Neighboring island Martha’s Vineyard may get all the national attention as it plays host to vacationing presidents and celebrities, but locals know that secluded Nantucket is a second home to the world’s wealthiest, and thus in a real estate category all its own. Famous second homeowners include Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his wife, philanthropist Teresa Heinz Kerry; former General Electric chief executive Jack Welch; and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, who has made preserving Nantucket her mission.
At only about 14 miles long and 3.5 miles wide, the land is finite. Downtown is located around the northside harbor, while the other most popular sections are spread out: Madaket lies to the west, Surfside to the south, and Siasconset to the east. The tourists usually stick close to the harbor (best bar in my opinion? Brotherhood of Thieves. Best restaurant? It’s a toss-up between Ventuno and American Seasons), but some great attractions are located farther afield: Siasconset Golf Club, the island’s 18-hole public course, is in ’Sconset, and Cisco Brewers, its vineyard, and its Triple Eight Distillery are out on Bartlett Farm Road near the southern shore.
The original inhabitants were Native Americans (many sought refuge on the island as the European population grew on the mainland), and then English settlers moved in. A Puritan leader, Thomas Mayhew, bought some of the island from the Native Americans, and later sold it to a group of English settlers. The compensation, according to the Nantucket Historical Association, was 30 pounds sterling and two beaver hats. (The median home price for a single-family these days? $1.05 million in 2013, according to Warren Group, a firm that tracks real estate trends. That’s a lot of hats.)
Nantucket became a Quaker community and made history as the whaling capital of the world. After that industry collapsed, the population dropped from 20,000 year-round to about 5,000. It became a hippie outpost in the early ’60s, and after people heard how inexpensive the land was, the population boomed. Development has been significantly restricted since, however; nearly half of the island is now open space preserved for the public.
Distance Nantucket is from mainland Cape Cod. Transportation is by ferry from Hyannis (the traditional one takes a little more than two hours, but the high-speed can do it in about one) or by plane.
The length of the sperm whale skeleton hanging in the Nantucket Whaling Museum (it washed ashore on New Year’s Day in 1998.)
The number of whaling vessels that called Nantucket their home port in 1836, the peak of the whaling industry
Starting price per night for one person in the summer at the White Elephant hotel (in October, the rates can go as low as $225 midweek.)
50,000 to 60,000
Estimated summer population (Year-round? About 11,000)
If you want a central meeting place, all roads lead to downtown. Martha’s Vineyard has a number of quaint village centers to choose from, but Nantucket’s downtown, with its famed cobblestone streets, is where it’s at.
The erosion rate is 3 to 4 feet per year on average along the northern portion of the bluff in Siasconset. In some years there have been isolated locations where as much as 30 feet was lost in a single storm. Of the 50 original homes on the ocean side of Baxter Road, eight have been relocated to another lot or demolished, and 12 have been moved farther back. A privately funded nonprofit is using high-tech sandbags and additional sand to stop the bluff from sliding into the sea.
Despite the privacy residential homes insist upon, some people turn a blind eye to where one sunbathes. Beaches range from the busy Jetties Beach to Great Point, where a lighthouse sits on the end of a seven-mile strip of sand, traversed only by foot or permitted vehicle.
If you are not totally in love with the classic Shingle-style architecture of old Nantucket, you will not have much luck changing a house’s façade. The Historic District Commission is a stickler when it comes to “the preservation and protection of historic buildings, places, and districts of historic interest,’’ so much so that architects doing work on the island have to book numerous trips for meetings to review plans.
Scott Lajoie is a freelance writer on the Cape. He can be reached at ScottLajoie@hotmail.com.