The following day I and a charming couple from Baton Rouge, La., spent several hours with Barry Thurston. As a guide for The Trustees of Reservations preserve, Barry, a natural storyteller, was in top form as he took us on a 2 1/2 hour round-trip tour through Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge on the narrow, northern neck of Nantucket. He pointed out Osprey nests on top of telephone poles where the same birds return each year; the massive nesting site of the largest seagulls in the world; a small lake, home to a single pair of swans and their three signets; a resting ground of a colony of seals, near the historic Great Point Lighthouse and most implausibly, an area of the beach restricted for six weeks every summer to protect three nests of the endangered Piping Plovers.
This attention to conservation is but one of several private and public efforts that preserve nearly half of Nantucket’s 30,000 acres under the stewardship of the Conservation Foundation and Land Bank. It is in stark contrast to the fact that Nantucket was once the whaling capital of the world in the 19th century, when hunting Sperm whales was key to its financial success. Now tourism is the main industry. As someone very directly said to me, “Tourists are the new whales.”
Not entirely put off by the somewhat nefarious history, I visited the Whaling Museum and garnered a better understanding of the whaling industry. It houses 20,000 artifacts including the mammoth skeleton of the hunted Sperm Whale. The hard life of the whalers who sailed the seas for years at a time, leaving the women at home to fend for themselves. They grew fiercely independent and ruled the island with an iron fist. One of the commercial streets in the center town was called Petticoat Row by dint of the women’s business acumen. Benjamin Franklin’s mother, Abiah, was one of these strong women, a mother of 18, who happened to be a scion of the Folger family. Folger, as in coffee.
The current center of town meticulously maintains its heritage buildings and I highly recommend taking a tour of the area. Buy your tickets at the Whaling Museum. Our guide was a supreme storyteller painting a picture of its 19th century life. “Old Nantucket,” he said, “was rancid, sewage everywhere with the omnipresent smell of whale oil. It stunk.” “The Great Fire of 1846 spread out of control because of two competing fire groups arguing about which group should put it out first.” Wonderful commentary as we moved from the rebuilt site of the fire, the Greek Revival library, the Atheneum, to the Quaker Meeting house, to Dreamland Theater, to the harbor area, etc., etc.
On my own meanderings I found my favorite small museum, at the far end of Union Street. The Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum is a repository of antique baskets woven by whalers during the long voyages to distant lands. Baskets by contemporary weavers are on display as well. They are as intricate and as varied as the individuals who created them. The museum shop offers a fine selection as well as basket-themed items including linens and handpainted cards, some with Nantucket recipes attached.
On the last two nights of my visit I stayed in one of the White Elephant’s two-bedroom cottages, grey shingled, of course, but bright and airy inside. Country cozy furniture, a fireplace, a kitchen and comfortable beds created a welcoming atmosphere and quiet nights. The White Elephant is owned and operated by Nantucket Island Resorts, a collection of premier properties on the island that also includes the Wauwinet, White Elephant Hotel Residences, Jared Coffin House, The Cottages & Lofts and Nantucket Boat Basin. (The 29 Cottages and Lofts are particularly interesting as they used to house whalers and now are delightfully re-created as two-story houses perched alongside the waterfront).
A stone’s throw from the Cottages is a charming shopping area where I found my favorite fudge store. Not surprisingly Leah’s Fudge slogan is, “The Best Fudge in the World.” With 40 flavors to choose from you can’t go wrong and I didn’t!
Back on Main Street, nostalgic reigns supreme at Pete’s Soda Fountain at Nantucket Pharmacy. The Juice Bar Homemade Ice Cream, also on Main, is a waiting-in-line affair, but like many romances, worth the effort. Stroll over to Antiques Depot and you are transported to a world of treasures culled from whalers’ travels — a veritable microcosm of the island itself, and the owner, Jack Fritsch, is an encyclopedia of information. For serious clothing shoppers, there are a surprising number of elegant boutiques with unique items culled from countries abroad, as well as made in the U.S.A.
With 75 restaurants on the island, your choices are equally abundant. At the White Elephant’s Brant Point Grill, I dined on fresh oysters and a filet mignon, while sail boats drifted by in the harbor. Instead of wine, I opted for a home-made Cisco beer brewed on the island. An entirely satisfying end to a far too short a stay on a remarkably seductive island. As Herman Melville wrote about Nantucket in his novel “Moby Dick,” “there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.” Who would argue with the master storyteller?