There is something magical about an island that cannot be reached by car, a feeling intensified when that island is as charming as Nantucket. A particularly family-friendly place, Nantucket abounds in sandy beaches, gentle (though often very cold) water, and accommodations that welcome children. It also boasts an adorable cobblestone town, and no traffic lights. In short, it’s the perfect restorative for a busy family — which I found when I took my three daughters, ages 5, 10 and 11, there during Spring Break. Nantucket has a fantastic beach, Children’s Beach, where the water a half-mile out is only knee-deep (thigh-deep if you’re very small). There is a playground, a concession stand, and an outdoor shower where you can rid yourself of some of the sand. Jetties is also family-friendly, with a playground, tennis courts and kayak rentals. For thrills, head to Surfside for bigger waves. Note that all these beaches have lifeguards; there are other beaches, notably Brant Point, by a lighthouse, without lifeguards. Of course, in spring, when there are no lifeguards anywhere, you can dig in the sand and collect interesting shells. If you tire of the beach, or, like us, visit off-season, the Maria Mitchell Association has ‘field trips’ focusing on birds, wildflowers and marine ecology. The trips are about two hours long, and let kids see nature up close. Much of Nantucket is protected land, with marshes and beaches; birding is excellent since the island is on a migratory path. We took a birding walk, of particular interest to Nora, 5, as she got to carry her own binoculars. By the end of our stay on Nantucket, she was confidently and correctly pointing out different birds she had spied. You might see osprey, cardinals, ducks, geese and nests. There are also discovery programs, June-August, focusing on astronomy, natural science and history. The association has a small aquarium, where sea creatures children find are sometimes displayed. There is also an observatory with a telescope, open select nights, and a small science museum. Although the island is small, touring it gives a good sense of its scope. Ara’s Tours offers personalized island tours, taking in lighthouses (from the outside), collecting shells at the beach, even stopping at a playground if kids need to run around. The very affable Ara picks you up and drops you off wherever you need; she cheerfully lets kids dump the sand from their shoes right into her car and trade slightly marred shells with the perfect specimens she keeps strewn about her van. Another great way to see Nantucket, of course, is by bike. There are miles and miles of flat, paved biking trails. (The street from the ferry has three rental ships alone). We rented bikes from Young’s Bicycle Shop, which hooked us up with kids’ mountain bikes for Hallie and Sela, who are 11 and 10, a trail-a-bike for Nora, and an all-terrain for me; because it was chilly, they offered to knock 50 percent off the price. Young’s, around since 1931, publishes a map with different rides, marking off where you can find water fountains, May-November, and where there are cobblestone and dirt roads. Various paths are 3.5-10 miles, each way, though nobody cries foul if you turn around before the end. Well, maybe some kids with completion issues might object, but the biking is easy enough, and the paths wide enough to make biking here, particularly with inexperienced riders, a pleasure. The island was once a center of the whaling industry, which you can explore at the Whaling Museum, part of the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA). There is an actual whale boat, one of the small boats that whaling ships carried, which whalers rode while chasing a harpooned whale (called a “Nantucket sleigh ride”); the skeleton of a finback whale; and a lot of scrimshaw. There is a room full of souvenirs that whalers picked up on the stops in the Pacific, and an original fresnel lens from the Sankaty Lighthouse; kids can push a button to operate the light. The museum is in what was once a candle factory — their main ingredient, whale oil. The NHA also runs the Peter Foulger Museum, which has a fashion exhibit this summer, “Plain Threads to Nantucket Reds: 300 Years of Nantucket Fashion”. There are concerts at The Old Mill, where in warm weather the mill actually operates, grinding corn. The NHA also has children’s classes in July and August; they include ones on collecting and patterns, for 4- to 5-year-olds; Colonial Life, where kids grind corn and make cornbread; and Sailor’s Life (these last two for 6- to 10-year-olds); and programs for ages 10-12. There are also family walking tours and crafts programs at the Whaling Museum. The island has an excellent library, the Nantucket Atheneum. There is an attached children’s library with toys, as well as a well-stocked book selection; the gorgeous Greek Revival building dates from 1846. Nantucket has no chain restaurants, stores, or hotels. We stayed at The Beachside at Nantucket Island, where huge family suites give you plenty of room to stretch out. There is a heated pool, and you are a five-minute walk from Jetties Beach. The Beachside is the kind of thoughtful place that leaves a rubber ducky by the tub if you’re traveling with children. Though the drive to Hyannis, where you catch the ferry to Nantucket, can be long — on a good day, expect five hours from New York City — the ‘fast ferry’ to Nantucket speeds you there in under an hour. The Steamship Authority has daily year-round trips on passenger-only ferries (you can bring bikes). If you take the ferry, be sure to look for seals sunning themselves on the jetties off Nantucket. Nantucket is expanding its season, promoting spring with an annual daffodil festival; this year’s included a ghost walk, children’s parade, treasure hunt and guided constellation tour. There are fall arts and harvest festivals, and September is a great time for families with preschoolers to visit, since the ocean water is warm and the crowds have thinned. With such a small island — 14.5 miles long by 3.5 miles wide — cars are rarely needed. There is a seasonal shuttle, the Nantucket Regional Transit Authority, running May 24-September 28. Fares are $1-$2, depending on length; from the airport to town is $2. And if you take a bike ride and get tired, bikes are allowed on the shuttle.
Resources: • Maria Mitchell Association, 2 Vestal Street. Field trips are $10 adults, $6 children. (508) 228-9198; www.mmo.org • Ara’s Tours are 90 minutes, $12person. (508) 221-6852; www.arastours.com • Young’s Bicycle Shop, 6 Broad Street. (508) 228-1151; www.youngsbicycleshop.com • Nantucket Whaling Museum, 13 Broad Street. (508) 228-1736; www.nha.org/whalingmuseum.htm • Nantucket Historical Association operates eight sites. Admission to all is $15 adults; $8 ages 6-17; $35 family. (508) 228-1894; www.nha.org • Nantucket Atheneum, 1 India Street, is open daily in summer. (508) 228-1110 • The Steamship Authority. Round-trip: $52 adults; $39 children ages 5-12; under 5 free. (508) 477-8600; www.steamshipauthority.com • Nantucket Regional Transit Authority, (508) 228-7025
Where to Stay: • The Beachside at Nantucket Island, 30 North Beach Street. All rooms have fridges; cribs and cots are available. (508) 228-2241; www.thebeachside.com • The Lighthouse Inn, I Lighthouse Inn Road. Country inn complex with working lighthouse. Supervised children’s program. (508) 398-2244; www.lighthouseinn.com • The Grey Lady, 34 Centre Street, has suites and welcomes children. (508) 228-9552; www.nantucket.net/lodging/greylady • Nantucket Inn, 27 Macy’s Lane, has both indoor and outdoor pools and tennis. (508) 228-6900; www.nantucketinn.net
Where to Eat: • Atlantic Cafe, 15 South Water Street, has a nautical theme, with ship wheels and lights displayed. Kids get a chalk board to play with while they wait. There is a children’s menu and a lot of barbecued food. (508) 228-0579; www.atlanticcafe.com • Even Keel Cafe, 40 Main Street, has a backyard patio and high speed Internet access. Open for breakfast-dinner; there is a children’s menu. (508) 228-1979 • Fog Island Cafe, 7 Water Street, has soups, sandwiches and salads, with a lot of vegetarian choices and a children’s menu. (508) 228-1818; www.fogisland.com • Sushi by Yoshi is a tiny restaurant with a full menu of sushi and sashimi, as well as noodle dishes and Japanese appetizers. 2 East Chestnut St. (508) 228-1801; www.sushibyyoshi.com
For more information, contact the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce at (508) 228-0659 or visit www.nantucketchamber.org.