wide by 14 miles long.
If you do need a car, there are several options on the island, both in the center and around the airport.
Just imagine yourself living there…
What to eat: Ah the million dollar question. The good news is that there are lots of options.
For sure shots, I’d go for any of Amanda Lydon & Gabriel Frasca’s restaurants: Provisions, for a casual lunch or picnic, Ventuno, for modern Italian fare, or Straight Wharf, for new American dishes highlighting the best seafood and fish the island has to offer. We had our best Nantucket dinner at Straight Wharf, seated on the über-romantic patio overlooking the marina (note: the SWR Clam Bake is unforgettable).
Inside Straight Wharf Restaurant.
Another of Nantucket’s restaurateur power couple, Seth and Angela Raynor, own three highly regarded restaurants: Boarding House, a farm to table restaurant; The Pearl, which serves coastal cuisine with an Asian twist; and Corazon del Mar, a fabulous latin-themed restaurant stocked with over 50 varieties of Tequila. Corazon del Mar was our best surprise: we enjoyed a variety of rich-tasting dishes that were completely out of the coastal-cuisine box. A nice change of pace.
Food at Corazon del Mar: Left, Nantucket striped bass crudo & chicken mole lettuce cups; right, trio of Tecate battered Baja fish tacos with avocado salsa, midnight beans and red rice. We also had the Chilaquiles Verdes (“Drunken Tacos”) which were AMAZING.
- Brunch: Popular Black-Eyed Susan’s will make you rub shoulders with the locals. Fuel for the day with dishes such as the creative “Spicy Thai scramble w/ thai Curry, broccoli, potatoes, and cilantro” or the luscious “Sourdough French Toast with Orange Jack Daniels Butter and Cinnamon Pecans”. Arrive early or be prepared to wait.
- Elegant Lunch: For a day out of the Nantucket center, bike towards the Eastern Point to the elegant Wauwinet Inn, a member of the Relais & Châteaux group. The Inn’s restaurant, Topper’s, serves an affordable lunch. The menu is composed of New England classics (lobster rolls, crab cakes, etc.) interpreted with the Relais & Château touch. After lunch, head down to Siasconset (or ‘Sconset as local say) and its beautiful beach to enjoy a different side of the island: quieter, more laid back and just as charming.
The Wauwinet Inn
A cute and very good soft-crab sandwich at Topper’s.
- Modern Lunch: Dune is located in a classic Nantucket two-story house that has been completely renovated on the inside. The decor, minimalist and modern but warm, suits the menu, which is creative and streamlined New England fare. Great cocktails list.
Dune’s classic Chatham lobster roll with lemon chive aioli & garlic fries.
- Sweets: For pastries, donuts, cookies, muffins, cupcakes and luscious cakes & pies, look no further than Petticoat Row Bakery. The shop has a charming classic look and the staff is always smiling.
- Novelty decor: Club Car, a narrow vintage train car transformed into a small, classic bar.
- People-watching: The Tavern at Harbor Square, a bit raucous and less polished, its gazebo is the ideal spot to enjoy a local Cisco beer and watch beautiful people go by.
- Happy Hour: Loose yourself in Corazon del Mar’s Tequila and cocktails list, which are ideal to wash off some of the restaurant’s delicious snacks from the appetizers, ceviche and raw bar menu.
- Local brewery: Cisco Brewery’s beer is served all over town, but why not enjoy it right where it’s crafted, in the heart of the island. It has a lively patio that’s very popular during the summer.
- After-dinner drinks: Straight Wharf Bar, elegant crowd, good music and unique cocktails.
Lobster Mac & Cheese
Yes, of course, I had to end this post with a fabulous lobster recipe. I’m fighting against cooling temperatures and this luscious baked dish is perfect to warm you up on a late-summer evening with friends. I had it bookmarked for so long, but it felt too indulgent just for the two of us. I finally had the perfect opportunity to make it after we came back from Nantucket and we felt like it brought us right back to the idyllic island. It’s comforting, inventive and delicious, just like so many meals we had in New England.
Serves 6 to 8 lobster-lovers
Kosher salt, to taste
12 oz [340 g] hollow pasta, preferably ridged mini-penne (but elbow macaroni is also fine)
¼ cup [60 ml] unsalted butter
¼ cup [60 ml] flour
4 cups [1 L] milk
11 oz [311 g] grated fontina (about 4 cups [1 L])
8 oz [226 g] Mascarpone (about 1 cup [250 ml])
3 tbsp [45 ml] lobster or fish broth
3 tbsp [45 ml] brandy or cognac
1 tsp [5 ml] Tabasco
¼ tsp [1.25 ml] freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Meat of two 1½ lb [680 g] lobsters, picked and cut into 1″ chunks
1⁄3 cup [80 ml] minced chives
2 scallions, thinly sliced crosswise
2 oz [56 g] grated sharp aged white cheddar (about 1 cup [250 ml])
Heat oven to 375°F [190°C]. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked halfway through (check the manufacturer’s recommended cooking time and halve it – the pasta will cook through to al dente perfection in the cheesy sauce). Drain pasta, transfer to a bowl, and set aside.
While the pasta cooks, melt butter in another large saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, until smooth, about 1 minute. Whisk in milk and cook, continuing to whisk often, until sauce has thickened and coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes.
Remove pan from heat and stir in 2 cups [500 ml] fontina, along with the mascarpone, broth, brandy, Tabasco, and nutmeg; season with salt and pepper. Add reserved pasta to cheese sauce. Stir in half each of the lobster, chives, and scallions.
Transfer mixture to a large shallow dutch oven, or large cast iron skillet, or 9″ x 13″ [23 x 33 cm] baking dish and sprinkle with remaining fontina and the cheddar. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes. Garnish with remaining lobster, scallions, and chives. Serve to very hungry guests.
Recipe adapted from Saveur Magazine.
Don’t you wish you were there?
Nantucket Address Book
- Harwich Ferry: Freedom Cruise Line, Inc. Sailing from Saquatucket Harbor: 702 Route 28, Harwich Port, Massachusetts 02646
For reservations or information: (508) 432-8999 / Website
- Bed & Breakfast: The Pineapple Inn, 10 Hussey Street
508-257-4577 / Website
- Bike Rental: Nantucket Bike Shop, two locations in the town center (Steamship Wharf & Straight Wharf) / Website
- Restaurants & bars:
- Provisions: 3 Harbor Square, Straight Wharf / 508-228-3258 / Website
- Ventuno: 21 Federal St. / 508-228-4242 / Website
- Straight Wharf: 6 Harbor Square, Straight Wharf / 508-228-4499 / Website
- The Boarding House: 12 Federal Street / 508-228-9622 / Website
- The Pearl: 12 Federal Street / 508-228-9701 / Website
- Corazon Del Mar: 21 South Water Street / 508-228-0815 / Website
- Black Eyed Susan’s: 10 India Street / 508-325-0308 / Website
- Wauwinet Inn & Topper’s Restaurant: 120 Wauwinet Road / 508-228-0145 / Website
- Dune: 20 Broad Street / 508-228-5550 / Website
- Petticoat Row Bakery: 35 Center Street / 508-228-3700 / Website
- Club Car: 1 Main Street / 508-228-1101 / Website
- The Tavern at Harbor Square: At the bottom of Main St. and entrance to Straight Wharf / 508-228-1266 or 508-228-6444 / Website
- Cisco Brewery: 5 Bartlett Farm Road / 508-325-5929 / Website