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A Bittersweet Return to Nantucket




I’ve been on Nantucket for the past few days, revisiting a place I’d spent the past 40 years idealizing as an island paradise. Forty years, that is, since I last visited this 14-mile-long sandbar off the Massachusetts coast.

I thought it was paradise. But now I’m not sure.

Paradise Lost is a theme as old as the Book of Genesis. We lose a little bit of paradise when we emerge from our mother’s womb. Perhaps it’s inevitable that this drama, the sense of something gone, will be played out in ways large and small throughout our lives.

I first came to Nantucket with my family when I was 12.

The trip out to the island, which is 30 miles off the coast, entailed a ferry ride longer and much farther out to sea than I’d ever been.

The boat disgorged a small group of us onto cobblestone streets lined by houses that had been built by ships captains. The island’s history of whaling seemed still fresh to the impressionable preadolescent that I was then. I half expected us to be eating blubber with our evening meal.

During that two-week sojourn, my family spent most of the days on the beach out at Madaket, the far western point of the island.

One day my father rented surf casting equipment and I caught a flounder, which my mother cooked up for dinner. I was fascinated by the flounder’s shape, and by the thought something that something so strange could abide on the same planet as I did.

We occasionally rambled into the small town of Nantucket. There were just a few people about. The island seemed almost exclusively ours to enjoy.

I came back a couple of times in the 1970s. Nantucket had by then been semi-discovered. But it still seemed fresh with adventure.

On one trip to the island, my brother and I crashed at a flop house, $20 a night. We biked everywhere and survived on Erewhon granola. One day we rented a sailboat – this was a time when two college kids could rent a boat with few questions asked – and sailed it out to lunch on a small sandy island in the vast harbor.

Returning a few years later, Icdrove down to coast from Middlebury with my girlfriend from Middlebury in my little yellow VW Bug, and we hopped a ferry out to the island. We did that without a reservation, compared to today’s situation where you need a reservation months in advance if you want to bring a car.

We rented a cottage near the beach, again with no reservation. I was making $100 a week at the time, and I recall thinking that the rent for the cottage was outrageous. But it probably cost for the week about what you’d pay these days for a night in a good Nantucket hotel.

We body surfed on Cisco beach, flew kites, painted, and tanned until we burned. For a week the world was our oyster.

I came back this week, four decades later.

Take the Hy-Line on a Friday afternoon after fighting your way from Vermont through Boston traffic, and you’ll find yourself with plenty of company on the way to the island.

The boat was full of thirty-somethings ready to down a couple brewskis on the trip out, and to speculate how this trip to Nantucket will compare with last weekend in the Hamptons and that trip they took last winter to Vieques.

Nantucket these days offers just about every creature comfort you could want: that day’s New York Times in the market each morning, flown in on an early flight to the island’s busy airport. Cafes with delicious pastries, a large supermarket and drugstore, sophisticated restaurants, a Relais and Chateau inn, and shops offering all the temptations of retail therapy.

In the house where we stayed, the owner had left behind a card for her business: Nantucket Botox.

So, yes, I feel now a sense of what places like Nantucket have lost.

With too many people frantically chasing too many pleasures in too little time, even this island seems a little wired. (And wireless, too; I shipped this column to the paper via the wifi in our rental house.)

By contrast, one of the wonderful things about Vermont is that it hasn’t been spoiled by money and the masses. Sure, Chittenden County has lost some of its appeal now that it has suburbs and strip malls. But the rest of our state remains just cold enough, just poor enough, just far enough away from the big cities, that we haven’t been improved, upgraded and deluxed with time.

Still, maybe Nantucket hasn’t lost all of its appeal.

Yesterday morning we walked a path through pine barrens alongside a huge pond to Miacomet beach. The place was pretty much empty. The sun sparkled as it does only on the ocean. We walked the beach, held hands, and collected shells.

All the simple pleasures.

On the walk back we stopped at pond’s edge. There we came upon a young married couple, friends of ours from Lincoln, who were vacationing on the island with their two young boys.

A bevy of swallows was picking off insects nearby. Gulls cried their plaintive entreaties. The Atlantic wind rustled the reeds along the shore of the pond.

And there at the edge of the water, those two little boys were deeply engrossed with playing in the sand. Not a care in the world, at the feet of their parents, island sunshine all around.

I’m pretty sure they will remember Nantucket as an island paradise.

-30 –



2 thoughts on “A Bittersweet Return to Nantucket

  1. I really loved this piece, Greg!

    We have had long connections to Cape Cod all our lives, but I’ve never been to Nantucket. No good reason, really — we just never got around to it. We spent time on Pleasant Bay when I was a kid, then many summers in Barnstable working at my uncle’s rental cottages on Cape Cod Bay, and then countess long visits to see my Mom in East Orleans after she finally moved there for good. I still love the place, there is a magic to it. (My Mom’s favorite song was “Old Cape Cod,” and I think that romantic vision was always on her mind even as she complained of how ithe Cape changed over the years.)

    I’d really love to visit Nantucket sometime — that photo you posted of the harbor is enough for me! (I have a gorgeous woodcut of a similar Nantucket scene.) But, like you, I’m really grateful for Vermont — spectacular beauty, but relatively unspoiled. How lucky we are! A friend had his boat at Barnstable Marina, and the cost was about 10 times what I pay for a mooring for our sailboat on Lake Champlain.

    My Mom had a print of Edward Hopper’s painting of Orleans, which he painted in 1950. I link to it below. That’s the way she remembered the Cape and I think she had the print to help her remember what it was like, even while she lived in a much-changed Orleans some years later.


    Thanks for writing this — maybe some fall I’ll take an off-season trip to Nantucket. I really would love to see it, and envy the people who knew Nantucket before everyone else discovered it!

    Posted by Peter Hamlin | September 23, 2016, 5:09 pm
    • Thanks for these lovely comments, Peter. I was initially quite disappointed when I got back to Nantucket this past week. But I admit that after a few days, the place kind of grew on me. It’s nice to know that despite all the population growth and development, places like Cape Cod and Nantucket still hold some of their magic.

      They say that summer season in Nantucket is a bit of a zoo. So yes, off-season seems to be the time to go. And if you do, look up the recent “36 hours in Nantucket” article from the New York Times. It’s a good guide to some of the highlights (and probably part of the reason the place was so popular this year even in mid-September.)

      I love the Edward Hopper painting.

      Posted by gregdennis | September 23, 2016, 5:28 pm

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