Nantucket travel guide - Whales, windmills and more

A short ferry ride from Cape Cod lies Nantucket, a cute little island with a storied past. You'll find plenty of upscale boutiques, gourmet restaurants and fine art galleries when you visit. You could easily fill a vacation with those modern delights, but be sure to explore Nantucket's history too, since that's the real treasure of the place.

Brick sidewalks in Nantucket, Massachusetts One of Nantucket's charming cobblestone streets

All of Nantucket Island is included on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's easy to see why. Wandering through the town's cobblestone streets, you see many buildings dating to before the Civil War, and reminders of the past abound.

The Wampanoag people were Nantucket's original inhabitants, then the English started taking over in 1659. The island's main claim to fame, though, came with the whaling years.

Nantucket, whaling capital of the world

This small island was the biggest center for whaling in the world, and Nantucket whaling boats plied waters around the globe. Even Captain Ahab's ship set sail from Nantucket on its ill-fated search for Moby Dick.

Whaling in Nantucket began about 1715. Whales, especially sperm whales, were hunted for their oil - used for streetlights, home lamps, and other purposes. Enormous whale ships ventured further and further afield in the search for the leviathans, eventually making voyages of 3 to 5 years, through seas around the world.

Two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires. ~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Whaling was dangerous work. Small whaleboats left the master ship when a whale was spotted, to harpoon the beast. The infamous Nantucket sleigh ride was when the injured whale took off, dragging the small, open boat behind it.

Drawing of whaling in the 1800s Whaling in the 19th century was a dangerous enterprise

For over a hundred years, Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. By about 1850, Nantucket's prominence subsided, and soon the demand for whale oil gave way to more economical petroleum.

See more at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. Located in a historic candle factory, this museum is a must-see to understand the golden years of Nantucket. Make sure to check out the history of the ill-fated ship Essex, a true-life tale which inspired the story of Moby Dick.

Why a candle factory? Spermaceti candles were made from waxy matter in the heads of sperm whales. Known as the finest candles available in those years, candle making was big business here.

The USA's oldest operating windmill is in Nantucket The oldest working windmill in the US - pretty cool!

Nantucket's old Windmill

The oldest operating windmill in the US is on Nantucket. Built in 1746 out of wood from wrecked ships, this is a fascinating place that exceeded my expectations.

Inside the old windmill in Nantucket, Massachusetts Hands on in the oldest windmill, Nantucket

Over 250 years old, this is still a working windmill. Someone from the historical society can explain to you all about how the mill worked, with canvas "sails" on the slatted arms. You can pull the ropes to help operate the mill, and see what it's like to lift a 1-ton grindstone. When you're finished the tour, you can even buy corn meal ground right there in the historic mill.

Trivia: Did you know some common phrases we use trace back to windmills?

  • "Nose to the grindstone" is what the miller had to do - if it got too hot, there would be a burning smell.
  • "Grind to a halt" is what the stones would do if they ran out of corn to grind.
  • "Three sheets to the wind" is a bad thing - if only 3 of the 4 arms have sails up on a windy day, it can put the mechanism dangerously out of balance.

What else to do in Nantucket

Nantucket is full of outdoor activities that can be enjoyed by the whole family. You can build sand castles on the beach, paddle a kayak, go fishing, or take a sailboat ride.

The harbor at Nantucket, Massachusetts Boating and beaches are options in Nantucket

You can walk anywhere in town, and the cobblestone streets encourage wandering. To explore more of the island, rent a bike. There are several bike shops that rent to visitors, and you can take bike paths to spots all around the island.

And of course, there are those shops, galleries and restaurants! When you've had enough of exploring the history and outdoor activities, you can engage in a little retail therapy. You're sure to find something for everyone on your list. Dining on the island is a delight, with plenty of fresh seafood and other delectable dishes.

Nantucket travel tips

  • Where it is - Nantucket Island is in Massachusetts, USA, about 30 miles south of Cape Cod.
  • How to get there - You can take a ferry boat to Nantucket from Hyannis or Martha's Vineyard. See Hy-Line Cruises or Steamship Authority.

    There is also a small airport (airport code ACK), so you can fly into Nantucket from Boston, New York, Hyannis, or a few other places.

  • Weather - Daily highs average 60s and 70s from June to October, with July and August the warmest months. Winter is cold, and they do get some snow. See weather averages
  • When to go - Summer is high season in Nantucket, and the island population skyrockets to 5 times the winter numbers. Come fall, people start leaving, and many businesses close for the season. I like the shoulder season best. Early September is less crowded than summer, yet still before businesses shut down.
One of Nantucket's historic inns One of the historic inns in Nantucket
  • Where to stay - Nantucket has a wide array of accommodations. You can stay in a harbor side cottage, an organic luxury hotel, or a whaling captain's mansion. I prefer to stay in a historic inn, to make the most of the island's authentic history.
  • What to take - Bring good walking shoes for the cobblestone streets and uneven brick sidewalks. Another good idea is a windbreaker that doubles as a lightweight rain jacket. Even on a warm summer day, you may get some showers, so be prepared.
  • What else to know?-Nantucket is not a cheap place. Property is expensive here, even by Massachusetts standards, and hotel rates reflect that. It's a far cry from 1659, when the entire island was sold to Tristram Coffin, "for the sum of thirty Pounds and also two beaver hats".

Nantucket resources

Comments? Questions?

Have you been to the Nantucket, or would you like to visit this quaint and charming island? Please join the conversation, and leave any comments or questions below. Thanks! 🙂

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PHOTO CREDITS:  Whaling print - Currier & Ives 1856, All other photos - Deanna Keahey


  1. Brian

    A quaint New England town with great restaurants and bars, and fresh seafood. Lots of history, beautiful beaches, sand dunes, and great fishing. I stayed in a very friendly bed and breakfast and had a wonderful time!

    • Thanks, Brian! It really is a great combination, isn't it? I love the cobblestone streets and that old-fashioned feel. And you're right about the seafood, and having a wonderful time, too! 🙂

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