It’s not hard to enjoy Nantucket, whether you know what you’re doing or where you’re going…or not. Throw a stone into its well-shingled downtown, and you’re sure to hit a great restaurant, find just the lightship basket or wide-brimmed hat you were looking for, or enjoy a fun-packed afternoon with a highly professional excursion outfit. But what happens after you’ve shopped scenic Main Street, walked through the highly-touted Whaling Museum, and yacht-watched while polishing off an ice cream cone on Straight Wharf?
There’s another Nantucket. One without the tourists, the polished shops, and the overpriced everything (though the shingles remain firmly in place). This Nantucket suggests wild spaces, a long history, and the sort of emptiness felt most acutely on small spits of land in the wide Atlantic. It’s hiding in plain sight (after all, how far could it go?) and you can find it even in the peak of the summer season in the following five ways:
Immerse yourself in island ecology with the acclaimed The Maria Mitchell Association
This respected institution hosts educational excursions and classes for adults, and day camps for kids all summer long, as well as free (or Nantucket-cheap) activities, field trips, and events (no more than $15 or so). Run by leading experts in astronomy, natural science, and marine science, the association’s many hike and tour slots are rarely filled. If you’re planning to book one of the island’s popular (for tourists) seal or whale watches, do so with Shearwater Excursions, who hosts a Maria Mitchell Association scientist on-board every Monday.
See the wild side of Nantucket in Madaket
It’s simple: get on a bike, ride as far west as you can go on-island before hitting ocean, and stop. You’ll be surrounded on three sides by a wild and scenic coast; the beaches sparse, the waves large and looming, the vacation homes few and far between (and almost always shuttered against the strong winds and fog). This is the true form of the famed White Lady, unpredictable, lonely, and beautiful. Pack a lunch, bring warm clothes, and be ready to keep a close eye on kids in tow: there are no amenities to speak of on this side of the island, no lifeguards, and no shops in which to buy a picnic or beach blanket. The coastline is accessible (feel free to explore the dirt roads leading outward from the main road) and the beaches are open to the public.
Walk or drive the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge
A ruggedly beautiful coastal refuge featuring 16 miles of trails and 4×4 sand roads, the Coskata-Coatue is a haven for shorebirds, deer, and raptors. It’s also the home of the Great Point Light, which is accessible only by 4×4 or guided tour. This section of Nantucket is not to be taken lightly: visitors need to have a sand-ready vehicle with access sticker to the tune of $80 (or a rental vehicle with access sticker in place, which can be had for roughly $30 a day) or very strong legs: walking through miles of heavy sand is not for the casual day hiker! Better yet, sign up for a guided tour and learn about the natural environs while saving some money. The rewards are many: you’ll be in light company on this stretch of the island, the windswept bogs will call to mind the melancholy beauty of English moors, and on a clear day, the sea will roll out in front of you flat as glass.
Stand at the highest natural point of the island at Alter Rock
Located off Polpis Road between Wauwinet and Nantucket Town in ‘Sconset (Siasconset), Alter Rock’s trailhead is accessible by car or bicycle (we like to pair this excursion with an ice cream cone outside the ‘Sconset store). An easy walk through bog to the top of a hill where the rock awaits, this is the place to see the entire island outside of the busy tourist crush at Nantucket Town’s First Congregational Church.
‘Fish’ for turtles at Long Pond
No longer quite the local secret it used to be (but still fun enough for us not to care), turtle ‘fishing’ at Long Pond is much more like ‘feeding’: bait twine with raw chicken drumsticks (yes, you read that right), drop your line in the water off the dock, and watch island turtles surface for a nibble (or more like a bite!). These prehistoric-looking creatures are a big hit with kids, but adults will get a cheap thrill as well.
Bad weather? It may sound strange at a beach destination like Nantucket, but this is still Massachusetts, and hockey is still king: the local ice rink is a great place to escape rain and fog. With public hours (and rentals), it’s the perfect way to pass the time until the beach weather is back. Even stranger: the Thai take-out place located inside the arena, Siam to Go, is quite good, and is the only ethnic take-out on Nantucket. It’s relatively cheap as well!
Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids, a family travel website covering en-route pit stops, resort stays, outdoor, and adventure travel for kids.