Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nantucket - June, 2009

There once was a man from Nantucket - - no, I’m not going in that direction. But this summer I did spend a day on this island of limerick fame.

From the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. Today, the main business is tourism. Besides the tourism, fishing is still an active occupation and boats are everywhere. Summer population explodes from 10,000 to 50,000 in the summer, and this number doesn’t take into account the thousands of people taking day trips to the island every summer. It’s a windy, 45-minute ferry ride from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and the ferries run all day.
Charming is the word that best describes it. Cobbled streets, old churches, and historic homes all add to the unique ambience of the island. Shops and restaurants line the downtown streets but eventually start to repeat themselves. T-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats, of course. Jewelry stores with hand-crafted work, miscellaneous knick-knack shops with “sea” themes, and artwork depicting the extinct whaling industry are everywhere. Quality varies but not the overall themes.

The specialties of the island are scrimshaw and Nantucket baskets, and they are displayed heavily. Both were hobbies of whalers; they carved their designs into the bones of the whales they caught and killed, and wove baskets while waiting for the whales to appear. Today, selling scrimshaw on whalebone is mostly illegal, and many fine-looking substitutes are used. And it’s done now by artists, not whalers, some of whom produce hand-carved, exquisite work. Other pieces are machine-made and the careless shopper will pay a high price for a machine-produced piece of art. The same applies to the baskets. Available via the web (and spotted for sale on Mackinac Island, Michigan), the baskets were unique to Nantucket in the whaling days. Like the scrimshaw, this hobby turned into a specialty picked up by post-whaling artists. The unwary shopper will purchase a basket ground out by a machine in China for less money but the savvy buyer will look for the engraved signature on the bottom that verifies the basket is indeed hand-made on Nantucket.

After some shopping and lunch in a courtyard restaurant, we took a bus tour to see the rest of this small island. We learned there are very strict regulations regarding buildings and homes; colors, styles, and siding options are very restricted so as to preserve the 19th century character of the island. (We also learned that newscaster Brian Williams had a home here but we were not offered a tour.) There were beautiful coastal views on our route and it was well worth the time. After exploring a few more churches and strolling down a few more picturesque streets, we headed back to the dock to catch the ferry back to Cape Cod. The island is set up for tourists but still retains the authenticity of a vital, functioning town, which it is. It’s definitely worth a trip.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Snapshot of Mackinac Island

What can be said about this island, unique in the nation, and probably in the world? The Grand Hotel with its Jamaican staff, no motorized vehicles allowed on the island (mostly), and carriage tours with guides not-so-subtly reminding visitors to tip them. Bicycles are everywhere - did I mention everywhere? More ubiquitous than horses, the bicycle riders can be dangerously foolish. Accidents are frequent and trying to cross a street on foot can be treacherous as everyone claims right-of-way. Horse-drawn carriages and taxis tend to rule the road as their size and strength intimidate all but the most reckless. Natives on their bikes can always be spotted - they ride bikes with baskets, and ride with more balance and caution. Young men working for the hotels can be seen riding with luggage stacked so high in a basket, they view their route from the side of the basket.
In deference to modern needs, there is a medical center with an ambulance, and state workers on motorized lawn mowers can be spotted - only the state gets away with it, however. If you are shipping lumber for a new house, the delivery truck is brought over via ferry to the island but stays on the boat. Manual labor moves the lumber to a horse-drawn dray that drives to your building site. And yes, no forklifts allowed. Think about it. Concrete anyone??
Employees spend their summers on the island, many staying off island each night, taking the ferry back and forth, making minimum wage plus tips, and leaving the island in October to the 400-500 or so year-round residents. Some employees have been coming for decades and return to Jamaica each fall with an allocated amount of American goods. Horses also ship off the island in October and return in the spring to haul supplies and people from the water taxis that continually disgorge at the docks. There is a year-round school, kindergarten through high school, that services 60-80 students. This up-to-date facility offers a waterfront view most hotels would envy.

One local grocery store remains open over the winter but not much else is open for business. Fudge and t-shirt shops have no reason to stay open. Residents use the ice bridge that forms in the winter to travel via snow mobile to St. Ignace for supplies. The percentage of those going down to their fate through the ice is not a concern - they’ve gone outside the Christmas tree line placed by the Coast Guard or have taken unwarranted risks in crossing in bad weather. And as I was told, "how many people die in car accidents every winter?" Good point. It’s a tight-knit community - tourists are welcome for the business they bring but are known derisively as "fudgies." Natives live inland in a town that is not on the tourists’ map. Wealthy immigrants, mostly summer residents, live on the water with breathtaking vistas and glorious gardens.

And the history - too much to recount here. The island was touched by Native Americans, French, British, and Americans - look it up. Folklore about the island’s creation abound and books are everywhere, relaying the stories, displaying the beauty of the island, or recounting its history. Tour the military fort for a cannon shot and a court martial by personable young actors. This is employment for high school and college students; it was an actual military fort, albeit not one that saw much action. Sitting high on a hill, it provides a beautiful view of the Straits.

And the Grand Hotel - trying to reclaim or reflect the glamor of days gone by? After 6:00 pm, men are required to wear jacket and tie, and women should be in their "loveliest attire". I’m not kidding. That’s what the sign says. At any time, when you enter the hotel, the desk clerk will ask you if you are staying at the hotel. If not, there is a $10.00 fee for walking into the hotel. Don’t show up for an evening event without a tie - they will not provide one for you and will not let you in. Again, I’m not kidding. But to be fair, the hotel is grand.

The island holds its own magic and is a charming place to visit, even if you don't stay at the very grand Grand Hotel.