Photos by Jody Dole
Some 30 miles off the south coast of Cape Cod, Nantucket juts out of the Atlantic. Once a beacon of the world’s whaling industry, the island and its storied past are preserved in cobblestone streets and gray-shingled cottages. One only has to amble along its wooden docks to appreciate the enduring maritime spirit of this place — to feel the Nantucket of Herman Melville’s epic prose. Yet instead of bloodied whaleships bobbing in the harbor, lavish yachts and pleasure boats now tie up in slips and to moorings come summertime.
Indeed, Nantucket relishes its history while surviving as a luxurious vacation destination. At the height of the summer, everyone from pastel-clad CEOs to sun-bleached old salts can be found embracing island living. Many spill out from Nantucket’s 47.8-square-mile expanse and into its surrounding waters, where world-class fishing and sailing lie in wait. To the west, sandbars create a patchwork of blues, greens and browns under the midday sun. Though mesmerizing, the shoals are notorious for seizing the hulls of novice boaters. To the far east lie the tuna grounds, a mystical world of breaching humpback whales, squawking gulls and often ominous fog.
By land, Nantucket’s coast is always changing. Waves strip sand from the shores, threatening multimillion-dollar beachfront properties and subtly hewing the shape of the island. Winter storms are known to break through the island’s extended fingers, creating satellites such as Esther’s Island out on the westernmost point.
Many of the beaches take their names from the island’s native inhabitants, the Wampanoags — beaches such as Madaket, Nobadeer and Wauwinet. Move farther inland, and street signs reading Coffin, Macy and Starbuck hark back to the early Quaker days. Today the names and faces continue to change, with Jamaicans, Hispanics and Eastern Europeans joining islanders and “washashores” in this microcosm of America.
Pulling away from the island, Nantucket seems but a defiant sandbar weathering time and tide. The story of this place, however, echoes far beyond its shores.
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.