Lay of the Land
About 30 miles from Cape Cod and just 15 miles long, Nantucket has a more remote and exclusive feel than its sister island of Martha's Vineyard. There are no Starbucks (although there is great coffee) and no traffic signals. Many of the island's hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops are located in Nantucket Townthe commercial center that surrounds the north-facing harbor (where the ferries dock). Handsome mansions topped with widow's walks line the crooked streets radiating outward from the town center. Aside from the charming village of Siasconset (or Sconset,) on the southeastern coast, the rest of Nantucket is surprisingly rural40 percent of its 50 square miles is conservation land, and there are several working farms. Surfers gather on the windy beaches of the southern shore, including Cisco and Surfside, while the calmer beaches facing Nantucket Sound on the north coast are better for families. The northeasterly point of the island, Great Point, is a long, sweeping sand spit accessible only by 4x4 (with a permit); rent one and head out for the day to surf-cast for blues and picnic amid the island's most unspoiled scenery.
WHEN TO GO
Memorial Day to Labor Day is prime time, meaning big crowds and high prices. Long waits are common at popular restaurants, and traffic on Nantucket Town's narrow cobblestone streets reaches gridlock. Although the weather is mildest during this time, it's not unusual to get trapped by rain and fogthey don't call Nantucket the Gray Lady for nothing. For the best value, come in early fall, when temperatures are still high, the Atlantic is warm enough for swimming, and the locals tend to be friendlier; or in late spring, when winter has given way to brightly blooming spring and the crowds have not yet come. In late April, the islanders celebrate the Daffodil Festival (including a tailgate picnic and a parade of daffodil-festooned antique cars); mid-May brings the Nantucket Wine Festival; the celebrity-heavy Nantucket Film Festival kicks off in June (nantucketfilmfestival.org); Restaurant Week takes center stage in October; and in December, there's the picturesque, and hugely popular Christmas Stroll holiday weekend. See nantucketchamber.org/visitor/events.html for more information. A few accommodations stay open through the winter, a time when some visitors appreciate the seclusion and comparatively warm (for New England) ocean-moderated temperatures, bringing books or board games and settling in beside the fire.
HOW TO GET THERE
Lured by the revenues from the short-distance, high-demand route, JetBlue (800-538-2583; jetblue.com) and Delta (800-221-1212; delta.com) now service Nantucket from New York City's JFK Airport. US Airways Express flies from New York's LaGuardia, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. (800-428-4322; usairways.com), Continental Express from Newark, N.J. (800-523-3273; continental.com), and Cape Air from Boston, Providence, and New Bedford, Mass. (800-352-0714; www.flycapeair.com). Both Island (800-248-7779; nantucket.net/trans/islandair) and Nantucket Air (800-635-8787l; www.nantucketairlines.com) fly from the Cape Cod village of Hyannis.
Two personal jet services also offer on-demand charter service from secondary airports. Linear Air flies twin-engine business jets from Hanscom Field outside Boston and Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York, and has scheduled service to Nantucket from Hanscom and Teterboro Airport in New Jersey on summer weekends (877-254-6327; linearair.com). Tradewind Aviation flies from Teterboro and Westchester airports using jet and turbo-prop executive aircraft (800-376-7922; tradewindaviation.com). You'll skirt the nuisances of lines and trafficat least until you arrive. An ongoing, years-long terminal reconstruction project has reduced the Nantucket Airport to a collection of uncomfortable modular trailers and portable toilets.
Of course, part of the experience of vacationing on an island is getting there by sea. Ferries to Nantucket depart from Hyannis (leave extra time if you're driving to the docks, since Cape Cod is choked with traffic in the summer). In addition to its traditional car ferry, the public Steamship Authority operates a high-speed ferry, the Iyanough, between mid-April and December that cuts the two-hour ocean trip in half, but is passengers-only (508-477-8600; www.steamshipauthority.com). Private Hy-Line Cruises operates its high-speed ferry year-round and a second, slower ferry between late May and mid-October. Both boats are passengers-only and depart from a new terminal in Hyannis (508-778-2600; www.hy-linecruises.com). All ferry fares now include a fuel surcharge.
Bringing a car aboard the ferry to Nantucket is expensive ($430 round-trip for a mid-size in the summer, not including passenger fares), and renting one is largely unnecessary. Nantucket Town is easily walkable, there are shuttle buses and passenger launches, and the island has an excellent network of bicycle trails. Pick up a street and bicycle map at Young's Bicycle Shop near the ferry terminal on Broad Street or log on to Wheels, Heels & Pedals (wheelsheelsandpedals.com) or the Smart Guide (smartguide.org/nantucket) for tips about how to get around the island car-free. Bike rentals are available at the ferry wharf, Straight Wharf, and the airport. Taxis are plentiful year-round; there are stands near the ferry docks, at the airport, and in town. Buses are run from mid-May through mid-September by the Nantucket Regional Transit Authority (508-228-7025; www.shuttlenantucket.com).
The Visitor Services and Information Bureau is located at 25 Federal Street in Nantucket Town (508-228-0925; nantucket-ma.gov), with a satellite booth on Straight Wharf. The people at the front desk of the Nantucket Whaling Museum are also eager to share their wealth of information. Don't rely exclusively on your hotel conciergealthough some are experienced and knowledgeable, a surprising number (including at the best hotels) are new in town ("from away," as local lingo puts it).