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annual Nantucket visit

A couple of weekends ago, I took a long weekend to travel to Nantucket, MA, a beautiful island off Cape Cod.  I was first introduced to Nantucket by a friend almost 10 years ago, and I immediately fell in love with it.  It is one of my most favorite places, and I try to visit for at least a weekend every year.  Nantucket has pretty much everything I love in a destination: natural beauty, from rolling moors and freshwater ponds to sandy beaches bordered by grassy dunes or cliffs topped by beach roses; loads of history; lovely architecture; fun activities, like kayaking, biking, museums, and tours; and great food and art.  Yes, everything on the island tends to be pricey and it is overrun by tourists in the late summer, some of them pretentious or entitled, but you don’t have to buy into the lavish lifestyle to enjoy what it has to offer.

As usual, I stayed at The Barnacle Inn. It’s a sweet, little inn, family run, right in the center of town. It is homey, affordable, and guests are served a wonderful breakfast of fruit, cheese, pastries, and coffee or tea every morning on the porch or terrace. I love it. Like every trip to the island, I spent some time at the beach, ate tasty ice cream from the Juice Bar, and took long walks through town, enjoying the mansions, cottages, gardens, shops, and galleries.

This trip had a few highlights, though, that were new to me. I got to go out to Great Point and climb the lighthouse, hunted down several geocaches, and had an amazing dinner at a great restaurant (well, eating at that particular restaurant was new, but the great meal part isn’t unusual given the number of fine restaurants on the island.) Nantucket has three lighthouses, and I had already visited Sankaty Light and Brant Point Light, but had never gotten out to Great Point Light. Great Point is at the far NE corner of the island and is accessible only by very sandy roads through the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge. The Trustees of Reservations offer a natural history tour out to Great Point and up the lighthouse, and I had been thinking about taking it for a couple of years. This year I finally actually made a reservation, biked out to the entrance to the refuge, and went on the tour, and I am really glad I did.

Great Point Light

The tour group consisted of me and a young couple from Washington, D.C., and we were led by our guide, Al, who is a retired history teacher with a lot of enthusiasm for island history.  We climbed into the van and Al drove us through the refuge, stopping to point out the various plants and critters that inhabit the area.  We saw osprey nests, a great blue heron perched atop a scrub pine, swans, a harrier hawk, and lots of shorebirds.

terns and sanderlings on the Atlantic side beach

We drove between the dunes and along the beach on both the Nantucket Harbor side of Coskata and the Atlantic side.  This area is joined to the main part of the island by a thin strip of sand, before Coatue, the long strip of land that protects the harbor, stretches away SW and the land continues out to Great Point, where Nantucket Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean.  It’s mostly rolling dunes out there, but there is a forest of mostly oaks and a red cedar savannah, along with a freshwater pond, inhabited by several swans.

Coskata Pond with geese and swans

Our guide pointed out beach plums (now I finally know what they look like!), seaside goldenrod, heather, and sarsaparilla, and I learned that the beach roses (rosa rugosa) that can be seen all over the New England coast are not native and probably got here when rose hips, carried in ships because their high vitamin C content could stave off scurvy, washed ashore after shipwrecks.

Great Point’s connection to the body of Nantucket is tenuous at best.  There is a narrow spot south of Coatue that was historically used as a haul-over for fishing boats that needed to get out of the harbor and into the Atlantic waters.  And beyond Coatue the land narrows again, with storms periodically making Great Point temporarily an island. The map below might help make sense of that description.

View Larger Map

That oblong bit of land at the top of the map is Great Point where the lighthouse stands.  It’s a bit of a rare treat to go up in the lighthouse, because it is only open for an hour a day, and you need a hardy vehicle to navigate the sandy roads out to the Point, though there are people who let the air out of their tires and trek their SUVs out to spend time fishing or just enjoying the gorgeous beaches.  But folks who take the natural history tour get a private tour up the lighthouse.

Great Point Light - 1986 version

The first lighthouse built here was finished in 1785 and was wooden.  It burned down in 1816 and was replaced by a 60-foot stone tower.  Over the next 150 years, the shores of Great Point eroded, leaving the lighthouse very close to the water.  In 1984 a storm hit that destroyed the lighthouse.  The current tower was rebuilt several hundred yards further from the shore, with a concrete foundation dug deep into the ground, but the exterior replicated the previous lighthouse’s appearance.  When it was finished in 1986, Senator Ted Kennedy christened it at the relighting ceremony with a bottle of champagne.

the view from the entryway window

I don’t think I had ever been up in a lighthouse before, and it was a breathtaking experience, partly from the stairs and ladders to the top, and partly from the view.

decorative wrought iron stairs

through the window glass

walkway that circles the top of the lighthouse

We had absolutely perfect weather, clear and sunny, and the views from the tower were spectacular.

view toward the point from the lighthouse

view back over Coskata from the lighthouse

We also walked out the point to see the seals, more shorebirds, and fishing boats working the choppy waters where Nantucket Sound meets the open Atlantic, before heading back to the gatehouse.  It was a beautiful afternoon outing, and I definitely recommend it, if you are ever on the island.

This visit to Nantucket I also decided to do some geocaching.  For those who haven’t experienced geocaching, the gist is that you use GPS coordinates to hunt down caches, usually a container with a logbook to sign and sometimes trinkets to exchange.  I had been introduced to geocaching by a good friend out in the Berkshires.  He first took me cache hunting in a snowy forest, where I had to fight drifts up to mid-thigh and get down on my back to find a cache hidden under an old tent platform, but I really enjoyed the combination of a sort of scavenger hunt and exploring beautiful outdoor spaces and I eagerly accompanied him on another foray in early summer.  Before my Nantucket trip, I finally bought myself a handheld GPS device for geocaching and printed out the info on several caches on the island.  One was on my way back to town from the Great Point tour, so I decided to try to find it.

the first cache I found on Nantucket and first found by myself

And I succeeded!  Finding the cache involved a really pretty walk through conservation land that was a combination of swamp and hardwood forest (unusual for the island).  I was very pleased to find the cache, since I had been afraid that geocaching by myself might be more frustrating and less fun than it had been with company.  Closer to town I found one more cache in a spot with lovely views of the marshland bordering the harbor.

marsh and harbor view near a cache site

Over the three days that I spent on the island, I found a total of 8 caches.  The hunts took me to several spots I had never explored, mostly in conservation or walking areas, but a couple led me to revisit spots that were somewhat familiar and discover new parts of them.  It was a lot of fun, and I intend to hunt down a few caches near home and work in the near future.

Because of the tourists that flock to the island in the summer, Nantucket has a plethora of nice restaurants.  I’ve tried out a few of them, and I always enjoy discovering a new gem.  This visit I wanted to treat myself to a nice dinner and had read in a restaurant guide that The Boardinghouse specializes in farm to table fare, which sounded perfect. I sat in their cozy, wood-paneled bar area, and my server helped me choose the Tangerine Vespa as my drink. It was a sweet, tangy concoction with a touch of bitterness from the Campari in it, and it was very refreshing on that warm evening. The menu was full of appealing items, and it took me a while to figure out what to order. I finally decided to get two appetizers and dessert in order to maximize the items I could try without overwhelming my appetite. First I had the antipasti plate, which had carrot hummus, farm zucchini with mint, and pickled beets with herbed goat cheese served with crispy flatbread. I don’t think I have the words to describe how good this was. The flatbread was thin and crispy, drizzled with oil and sprinkled with seasonings (zataar, I think.) The carrot hummus was probably my favorite part of the platter. It was smooth and rich and surprisingly savory – I think it must have been a chickpea hummus with carrot added. It was garnished with a little fresh dill, which added a lovely hint of brightness to the spread. The zucchini was presented as a sort of diced salad and it was lovely and fresh-tasting, very summery. The pickled beets with the goat cheese were delicious, too, with the tangy beets going very well with the creamy cheese. I gobbled up every bite of the three components and wished for more. Next I had the appetizer portion (which was generous, the dinner portion must be very large) of house-made cavatelli with mustard green and kale pesto, ricotta, and cherry tomatoes. I don’t know how they made the pesto without any bitterness from the greens, but it was very tasty along with the perfectly made pasta, the creamy ricotta, and sweet, fresh tomatoes. I was getting pretty full at this point, but decided to try the almond shortcake with poached plum and mascarpone for dessert. It was so yummy, and, like every other dish I , it perfectly seasonal. I’ve had some wonderful dinners in Nantucket, but this one rates among the top. The service was also top-notch. I will definitely be going back on future vacations.

So that’s my Nantucket trip in a nutshell.  It was too short, since I could only go for a long weekend this year, but I packed a lot of pleasure and relaxation into those few days.  Just remembering it brings a smile to my face and makes me feel more serene.

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