IT’S NO WONDER NANTUCKET is overrun in the summer. With its sparkling coastline and miles of pristine white sand beaches, the “Gray Lady” is one of the most idyllic places in New England, a true summer playground. The little island’s population swells by as much as six times at the close of the school year, when a well-heeled crowd of twentysomethings, the perennially preppy, and families in overstuffed SUVs descend on the island.
Come July and August, downtown streets are clogged, dinner reservations are tough to come by, and if you’re looking for last-minute lodging, think again: Most inns are booked in advance and have two- or three-night minimums in season. Bringing a car to the island over the Fourth of July? Not unless you secure a spot on the ferry months ahead. Years ago, I learned that lesson the hard way when I attempted to make a reservation a mere three weeks before my departure and was turned down.
That summer, when I was in my mid-20s, I fell in love with Nantucket: the cobbled downtown, the gray-shingled cottages covered in pink roses, those winding dirt roads leading to the beach. Yet I always felt a little exhausted by the frenzied summer scene after I left. In my 30s, I was surprised to discover that Nantucket is an entirely different place in the spring. It’s low-key, there are far fewer people, and those who come amble at a genial pace. While you’ll need to dress more warmly and there’ll be no sunbathing, you’ll enjoy nearly everything else that the high-season visitor does. And you won’t blow your budget either, since accommodations typically cost about a third less than what they do during high season.
From Hyannis, the Steamship Authority (steamshipauthority.com) offers passenger service to Nantucket via one-hour high-speed ferries (starting April 12; $69 round trip) and traditional ferries ($37 round trip), which take a little over two hours. Hy-Line Cruises (hylinecruises.com) offers only high-speed service ($77 round trip). In a hurry? Cape Air (capeair.com) offers several 22-minute flights between Hyannis and Nantucket daily (one-way trips start at $74).
The striking Victorian exterior of new boutique hotel 21 Broad belies the mod aesthetic inside. Boston designer Rachel Reider strove to update the historic building’s decor with a fresh white-on-white palette highlighted with pops of orange, yellow, and blue. The chic property, run by Lark Hotels, serves a breakfast of artisanal baked goods in the lounge, which is a lively spot at night, thanks to an old-school turntable and an assortment of records; there’s a juice bar, too, and guests are invited to bring their own “mixers.”
Built in 1891, thelandmark Nantucket Hotel & Resort (508-228-4747, thenantuckethotel.com) recently underwent extensive renovations. The new look is fresh and modern while maintaining the integrity of the 19th-century architecture. In addition to traditional hotel rooms, there are private cottages and one- to four-bedroom suites. Yoga classes are available in the expansive fitness center, and there are spa treatments, children’s programs, and two outdoor heated pools. If you’re in the mood to stay in, Breeze, the hotel’s restaurant, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
At Murray’s Toggery Shop (508-228-0437, nantucketreds.com), an island institution, you can find a selection of Nantucket Reds — the iconic pinkish pants (and shorts and shirts and caps) favored by the sailing set. Other highlights include Milly and Grace (508-901-5051, millyandgrace.com), an adorable boutique with smartly curated home goods and women’s clothing from brands like Ella Moss. Mitchell’s Book Corner (508-228-1080, mitchellsbookcorner.com) hosts signings by authors, including islanders Elin Hilderbrand and Nathaniel Philbrick. This spacious book trove even has a room partially devoted to volumes of Nantucket lore.
If you have little ones, be sure to check out Pinwheels (508-228-1238) for adorable kids’ clothes and toys. At Nantucket Looms (508-228-1908, nantucketlooms.com), splurge on a signature hand-woven throw and you’ll cherish it forever. The shop also has an artful selection of home accessories, including dishware, linens, lighting, and artwork by locals.
By April, most restaurants are open. While tables are much easier to come by than in high season, you should call ahead for a reservation. At Lola 41 (508-325-4001, lola41.com), sushi is the main draw, though the menu is full of other enticements. Try the chicken and rice meatballs with coconut curry and chilies or the gnocchi Bolognese. The sleek bar is hopping even in the offseason with a varied crowd of hipsters, dressed-down professionals, and local regulars enjoying the powerful cocktails that are Lola 41’s specialty.
The Brotherhood of Thieves (508-228-2551, brotherhoodofthieves.com) has a family-friendly environment and serves delicious fare made with local ingredients. Choose from a selection of burgers, salads, and comfort-food entrees, along with 10 beers on tap.
While you’ll have to drive or bike about a mile from downtown, an island visit isn’t complete without a stop at the Downyflake (508-228-4533, www.thedownyflake.com); for 80 years, the family-owned restaurant and bakery has supplied Nantucket with delicious homemade doughnuts.
Almost half of Nantucket is protected, thanks to conservation efforts, and spring is an ideal time to discover its remarkable landscape. The Nantucket Conservation Foundation (nantucketconservation.org) maintains, among others, Sanford Farm and Ram Pasture, a 780-acre property used by the island’s early settlers for grazing sheep, farming, and harvesting wood. Walkers, runners, and cyclists frequent the property’s trails, which crisscross woodland and grassland and have ocean views. Another foundation property is the Nantucket Field Station; the parcel encompasses harbor beachfront, freshwater ponds, and salt marsh habitats and is home to egrets, herons, and ospreys. The largest of the foundation properties is a 3,000-acre expanse known as Middle Moors. It comprises three distinct areas; the most alluring, called Nantucket’s “Serengeti,” is a 400-acre swath named for the landscape of low vegetation mixed with a smattering of trees.
A trip to the island isn’t complete without a visit to the Nantucket Whaling Museum (508-228-1894, nha.org), housed in a restored 19th-century candle factory. It showcases multitudes of artifacts and photos chronicling an era when Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world.
The prosperity of the island in its heyday is evident in the architecture downtown. As someone who writes about design, I’m awestruck by the mix of Colonial, Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian homes. Nantucket boasts the largest concentration of intact pre-Civil War houses in the country (about 800). The historic buildings survived, ironically, because the island was all but forgotten for decades. Deaths from the Civil War, the discovery of kerosene as a substitute for whale oil, and New Bedford’s emergence as the nation’s prime whaling port caused Nantucket’s wealth and population to plummet in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Nantucket was “rediscovered” as a vacation destination; soon after, it became one of the first towns in America to establish a local historic district.
Spring is an optimal time to stroll slowly down its streets, taking in the meticulously preserved residences. If you’d like a guided walking tour, arrange one with the Nantucket Preservation Trust (nantucketpreservation.org), which acts as a steward for the island’s architectural heritage.
Jaci Conry is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.
This article has been updated to reflect that regular ticket prices for Hy-Line Cruises’ fast-ferry service to Nantucket will not be increasing in May.