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.