Nantucket’s Jared Coffin House isn’t as macabre as it sounds.
The red brick Georgian hotel, the oldest on the island, has white door columns and dark green louvered windows. It stands at the top of Broad Street, a reminder of the 19th century Quaker endeavour that put this spec of land, 30 miles east of the USA mainland, on the world map – forever.
Broad Street has barely changed since those whaling days; a cobbled avenue of merchants’ homes and dry goods stores with a wharf at the foot. There you’ll find sea captains, like James Genthner, who’ll charge £15 for a turn around Nantucket Sound, passing the lighthouse at Brand Point where good old boys use heavy lures to land strip bass. Nearby are ferries to Cape Cod and Hyannis Port
When oil from the luckless sperm whale fuelled this nascent nation the Coffin family enjoyed some influence out here in the teeth of the Atlantic. What is now a hotel was their home, and only those with some knowledge of whaling, and the fate of the whaler Essex, that included a young Owen Coffin among its crew, may have a different perspective.
But that was a long time ago. Today Nantucket is a living museum for an old money elite, and those politicians, Masters of the Universe, and celebrities, who eschew what they see as the over commercialisation of nearby Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. This is an exclusive club for those who wish to preserve the island’s history, appearance, and biodiversity. A ready escape from the pressures of Boston and New York, just a short and breathtaking flight across the eastern archipelago. Here a modest apartment can cost over $1 million and most homes come in at ten times that. The Heinz ketchup family, and the Frisbees who invented the flying disc and designer Tommy Hilfiger have homes, and a raft of Democrats from the Kennedys to the current vice president, Joe Biden, come here for r&r. Actors Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Meg Ryan and Mark Wahlberg have been spotted too. I know because there is a celebrity list pinned up inside the First Congregational Church’s tiered white spire. Five bucks for a view of the entire island.
The beaches are endless (five miles is common). There are few trees, and everywhere the squat homes are covered in cedar tiles turned slate grey by the winds that pummel Nantucket throughout winter. Weather that causes tourists and residents to flee to the mainland, reducing the population from 40,000 to 8000. It’s a palette shaped island with moorland rich in low growing pitch pine, bayberry and scrub oak. Salt marshes with shifting phragmite reeds and bean topped black grass, and peat bogs and ponds formed by sand dunes sustaining rare mosses, and tiny purple orchids. In the centre the red swathes of cranberry beds for the juice industry.
My first couple of nights are at the Wauwinet Hotel. A homey, isolated place, with a lawn dipping to the water’s edge, where you can imagine F Scott Fitzgerald pondering the social mores of east coast society. Buttermilk walls, pictures of handsome sail boats, log fires, and lobster at every meal, and a snug sports bar where it gets rowdy when the Red Socks play Fenway Park.
The hotel takes its name from an Indian chief who once ruled here, and is located at the foot of a four mile sand spit. Only a pair of heron, some piper plovers, a shoal of 40 or more seals, and the Great Point Lighthouse at the tip. Think north Cornwall on a scale of the Grand Canyon.
To the east is Nantucket Harbour, about the size of Loch Ness, and beyond that Nantucket Sound where Ted Kennedy often sailed his 50’ schooner, MYA, and to the west the lumpy North Atlantic. My only company fishermen in puffa jackets and baseball caps with grim expressions surf casting for bluefish, and albacore, watched closely by roseate terns, their black forked tails silhouetted against the murky sky. By any stretch, it’s a magnificent spot. A place to clear the mind. Deep and elemental.
Devoid of any significant gradients the best way to enjoy Nantucket is on bicycle. There are more hire shops than bars in Nantucket town. Nowhere is far, and there are cycle tracks to separate inexperienced peddle pushers from the handful of cars. I take the Polpis Road to Siasconset, a village of wide grass verges and modest homes, straight out of central casting: You couldn’t imagine a more perfect village, with an old oak tree and general stores at its centre. It’s where retired whaling captains came to live out the rest of their days in contemplation.
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation owns a third of the island and is on a mission to stop virtually any new development, and preserve the natural environment. It doesn’t like chain stores or designer logos either. The only branded store is a Ralph Lauren, naturally.
Impregnable building regs, and the fact that most people keep themselves-to-themselves in fabulous holiday homes, means that hotels are thin on the ground. It’s why one of the most beguiling accommodation options are the 24 weather boarded self catering Cottages and Lofts on wooden piers, inches above the water in the Boat Basin; downtown Nantucket just moments away. There’s a supermarket, and the world’s strangest off licence: Current Vintage, on Easy Street, combining classic wines with used clothes (wine tastings every Friday). There’s also Murray’s Toggery Shop, the original Macy’s, specialising in Nantucket ‘reds’ – hats, pants and shirts the colour of Breton sails.
There’s a lot of sushi too, portions pumped up on steroids like most things in the US, at places like Lo La 41o and Pearl, the latter being one of those high roller joints where women with faces like Joan Rivers’ date boys like Ryan Gosling. Or you can do what I do and go local. Straight Wharf Fish Store does takeaway clam chowder, soft shell crab, and lobster rolls at sensible prices.
Best of all is the Whaling Museum, in a red brick building opposite the harbour, not dissimilar in style to the forminable Jared Coffin House.
Inside is an original whaling boat, the complete skeleton of a sperm whale, and cabinets of intricate and elaborate ‘scrimshaw’, carvings completed whalers upon the bones of their prey. And therein also resides the grim truth about young Owen Coffin and the sacrifice he made when the shipwrecked and starving crew of the Essex resorted to cannibalism. Memories of time when life for Nantucketers was much tougher than it is today.
It promises to make one heck of a film when Ron Howard’s film In The Heart Of The Sea – based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book In The Heart Of The Sea – The Tragedy Of The Whaleship Essex – makes it to the cinema at some time towards the end of next year.
Recommended reading: In The Heart of the Sea – The tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin US $15).