NANTUCKET, Mass. — In the 1830s, more than 80 of Nantucket's whalers plied the Seven Seas, canvases taut, holds laden with enough of the precious cargo to make this small island town the busiest and most profitable whaling port in the world.
"Two-thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his, as emperors own empires; other seamen have but a right of way through it." So wrote Herman Melville in "Moby Dick."
Settled in 1659 by non-Puritan members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony seeking a measure of religious freedom and pasturage for their sheep, Melville's "elbow of sand" proved less than hospitable to truck farming and grazing. Yet early settlers survived, and in the 1670s the first tiny boats went out after small whales near shore.
In 1712 an intrepid captain's sloop was blown out to sea, the first great sperm whale was taken, and Nantucket's fortunes blossomed for more than a century. But by around 1849, Pennsylvania's petroleum was lighting the nation's lamps, Nantucket fortunes and population plummeted, and 14 ships sailed with Nantucket citizens for California's gold fields.
Today Nantucket has 800 pre-1840 homes, many of them the delightful little "seamen's shanties," or Federal, neo-classic and Victorian houses of prosperous Quaker merchants from its early days. Whatever the architecture, each seems wreathed in the wild roses that give this island a rustic charm and a 19th-Century authenticity.
Here to there: Fly USAir, United, American, TWA or Northwest to Boston, then to Nantucket in less than an hour. Also direct flights from New York and boat service from Cape Cod.
How long/how much? With all the things to see and do, plus fine beaches around the island, a week will get you into the local spirit. Lodging is high-moderate to expensive, although some of the many smaller guest houses have friendlier prices. Dining, with few exceptions, is expensive.
A few fast facts: The high season runs from Memorial Day until early October, with even the hottest months kept pleasant by sea breezes. Natives claim that fall is glorious. No need for a car in town; a bike or moped will get you around the 14-mile-long island.
Getting settled in: Jared Coffin House (29 Broad St.; $90-$150 double) dates from 1845 and was originally the home of a prosperous ship owner. Peg and Phil Read have owned it since 1976, and the hotel consists of six period homes, the oldest built in the 1700s. Everything about Jared Coffin murmurs of Nantucket's heyday, from period furnishings, antique mirrors, paintings and prints throughout to the elegant dining room. The Jared Coffin is absolutely first-class by every standard.
Carlisle House Inn (26 N. Water St.; $65-$110 B&B double) was built in 1765 by a sea captain as his home. It has been a carefully restored inn for more than a century and, like the Jared Coffin, has antiques and canopied beds aplenty. Five of the 14 bedrooms have fireplaces. A handsome communal room has a backgammon board in place, and a bright and cheerful breakfast room serves delicious homemade breads.
Anchor Inn (66 Centre St.; $60-$100 B&B double) was the 1806 home of Capt. Archaelus Hammond, whose ship was the first to harpoon a sperm whale in the Pacific. This traditional Nantucket house has window boxes spilling with flowers on the facade, wild roses cascading down side walls and, like many homes in this patriotic town, a flag flying. More period furnishings in bedrooms, and an informal and comfortable air throughout.
Regional food and drink: Fresh seafood is the staple here, with Nantucket Bay scallops a particular delicacy. They should be "between a dime and a nickel" in size for the best taste. After a bowl or two of the local chowder, you understand why New Englanders consider Manhattanites heathens for putting in tomatoes to stomp all over the delicate flavors. Nantucket's quahog chowder is sheer ambrosia.
Swordfish is another favorite, but only if it's harpooned. Some are caught and allowed to become sodden by lying in the water, others brought frozen from South America. Cod and haddock (small varieties are collectively called scrod) are on most menus, often prepared in the Portuguese manner by the island's considerable population with forebears from that country.
Cranberries are a major crop, with a number of huge bogs around the island. They, along with beach plums and wild grapes, are made into marvelous jellies.
Moderate-cost dining: The Quaker House (5 Chestnut St.) is one of your best value stops, serving four-course meals from $12 to $16.95. This tiny, cheerful and pretty place is a study in blue and lavender, with welcoming flowers in window boxes. Your meal could start with clam chowder, then swordfish, sole, shrimp or chicken, with a salad and dessert tossed in.
Arno's (Main Street) and the Tap Room in the cellar of Jared Coffin House are two places where you'll find excellent food and friendly prices, both specializing in the freshest seafood and generous helpings.