For a first-time Nantucket visitor and his family, nostalgic idea and modern reality emerge through the fog as the pace slows
NANTUCKET - Out by the rotary, where Lower Orange Street gives way to Milestone Road and its rolling route past the moors to Siasconset, it appears as if the roundabout roads may yet turn back time and lead to Nantucket as it has so long been, soft and subtle at the eastern edge of America.
True, a steady stream of SUVs and luxury sedans accelerate in the opposite direction along Milestone toward Nantucket Town's cobblestoned luxury. But pedaling on a bike path for 'Sconset, my wife alongside and kids in tow, I hope that a slower pace may deliver a day of idle adventure and a chance to measure a bit our young family's longer journey.
I stop pedaling for only a moment, and my 4-year-old daughter on the tag-along bike hooked to my seat growls: "No, Daddy! Go! Go!"
When you are 4, there is no need to stop, until you do, in a midday meltdown. More on that later.
We had come to Nantucket on Memorial Day weekend for a random sampling of the storied outpost once home to whalers and shipping merchants. As the Figawi race from Hyannis to Nantucket arrived in port that same Saturday afternoon, the town was still very much a safe harbor for drunken sailors. Nantucket, though, is so cool in its general demeanor - fog being a meteorological metaphor for the gauze of life on this cedar-shingled isle - that we were able to parallel play easily alongside the racers' revelry.
The kids took a post-ferry-ride dip in the outdoor pool at the Beachside Resort (a noble name for a motel that offers a pleasant base camp a half-mile from the town center), and we caught a late lunch on the patio at the Brotherhood of Thieves. Young leaves overhead fluttered before shutters and blue sky as fish burritos, a hot dog, and a hamburger took their place on the table. The vibe was early-weekend-on-the-island chill, but the waitress later served up a reminder that such leisure on Nantucket does not come cheap: The check was $74. Lodging, by the way, is where the price point lands most dearly. Our room with two double beds at the Beachside cost $349 a night, the least expensive I could find near town. The Cliff Lodge Bed & Breakfast did offer an apartment for $450, but the kids wouldn't have been allowed to eat breakfast in the dining room.
So it is worth warning young families considering a jaunt to Nantucket: You can feel at times as though you are an unpaid extra on the set of someone else's grand film about high living.
On the first evening, I took a random run out North Beach Street and followed the aptly named Cobblestone Hill past a cottage or two and arrived among handsome newer houses aligned with the orderly proximity of a sea-scrubbed suburb. It was the idea of authentic Nantucket, in other words, rather than the thing itself.
I mention all this not to complain. One person I met more aptly noted, "The billionaires ruined Nantucket for the millionaires." But it surprised me, even after the tech-boom '90s and hedge-fund half of this past decade, how hard it could be to find the original rhythms of the island.
My sense of Nantucket had long been shaped by slide shows my dad had made of his own trips there with my mom in 1971 and 1972. The photos in my memory capture a weathered island desolate in a most inviting way: bikes with baskets leaning against fences, dunes punctuated with bent grass, quiet cottages hunkered against the sea.
We did enjoy some charms of town life, including the Quaker Meeting House and its spare wooden benches and the Atheneum, home to intellectual history inside and two trees in the garden perfect for kids to climb.
But we quickly turned our sights on the daylong bike tour. After stopping by Young's Bicycle Shop to get gear, we pedaled toward 'Sconset, first on town streets, then on a bike path. The rush of traffic ("Leave your car behind," the ferry service encourages, failing to point out that so many do not) had thinned, and tufts of low evergreen dominated the route, and then, to the north, the open expanse of the moors. Sankaty Head Light, stout and silent with its red-and-white column, punctuated the fog-rimmed coast, and two empty soccer nets were nearly hidden in a meadow.
By the time we ordered lunch at Claudette's Sandwiches ($34, with a bag of chips and a few cold drinks), my daughter, she of the brash demands for incessant pedaling, had changed her chorus to sobs, something to do with her older brother and an uncertain injustice.
After a chocolate ice cream cone and a few minutes' rest, we were angling north on the Polpis Road and the idea of Nantucket encountered reality, in the gentle waves of a wide pond, and the depths of the Windswept Cranberry Bog, an open stretch awaiting its season of fruit. We stopped, hoping to take a short hike, but brother and sister broke into another round of arguing (something, this time, to do with sugar). Fog had burned off to full sun and the temperature rose above 70. After a look at the map, I turned to my wife, Julie, with a serious expression. We had taken a wrong turn, I bluffed, and we would need to go all the way back.
"How far?" she said. "To when we were single?"
Onward, then: We ordered the kids back onto the bikes and soon an unexpected encounter with the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum saved our day. We wandered among the air-conditioned trove of relics from the days when ships met their deaths and sailors caught a second chance on the shoals off Nantucket's shore. A kind museum volunteer invited the kids to make their own nautical flags - funny how sitting still can appeal to a 4-year-old after pedaling 16 miles - and Julie noted that the recovered nameplates of sunken ships seemed to have sailed from the verses of an epic poem: "MOAMA," "KARMOE," "TELUMAH," "THEOLINE."
With a new lease on life, we pedaled with gusto to where the Polpis Road rejoins the Rotary, and Lower Orange Street meets again the town. We returned the bikes - "By dinner, that ride will have been 50 miles long!" the shop clerk joked with my son - and wandered up Main Street for an early dinner. On the patio behind the Even Keel, a local favorite, we ordered another burger and hot dog, a salad, and vegetarian chili.
As a dad moving quickly, it was remarkable to witness the changes of several short years, from the birth of a first child to four people pedaling together, bumps and all, around an island. Such a moment, of course, seemed priceless. When the waiter came, it turned out to cost $70.
Tom Haines can be reached at email@example.com.