Winter is best time for quiet, calm visit
In the off-season, visitors can get a better feel for the real Nantucket.
NANTUCKET, Mass. (AP) -- The waves of tourists and suntan oil recede each winter, leaving behind what once was: a small island town 35 serene miles out to sea.
The cobblestone Main Street -- teeming with shoppers each summer -- is empty. The 80 miles of beaches ringing this crescent-shaped spit of sand are deserted also, except for scallop shells and squawking birds.
Off-season, the island's population shrinks to 10,000, down from more than 50,000 in August. The pace of the former whaling port slows to a lull, and many of the inns, bed-and-breakfasts, shops and restaurants are shuttered.
But that lull -- complete with foghorns and desolate walking paths -- is exactly what some people want. The slower pace and lack of tourists allows visitors to get a more intimate sense of the island and discover some of its secrets.
"There's no tourists," said Irene Barr, a day-tripper from Barnstable. "It's a great place to collect your thoughts and get away from phones ringing and people."
Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Nantucket is on average 10 degrees warmer that the mainland during the coldest months of the year. Ferries make eight daily trips to the island from Hyannis, and Cape Air and Nantucket Airlines offer three flights from Boston and 13 shuttles from Hyannis each day.
Lodging and dining
Rooms are available year-round, and off-season prices at inns can be less than half the price of the summer season.
Restaurants take turns staying open to feed the locals, giving visitors a full choice of hardy chowders, pub grub and world-class cuisine. No reservations are needed when the island is this empty, but local delights, such as bay scallops, are in season.
"You can still get an incredible meal," said Kate Hamilton Pardee, director of the Nantucket Visitor Services, which keeps current lists of open restaurants and inns.
Without fighting crowds, off-season visitors can walk downtown to examine the church steeples and widows' walks atop mansions built by whaling captains.
"If you want to feel what life is really like on Nantucket, come now," said Molly C. Anderson, library director of the island's Atheneum on India Street. "We have the bustling, hectic summer, but this is the real Nantucket."
The Atheneum, founded in 1834, has 122,000 books and other materials, but its history includes ties to some of the greatest Americans of the 19th century.
"There is a certain thrill to know that Henry David Thoreau stood here; that Ralph Waldo Emerson stood here; and that Frederick Douglass stood here," said Anderson, stretching her arms across the stage of the building's Great Hall.
The three men all gave speeches in the upper room at the Atheneum. Douglass came on Aug. 16, 1841, from New Bedford, not long after he had escaped slavery.
The Atheneum also keeps about 20 captains' logs from whaling ships from the island's whale-oil heyday, dating back to the 17th century. Donning protective white gloves, visitors can turn parchment-thin pages and read firsthand accounts of adventures on the high seas.
It was here that author Nathaniel Philbrick researched his nonfiction account of the voyage that inspired Herman Melville's classic "Moby Dick." Philbrick's work, "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," won a National Book Award in 2000.
Preserving past, nature
A few doors down, on Broad Street, The Whaling Museum brings Nantucket's seafaring past to life. The museum reopened in 2005 after a $14 million restoration added 28,000 square feet.
The centerpiece is the skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale that washed ashore on New Year's Day in 1998.
Other galleries include studies of the influence of the Quaker religion on Nantucket, the island's original Wampanaog Indians and the whaling industry.
Beyond downtown, one of Nantucket's best-kept secrets is the island itself.
More than 40 percent of the land has been permanently preserved as open space, much of which is dotted with public footpaths.
The Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, for example, is open year-round and offers 16 miles of walking trails through 200 acres of bayberries, beach plums and windblown, miniature maritime oaks.
Back in town, Irene Barr, the day-tripper, is window-shopping on Federal Street.
She kicks a cobblestone on an empty sidewalk and takes a deep breath of crisp, salty air.
"It's like taking a step back in time," Barr said.
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