(Bill Greene / Globe Staff)

Island hopping

Year-round attractions all to yourselves make winter prime time for a trip over the sea

Email|Print| Text size + By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / February 4, 2007

The winter island would be quiet, but not too quiet, I hoped. Thirty miles offshore, I sought a balance that Nantucket, among a handful of seasonal meccas, might manage: a lack of summer crowds, but no lack of things to do.

It was bitter cold as we set out, a rare day of winter in a strangely balmy season. The high-speed ferry was canceled (something to do with the weather), so the only choice was the slow boat, a 2 1/4-hour trip from Hyannis. I expected to feel impatient, but found myself strangely content, reading and nibbling Fig Newtons, my coat draped over my lap.

The night was a deep, icy black when we reached the wing-shaped island, whose name, from an Algonquin word, means "faraway place." The temperature hovered between 15 and 20 degrees, and my fingers and toes tingled painfully as I waited for the luggage . The short jog up Broad Street, past stately mansions, seemed impossibly long. When we reached the Sherburne Inn on narrow Gay Street, the parlor was snug and welcoming, with a glowing fire and a decanter of sherry. More than a dozen inns and hotels stay open year round on Nantucket, and several, including the Sherburne, Manor House, and Martin House inns, have rooms with working fireplaces. Hot tubs are harder to come by; try Seven Sea Street Inn.

Warmed and restored, we were ready to venture out again. A block or two north of the center, Lo La 41 was almost deserted at 6 p.m. Aha, I thought, taking a seat by the window and studying the extensive sake menu -- this is what it's like in winter. But within 30 minutes, the bar and restaurant were packed, as loud and lively as any Boston hot spot. David Silva, a Nantucket native and one of Lo La's three owners, says the tourist season on the island has stretched longer with the years, while the year-round population has grown larger. "People need a little place like this to go to," he said.

The restaurant's name refers to the 41st parallel (on which the island lies), and the playful, ever-changing menu spans the globe. This night, it offered macaroni with four "artisan cheeses," cinnamon-braised spare ribs, and plenty of sushi. We devoured a bowl of golden fried clams, which were simple, fresh , and delicious; the hearty gnocchi Bolognese, with organic beef, veal , and pork; and the $19 Black Angus sirloin burger. We had overheard talk about the burger at the bar -- one patron called it the best on the island, if not the planet -- and after sampling the velvety beef, we stopped smirking. (The foie gras dipping sauce was almost too decadent.)

The next morning dawned bright and slightly milder, and the map from the Nantucket Conservation Foundation showed a spider's web of walking trails in the island's "middle moors," or eastern interior. I borrowed an old Jeep from an island cousin (Jeeps can be rented at the airport) and set out north from Milestone Road, aiming for Almanac Pond. The off-road trek seemed full of peril -- drifting hills of beach sand, craters spewing chunks of ice -- but the desolate landscape was gorgeous, an undulating plain of yellow grass and disorganized emptiness.

Faced with a broad black puddle of uncertain depth, we backtracked to the safety of pavement and drove the long way around to the trailhead, detouring through deserted, beachside Siasconset village. We parked in the lot off Polpis Road by the cranberry bog, where grassy, windblown paths lead back to the woods around Stump Pond. Walking here, we passed trees hung with blue-green moss fronds, like surreal tinsel garlands. Bare black branches cast stark reflections on the water.

Cheeks pink and appetites piqued, we returned to the cobblestones of Main Street to claim two stools at the counter at Nantucket Pharmacy. We ordered tuna melts ($6 each) and thick chocolate frappes ($4.25) .

Frappes finished, it was time for -- what else? -- beer. On the island's rural west side, where Cisco Brewers sits in the midst of farmland, 10 people gathered for the 3 p.m. tasting and tour. We were warmly greeted by Jessica, our waitress at Lo La 41, who had encouraged us to visit after we raved about Cisco's Sankaty Light beer.

The atmosphere at the brewery was informal and laid-back, and Jeremy, the assistant brewer who led our tour, seemed happy to pour as many samples as we could finish. The $5 tour and tasting included glasses of at least four brews, including the excellent Sankaty Light; aromatic, spicy Pumple Drumkin (made from island-grown pumpkins); and Celebration Libation, about which, Jeremy said, he was especially "stoked."

The tour covered little physical ground, as the brewery is cramped and somewhat cluttered (a new building is under construction). But it included hands-on lessons -- we sampled malted barley nuggets and bitter green hops pellets -- and behind-the-scenes lore that hinted at a wild side to winter on Nantucket. ("I know it holds 14 people," Jeremy said of the 650-gallon mash tun, a Jacuzzi-like vessel used in the beer-making. )

The tour concluded at twilight in the cold, dark Triple Eight Distillery building, where wooden barrels of whiskey lay aging.

From the brewery, we drove south to the end of Hummock Pond Road and parked to watch the sun set over Cisco Beach .

Plunged back into darkness, we soon sought a table at cozy, candlelit Sfoglia, near the Milestone Rotary, where mismatched tables and chairs and wine poured in plain water glasses help suggest a genuine Italian trattoria. The menu was limited, but a salad of sweet potato and pomegranate was colorful and surprising, paired with rich goat cheese cannelloni. Dessert, a milk chocolate semi freddo, came with a complimentary platter of cookies, including luscious, chewy meringues.

The next morning, eager to learn more about the island, we wandered downtown to the Whaling Museum. (On the way, we stopped to browse at the charming, overstuffed Nantucket Bookworks, where floorboards creak and genres blur together.) At the spacious, well-designed museum, full of helpful volunteers, we traced the history of Nantucket -- formed by a glacier's retreat, and once part of New York -- and delved deep into the bloody, smelly work of killing whales.

A dazzling array of scrimshaw and other whalebone art is shown in a darkened room where the carvings gleam like jewels. Here are corset stays engraved with harps and flowers; pastry-cutting tools shaped like sea serpents and swan's heads; smoky battle scenes etched meticulously onto whales' teeth. A sperm whale skeleton, recovered on Nantucket a decade ago, is also on display, and is the subject of a short film, "Bones of History," that shows modern-day islanders coming to grips with whaling's grisly realities. On the top floor of the museum, an outdoor observation deck affords a sweeping panorama.

We braved the wind to linger where views of the town and the harbor unfolded like mariners' maps. Soon enough, we had a ferry to catch. But for now, there was still time to savor winter on Nantucket, where the quiet comes with no shortage of diversions.

Contact Jenna Russell at .

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