Nantucket: high end and (kind of) budget

The Wauwinet set out chairs for us on a beach that felt almost our own.
The Wauwinet set out chairs for us on a beach that felt almost our own.

NANTUCKET — Breakfast arrives on a tray with a single red rose: homemade raspberry-peach bread, fruit and cheese, and strong coffee served by a beautiful woman. Flowers bloom around the flagstone patio; across the street, bells ring out from a 150-year-old Episcopalian church with Tiffany stained glass windows.

This is Nantucket on a budget.

The next day, across the island, beach chairs and an umbrella appear on an empty stretch of sand facing the Atlantic — just for us, because we asked. Port, sherry, and cheese is served in the library from 4 to 5 p.m. Later, waiters deliver marshmallows and toasting sticks to guests gathered at the fire pit.


This is Nantucket with no expense spared.

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Either way, it’s pretty remarkable.

Nantucket is known for its pristine beaches, award-winning restaurants, and multimillion-dollar vacation homes — not for its low-cost accommodations. But on a recent two-night stay on the island, the first one watching my wallet, the next spending freely, I found the island was not just a land for the rich and famously richer. It turns out it’s possible to visit — and feel pampered — without completely breaking the bank.

Before this summer, I had never been to Nantucket. I knew I had a connection to the island — my ancestors were whalers there — but I didn’t know much beyond that. Then my cousin sent me our family genealogy and I realized I was descended from the Starbucks and the Coffins and the Husseys, the founding families of Nantucket, who came in the 1600s in search of religious freedom and good farmland. My great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Augustus Swain, was a whaling captain, and one of my great-uncles appears to have been the first recorded birth on Nantucket, on Jan. 13, 1660.

Unfortunately, my ancestors were too busy transforming Nantucket into the whaling capital of the world to hang on to any beachfront property to pass down to future generations. Hence the search for affordable accommodations.


My boyfriend, Richie, has a much more recent family connection to the island — and relatives who own property there. It’s where his father, working construction at the Jared Coffin House in summer 1962, met his mother, who was working as a cashier at a seafood restaurant on the wharf.

Richie and I started the budget portion of the trip on the slow ferry from Hyannis, a leisurely 30-mile journey across Nantucket Sound. Two hours and 15 minutes later, the town of Nantucket slid into view, its matching weathered houses and boats all anchored at the same angle, like some Disneyfied version of Nantucket. But it was, in fact, the real thing.

The Barnacle Inn (above), a rambling property with beautiful gardens, is just a few blocks from Nantucket’s downtown.
The Wauwinet is a 137-year-old inn on a narrow strip of land between the harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.

We stayed a few blocks from downtown at the Barnacle Inn, a rambling property with beautiful gardens and, more important, a plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies awaiting us when we arrived. With painted wicker furniture and plaid curtains out front, and a flowered quilt and Coke bottle vase in our room, the Barnacle was a refreshing oasis of casual charm. And we didn’t even have to share a bathroom.

For dinner, we bypassed many high-end dining options for Corazon del Mar, a Latin place with Mexican wrestling masks on the wall and beef tongue tacos on the menu. It wasn’t exactly cheap, but the pork carnitas were crispy and fatty, perfectly paired with a spicy tequila and cucumber cocktail.

Afterward, we walked out to the Chicken Box, where a Burlington, Vt., band called Funkwagon enticed a growing crowd onto the dance floor — first the women, followed by the men. Thankfully, the group’s funk-gospel groove was better than its name.

The Wauwinet (top) is a 137-year-old inn on a narrow strip of  land between the harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Barnacle Inn, a rambling property with beautiful gardens, is just a few blocks from Nantucket’s downtown.

The next day, we launched into the expensive half of our getaway at the Wauwinet, an elegant 137-year-old inn on the eastern side of the island, located on a narrow strip of land between the harbor and the ocean — one beach for sunset views, another for sunrise. A perfectly manicured green lawn stretched from the inn to the bay, with chairs set up for lounging. The whole property smelled like wild roses.

Our room was in one of the cottages across from the main house, so we didn’t have a water view, but we did have a private deck – not to mention note cards embossed with my name.

We took a bike ride to the magical hobbit-house enclave of Siasconset (when we said we wanted to take a ride, old bicycles with squishy seats and baskets appeared, with helmets, in front of the door). Upon our return to our room, classical music was playing on the stereo, the comforter was turned down, and chocolates with ginger and passion flower graced our pillows. There were even squares of white linen on the floor beside the bed — why, I’m not sure, but it seemed appropriate.

Just as the sun sank below the horizon, leaving a strip of blue ocean beneath a sliver of vivid pink sky, we were seated at the deck at Topper’s, the inn’s acclaimed restaurant, to dine on diver scallops with lemongrass and pickled coconut, artichoke agnolotti with 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, and rhubarb curd with elderflower cream and candied fennel.

The only hiccup was the police showing up to break up a ruckus in the adjoining dining room, where a wedding was taking place. According to our server, a guest raised a fuss when her plate was cleared with “one fingerling potato” remaining, a potato she apparently had her heart set on, and the groom called the cops. Let’s hope the wedding present was already in the mail.

The next morning, we took a long walk along the beach, collecting shells and watching armies of hermit crabs scurry across the sand. In two hours, we didn’t encounter a soul.

All too quickly, it was over. We made our trip back to Hyannis in the rarefied style to which we had quickly grown accustomed, on a 9-seat Cape Air Cessna. I watched sadly as the island dropped away below us. At 20 minutes, the plane ride was much quicker, and more scenic, than the ferry trip. But, much like with the two very different inns where we stayed, I thoroughly enjoyed each one.

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.