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Lazy Days in Old Nantucket : For decades, timeless summer pleasures have attracted an elite crowd to this staunchly preservationist island off the Massachusetts coast

July 25, 1993|LISA MARLOWE | Marlowe is a free-lance writer based in Malibu, Calif.

NANTUCKET, Mass. — "If you liked Martha's Vineyard, you'll adore Nantucket. There's simply no comparison." Nancie Taylor's voice came over the phone from one of this Massachusetts island's many real estate brokerages. She'd just convinced us to rent a house for a fortnight in mid-July, instead of staying at an inn. Nantucket may be a mere 20 miles from its more heavily-trod island neighbor, Martha's Vineyard, but she assured us it was still 50 years behind them--in only the best of ways, of course.

As Californians in search of that quintessential New England spirit, my husband and I had visited the Vineyard before. We'd appreciated her chic charms but abhorred the overabundance of seasonal invaders. "I want to go farther next time," I announced. "I want to go to Nantucket."

Agreeing on the advantages of private house rental over a hotel stint (more room, a kitchen for breakfast and casual meals, utter privacy), we contacted the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce for a list of agents, and the feeding frenzy began.

We called six or seven realtors from the chamber's list in early June and let them know what we were looking for: size, price range, length of stay--and, within days, we were inundated with information. For three weeks, the faxes flew back and forth, complete with photos and detailed descriptions. You would think, with approximately 3,000 rental houses available each summer, that there'd be quite a choice. But so desirable a destination is Nantucket that they often fill up months in advance.

Taylor, who's president of Preferred Properties, won us over with her offering (from her list of 275) of a two-story, three-bedroom saltbox, complete with den and office, at $2,200 per week. She not only met us upon arrival at the airport, but drove us straight into town for a tour of the "best" local supermarket, post office and bike rental shops.

We "off-islanders" were initially struck, in stark contrast to the Vineyard, by Nantucket's respectful adherence to the laws of nature in all things architectural. Property development is carefully controlled--some say dominated--by a well-bred preservationist committee known as the Land Bank: Almost 30% of the island is off-limits to construction. Woe to greedy condo-minded invaders and nouveau riche arrivistes with Hamptons-style mansions on their minds.

Nicknamed "the little gray lady in the sea," Nantucket was spared the 19th-Century mass industrialization that transformed much of the rest of New England, and its lanterned, cobblestoned Main Street and sweeping sea captains' homes are surviving testaments to this fortunate fact. The majority of the island's pristine, shingled saltbox homes are kept a uniform "Nantucket gray" with white trim, so that nothing ever looks spanking new, a visual surprise that produces either extreme delight in the beholder, or utter apathy. Hailing from a city of weiner-shaped chili-dog stands and neon-sparked mini-malls, we found this constancy quite enchanting.

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But this design preference, like most of Nantucket itself, is a matter of personal taste. If you don't appreciate Calvin Klein, antique weather vanes, and arbor-shaded lanes lined with rose-covered cottages, don't bother making the trip. If you long to hear the sounds of sails snapping as a schooner tacks into a stiff breeze, or have five miles of unturned beach as your private picnic ground, you probably will adore it.

Where Martha's Vineyard may build its homes high and emphatic, Nantucket's are low and closer to earth, even in coloring, and ours was no exception. Although the large, airy kitchen was wasted on me (no talent in the culinary arts), the den, with its over-stocked mini-library of books and magazines, was not. A wooden back deck, outfitted with loungers, barbecue and umbrella-topped table, gave way to a huge, grassy yard full of secretive, hedge-dwelling wild bunnies. With the exception of a too-soft, sleeping-on-mashed-potatoes mattress, No. 1 Pinkham Circle was spacious, simple and peacefully private, and only a 10-minute bike peddle to the center of Main Street.

Thirty miles south of Cape Cod and slightly half the size of the island of Martha's Vineyard to the west, Nantucket is a 15-mile-long, 3 1/2-mile-wide triangle of low, tumbling hills and boundless moor, encompassing the preserved town of the same name and the bucolic village of Siasconset, commonly called 'Sconset, with a smattering of smaller settlements around the island.

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