lighthouse on Nantucket

Nantucket: The Small New England Island With 82 Miles of Shoreline

Jenn Morson

Jenn Morson

October 26, 2023

8 min read

Set 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Nantucket is a popular destination for east coasters, particularly in the summer when its population increases five-fold from around 15,000 to more than 80,000. 

There’s good reason for all those visitors. From playing on the sandy beaches to exploring historical landmarks, learning about whaling history or indulging in fresh lobster rolls, tiny Nantucket packs a whole lot into its 50 square miles. Many visitors have become year-rounders—people who live permanently on Nantucket—after falling in love with the island on vacation.

From the Wampanoag to whaling 

whale breaching

English settlers arrived on Nantucket in 1659 and lived among the Indigenous inhabitants, the Wampanoag people, who had lived on the island since around 3000 BC. Many of the town and village names across the island are either Wampanoag or derived from Wampanoag words including: Siasconset, Wauwinet, Madaket, and Quidnet. The name Nantucket itself (which designates both the island and the main town, where the ferries arrive) is believed to be from the Wampanoag word, Nanticoke, meaning “faraway island.” 

While the Nantucket Historical Association works to preserve the memory of the Wampanoag contribution to the island, no current community remains on Nantucket, as the Wampanoag tribe on the island was wiped out by a deadly epidemic. 

For everyone who read Moby-Dick in Honors English, you’ll recall that Nantucket was the center of the whaling industry, and that ship captains and their crews often sailed from Nantucket, leaving their wives and families behind to face the cruel winters without them. During the late 18th century and into the 19th century, Nantucket dominated the whaling industry. Many of the beautiful historical homes were owned by whaling captains before becoming summer homes for wealthy Americans. Visitors are welcome to visit the Jethro Coffin House, also known as the “Oldest House,” which was built in 1686. 

The Nantucket Whaling Museum hosts a number of impressive exhibits that delve into the history of the whaling industry, the founding families of Nantucket, and is even home to a 46-foot sperm whale skeleton. The whaling industry ended in the late 1800s, and today, the focus is on preservation and protection. There are whale-watching tours that set sail from Nantucket, with the humpback whale being the most common encounter. 

(For more in-depth reading on Nantucket’s rich history, visit Nantucket Historical Association.) 

That beach life 

Nantucket is an island, and you’ll have your pick of beaches from its 82 miles of shoreline. Several of its beaches are open to the public, and while conditions may vary day-to-day as far as seaweed and undertow, the beaches on Nantucket are all smooth and sandy. Even Stone’s Beach, in spite of its name, is free of rocky terrain. 

Beaches are an important part of Nantucket life, with each beach offering a different style of enjoyment: some have calmer surf, some are more secluded and can only be accessed by four-wheel-drive vehicles, while others offer visitors food vendors and accessible parking. Checking the local beach daily forecast is essential as conditions, including tide, seaweed and algae, and shark sightings, change frequently. If you are looking for a winter adventure, you can find a dedicated crew of winter surfers who enjoy the perfect surfing conditions experienced in February. 

There are ten main public beaches on Nantucket. Harborside beaches include Jetties Beach, which has its own snack bar and is close to Nantucket town. Children’s Beach, also close to town, has public restrooms, a small snack bar, picnic tables, and its own playground. Both of these beaches typically have a gentler surf. 

On the Atlantic Ocean side of the island, the water is usually a bit cooler and the surf a bit rougher. Sconset Beach is the most readily accessible for seniors and anyone with mobility challenges, although the surf can be strong. Restaurants are nearby in the town of Siasconset (called ‘Sconset locally), and parking is limited, so you’ll want to arrive early if driving yourself.

Sesachacha Pond has Quidnet Beach, where ocean water is pumped in, making it the calmest beach and very family-friendly. Parking is limited, and you’ll need to bring any food with you as there are no services (which also means no restrooms). 

An island of culinary delights 

lobster roll

Clams, scallops, and bluefish are the main seafood produced off the shores of Nantucket, though the island is perhaps most associated with two mainstays of New England: lobster rolls and clam chowder. Bluefish is a very bony fish, and while diehard Nantucketers enjoy preparing recipes using this native fish, it's mostly relegated to older cookbooks. 

There are a myriad of excellent options for indulging in both lobster rolls and clam chowder. At Jetties Beach, Sandbar offers a delicious lobster roll and a cup of chowder to enjoy at one of their beachside tables or right on your own beach towel. In Nantucket town, the Brant Point Grill at the White Elephant Hotel offers its own delicious versions of these two dishes, along with a view overlooking Nantucket Harbor. Brant Point Grill adds lemon zest to its lobster roll, which is otherwise mostly composed of lobster chunks. 

A short drive to the village of Siasconset, a little less than eight miles from Nantucket town, The Chanticleer has a regionally inspired menu and a lovely al fresco dining space in a building which was originally an early 20th-century tea room. If you’re looking to prepare your own clam chowder or lobster rolls in your vacation rental’s kitchen, Sayle’s Seafood sells a wide variety of fresh fish, scallops, live lobster, and picked lobster meat as well as a carton of clam chowder base. You just need to add the cream and cook! You can also order from an extensive menu of take-away meals including a complete clam bake. 

There are a number of local farms selling fresh produce grown on the island such as local corn and tomatoes. Bartlett’s Farm is a favorite stop for locals and vacationers alike because of their on-site grocery store, playground, and ice cream stand. 

Famous Nantucketers and pop culture 

Nantucket’s charms have long captivated many celebrities, politicians, and authors. Many celebs come to Nantucket for the Nantucket Film Festival, usually held in June each year, and during this time you may spot Ben Stiller, who grew up summering on Nantucket or singer Meghan Trainor, who grew up on island. Other famous visitors have included Drew Barrymore, Mariska Hargitay, and Kourtney Kardashian in recent years. 

President Joe Biden has been a dedicated visitor to Nantucket since the late 1970s, when he’d spend Thanksgiving on the island. The Bidens can still sometimes be seen delivering pies to the local firefighters and participating in the Cold Turkey Plunge, a fundraiser for the local children’s library which includes rushing into the frigid waters at Children’s Beach.  

Author Elin Hilderbrand, known as the “queen of the beach read” according to New York Magazine, has set many of her 29 novels on Nantucket where she and her family reside. Two of her books are currently in development as films and a third book is being produced as a 6-part Netflix series, all of which will definitely bring attention to Nantucket. 

Nathaniel Philbrick, award-winning author of several nonfiction historical narratives, also lives year-round on Nantucket. His book, In the Heart of the Sea, was transformed into a film produced by Ron Howard and detailed the fate of the Essex, the whaling ship that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick

Protecting nature on Nantucket


While the influx of tourists to Nantucket Island is beneficial to the local economy, the environmental impact of more people, combined with the ongoing effects of climate change, is cause for concern. Tourists are encouraged by several conservation organizations on the island to respect signage related to staying on intended paths when exploring nature, leave any areas cleaner than when they arrived by taking all trash with them, and treat service workers with respect.

Perhaps the most pressing concern is erosion. It is not uncommon to see coastal homes being moved more inward on the island in an effort to preserve them as the land beneath them is eroding into the sea. There is even a street in Siasconset where many of the oceanside homes have been removed or reduced due to erosion. For a time, efforts to slow the erosion and preserve the beach were carried out by installing large tubes of sand running along the coastline, but the weather impact was too severe for the tubes to be effective, and they were all recently removed. 

The Nantucket Land Bank is the first initiative of its kind in the United States. In 1983, the local government voted to acquire land in order to preserve it for the public’s enjoyment. Today the Nantucket Land Bank continues its mission to preserve open spaces on Nantucket and prevent overdevelopment. 

Relatedly, visitors will notice that in spite of being in Massachusetts, you won’t find a single Dunkin’ on Nantucket. That’s because in 2006, Nantucketers voted to ban chain stores and franchises from the island. There are a few exceptions, such as gas stations and grocery stores, but otherwise, you’ll need to hop a ferry to the mainland if you’re craving a Whopper from Burger King or a latte from Starbucks.

A calendar of festivals  

There are a number of yearly events held on Nantucket that celebrate the local culture in unique ways. Nantucket Book Festival brings acclaimed authors to Nantucket each summer to elevate their work and raise money for literacy causes. Attendees can interact with authors, connect with fellow writers and readers, and celebrate the literary history of Nantucket itself. 

June’s Nantucket Film Festival was founded in 1996, and has become one of the top film festivals in the world. The annual Boston Pops on Nantucket raises funds for the Nantucket Cottage Hospital. Each year, the famous Boston Symphony Orchestra puts on a themed concert on Jetties Beach with all the proceeds supporting the hospital. 

Nantucket Daffodil Festival is held each spring. Known locally as Daffy Weekend, events include an antique car parade, a tailgating picnic, a flower show, and several children’s events held at Children’s Beach. The daffodils are typically in bloom across the island, creating a sea of yellow flowers, and visitors often wear their most creative outfits and hats for the events. 

Christmas Stroll is held each year on the first weekend after Thanksgiving weekend. Originally established as a way to prevent islanders from doing their holiday shopping off-island, the event now attracts tourists who jumpstart their Christmas spirit with carolers, hot cocoa, and even a celebration of Santa Claus arriving via boat in the harbor. 

Island logistics

With Nantucket thirty miles out to sea, getting there takes a little flexibility. High winds and storms can often delay flights into Nantucket Memorial Airport. And if you’re traveling to Nantucket outside of the summer season, flights are less available. 

Another company, Seastreak, offers high-speed passenger ferries from New Bedford, Massachusetts, but only operates from the end of April until early October. 

If you arrive on Nantucket without your own vehicle, you have options. With Nantucket only 50 square miles (14 miles long and 3–5 miles wide), there’s not much ground to cover from the main town of Nantucket to Massachusetts.

Unless you have access to your own watercraft, your other option is booking passage aboard one of the ferries that shuttle passengers to Nantucket from Hyannis on the mainland. There are a few options for ferrying to Nantucket, including Hy-Line Cruises and Steamship Authority. Both offer year-round, high-speed service that takes about an hour for passengers, with several trips a day as well as flexible parking options in Hyannis. Only Steamship Authority has ferries that also transport your vehicle to Nantucket, which makes it far more convenient for getting around the island as well as for transporting your belongings. 

Booking the car ferry takes some careful planning as spots fill up fast once reservations open in late winter, but there are also waitlists available. n to other popular areas like Siasconset, Madequecham, and Cisco Beach. In addition to public transit, you can rent a car from one of several agencies or even rent a bicycle for getting around. Several taxi services or Uber and Lyft are also now available on-island. 

lighthouse at sunset

Good to Know

Is Nantucket expensive?

Nantucket can be an expensive place to visit during the summer. While you can find a wide range of short-term rental properties, a hotel room in town during high season will run an average of $290. 

Budget-friendly dining options do exist, but most restaurants cater to those looking for a more luxurious dining experience. Your best bet for budget-friendly meals is cooking for yourself in an Airbnb and going out for lunch for local experiences instead of an evening meal. 

Museums offer discount cards and children under 12 are often free.

Best time to visit Nantucket

Nantucket is definitely a summer destination, although the shoulder seasons of Spring and Fall have some pretty fabulous experiences beyond the beaches. Weather can be unpredictable during Christmas Stroll, another popular weekend to visit, is typically held the weekend after Thanksgiving . Festive shopping mixed with holiday celebrations and the arrival of Santa Claus by boat is an immersive experience, but hotel prices are elevated due to its popularity. 

Weather on Nantucket during summer averages highs of the upper 70 degrees Fahrenheit, although warm fronts have brought hotter days to Nantucket in recent years. While air conditioning wasn’t always a requirement, you’ll probably want to make sure it's available wherever you stay. 

Nantucket with kids

There is so much for families to do on Nantucket. Several beaches cater to children, including Quidnet Beach at Sesachacha Pond, where ocean water is funneled in to improve water quality and there are no waves or seaweed (or sharks!). 

Maria Mitchell Aquarium is a great place for visiting families and often holds summer camps and other programs for children. 

Many hotels such as The Nantucket Hotel host complimentary children’s programs which include crafts and snacks

Nantucket public transportation

The WAVE is Nantucket’s public transit bus and has several loops around the island. Day/Week/Annual Passes can be purchased, and there are several bus stops located around the island so you can utilize public transportation to access towns and beaches.

Is Nantucket safe?

Nantucket is considered a very safe destination.

Getting to Nantucket

  • Maine airport: ACK; if you’re renting a car, it’s also convenient to fly into BOS, about an hour and a half to the ferry port at Hyannis to Nantucket.
  • Average Going deal price for flights to Nantucket: $231 roundtrip

Read about other destinations in the US: 

Jenn Morson

Jenn Morson

Freelance Writer

While not a year-rounder, as Nantucketers refer to their own local residents, Jenn Morson has spent a great deal of time on Nantucket with family over the past 20 years. Previously she has written about Nantucket for USA Today, Take Magazine, and Smithsonian Magazine. She has also written for Travel + Leisure, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many more online and print outlets.

Published October 26, 2023

Last updated February 8, 2024

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