"Goin' over to America," old-time Nantucketers like to say. Or; "Just got back from America." In this case, "America" is the mainland 30 miles--and 30 light years--away. In many ways their attitude is right on, for this unique island that's about 15 miles long by 3 to 6 miles wide is like a foreign country--or, more accurately, a slice of the America of a century ago. More than 100 years ago, famous Americans were delighted by Nantucket. In 1835, Daniel Webster called it "the unknown city in the ocean" and Thoreau and Emerson were also charmed by the island. The latter stood on a bluff in starkly beautiful Siasconset (pronounced Sconset) and marveled at the gusts blowing the tops off the waves "like the hair of a woman in the wind." Other New England resorts have good bathing, beaches, boating and fishing--so what is it that inspires the rugged fealty of the old-timers and attracts the tourists in droves? First of all, the physical look of the place grabs everyone, and photographs cannot prepare one for the impact of the setting, natural and man-made. The clouds, the air, the harbor, the boats, the buildings: It is a giant movie set with everything too perfect and newly painted and wholesome and too Herman Melville, too Mark Twain and too Norman Rockwell to be believed. And then you realize that this isn't Disney at work--that this is for real; the town hasn't been dreamed-up or recreated--it has been maintained over the centuries as the historical treasure it is. Nowhere in the United States are there so many houses like these straight from the 18th and 19th centuries--more than 600 of them. Historian A.B.C. Whipple put it this way: "Williamsburg, Virginia can show you what America's past must have been like; Nantucket shows you what it actually was."
The oldest dwelling on the island is generally conceded to be the Jethro Coffin House built around 1686 by pioneer Tristam Coffin for his grandson. Nantucket, "The Faraway Land" to Indians, was discovered in 1602 by one Bartholomew Gosnold, and the first white settler on the island in 1659 was Thomas Macy, progenitor of the department store clan. (Another distinguished, and much later, Nantucketer was Benjamin Franklin's mother.)
To describe this anachronistic hamlet I promise not to use the cliches "quaint, colorful, and charming," but it'll be difficult, because everywhere there are picture post card scenes: cobbled streets lined with rows of gray and white shingled houses, often rose-smothered, a white lighthouse in front of a skiff with red sails, even a huge windmill, built in 1746, its arms still turning slowly in the wind. Down on the bustling wharves are boats of every size and hue and origin. More than a century and a half ago the world's mightiest whaling fleet jammed the harbor, and the dozens of shops do not let you forget that Nantucket's fame came from the sperm-oil trade. The whale motif is everywhere, from gift reproductions of harpoons to walrus-tusk carvings of whales to the scrimshaw disks atop the chic and greatly coveted "lightship purses."
First made over a century ago by lonely lightkeepers to help pass the time, these tightly woven baskets of Javanese cane are now decorated on top with ivory carvings or nautical scrimshaw scenes and sell sometimes for more than $1,000. They bear little resemblance to the original open-topped original baskets. Jose Formoso Reyes arrived in Nantucket in 1945 from the Philippines looking for a job teaching Spanish and instead turned to basket-making. He designed a top for the basket and showed it to a maker of ship models, Charles Sayle, whose wife suggested the idea that launched a million baskets: "Why not put a little ivory whale on top?"
Now the lightship basket has become a hallmark of chic around the world. Once on the far-off island of Moorea, a Tahitian native spotted my wife's basket and exclaimed in happy recognition: "Ah, Nantucket!" (only she pronounced it "naw-too-kay"). Also sold here are excellent copies of the basket made in the Orient that sell for about $125, but Nantucketers say you can spot the phonies. For one thing, the genuine article doesn't have leather hinges.