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Wednesday
Oct212009

A Small Island "In the Midst of Waters"

Feeling small is sitting in the right front seat of an 8 passenger Cessna headed southeast into a wall of fog for 45 minutes, trusting the pilot's knowledge of the instruments, and the instruments themselves to find a tiny flat island 30 miles out in the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Cod. Less than two minutes before touchdown, the mist clears, and the blue rabbit-running light of the runway at Ackerman field appear, announcing that we've arrived safely on Nantucket—a named appropriately derived from a Native American word meaning "in the midst of waters".

Friends have visited the island for years in the shoulder season of September, after the summer hordes have left, and convinced us to join them for leisure and relaxation in the prettiness and charm that Nantucket provides. They'd taken their usual one-bedroom cottage over the water on Old North Wharf, but those are booked years in advance, and we were lucky to obtain a two-level cottage called Falcon halfway out Old South Wharf overlooking a fabulous view of the boat basin. Cheerfully furnished with great light and decks on two sides, Falcon proved a fine little home for five days.  

Nantucket in summer season sees its year-round population of some 10,000 grow to over 50,000. The traffic is legendary, and the small village over-stuffed with throngs. By late September, however, these are mostly gone, and just a few day-trip tourists over on the high-speed ferry from Hyannis wander the lanes and shops. Some of the restaurants and shops are closed by this time of year, but most stay open until early October.  The tree-canopied streets of the old town are lined with beautiful brick and grey shingled houses and mansions dating to the mid 1600’s. The lanes near the harbor are filled with antique shops and art galleries, boutiques and trendy eateries. But Nantucket in this season is not for nightlife and frantic shopping, but for reading, relaxation, reflection and walks. And the odd good meal (well, maybe lots of them).

We walk up to Kite Hill, over to the Oldest House (year), south out of town past the Yacht club, northeast to the Brant Point light, and all around the charming colonial streets, lazily window shopping if not buying. The recently re-done Whaling Museum has interesting displays, and a soon-closing exhibit of Massachusetts colonial furniture which warranted a visit. The museum also features an fascinating open clock-tower with three story brass clockworks, visible from a staircase that spirals down around it, that was originally built in 1881.

The Lightship Basket Museum a few blocks from downtown contains a collection of superbly detailed baskets unique to Nantucket. From the mid 1800’s, lightships—floating lighthouses—were stationed in the treacherous shoals dozens of miles south of the island to help reduce the shipwrecks that had been so numerous in the area. These were long, lonely desolate tours of duty, and the weaving of baskets started up as a way to stay occupied, as well as generate a little extra income. An old whaling captain is reputed to have said, "the loneliest thing I’ve ever seen at sea was a polar bear floating on a piece of ice in the Artic ocean; the next loneliest was the South Shoal Lightship."  The baskets are very finely woven, and beautiful examples of American Arts and Crafts. They are also quite expensive, and we can only afford a very small one, although beautifully crafted by respected basket makers Judy and Bill Sayle.

Galleries abound, and we like to try and find miniature images that are evocative of the place we’re visiting. We happen upon the tiny backstreet studio of David Lazarus, and after telling him what we’re after, he says “well, I guess you’re not in the market for my large oils in the South Wharf Gallery,” and proceeds to show us several un-framed watercolors of Nantucket vistas, two of which please us greatly. Lazarus is also a print-maker and a noted scrimshawer (ivory carving) but that’s an art that doesn’t interest us greatly.   

Relaxed dining with friends is a big part of a Nantucket stay in this season, and the island features many fine and cozy restaurants, and of course, much impeccably fresh fish is available on island. New England clam chowder at the bar of the venerable Club Car is among the best we’ve ever had. The fish sandwich or the soft-shell crab sandwich from the Straight Wharf Fish Store are unbeatable, as are fried whole-belly Ipswich clams at Sayles Seafood.  We feasted on perfectly fried tiny oysters followed by unctuous slow-cooked short ribs at a new ‘modern-chic’ restaurant called Dune, and pan-roasted sea scallops trailed by braised  Berkshire pork belly at the highly acclaimed 21 Federal.

Personal scalloping season began the day before our departure, and it’s a huge deal to the locals. They don chest waders, grab their scallop rake and head out to favorite scalloping grounds to attempt to fill the allowed one bushel per person on opening day. Nantucket Bay scallops are renowned to be among the best and sweetest anywhere. Locals eat them raw, right out of the shell with a squeeze of lemon and dash of pepper, or very lightly sautéed. Early that morning we witnessed several small boats heading out of the basin with eager, hopeful scallopers, and saw at least one return late that afternoon with a happily laden basket.  

I can’t imagine coming to Nantucket in the height of the July-August season (although clearly 40,000 or so do) but it’s a delightful place to relax, rewind and dine after those hordes have gone. 

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