I can wax lyrical over The Longfellow Garden in Portland, Maine, and rave about the rhododendrons in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, but of all the great gardens in American Northeast, it’s Nantucket’s phenomenal front yards that truly take my breath away.
Last summer, after ice cream at The Juice Bar and a mosey along Broad Street, we left the midsummer mayhem of the island’s downtown historic district behind us and headed uphill. There only minutes from downtown, but far, far from the madding crowd, the streets were so quiet you could almost hear a pin drop. And against the backdrop of ravishing 17th- and 18th-century houses, parochial life went on. Nothing much to speak of — a resident fumbling for her keys; the mailman delivering mail; a senior walking the dog; and a kid riding his bike. But oh, those gardens. Because nowhere in the world are hydrangeas fuller or blowsier, bursting forth in vivid shades of fuchsia and Nantucket Blue. Nowhere are roses more voluptuous or more tumbledown, cascading from a pint-sized, classical pediment or spilling over a spruce white picket fence, than they are in the backstreets of old Nantucket town.
Envy will quickly set in and reason will fly out the door as you browse the real estate agents’ windows on Main Street and imagine swapping your spiffy Westchester new-build for an 18th-century cottage on a cobbled street. But beware: Winters can be hard and lonely on Nantucket and even summer brings its problems, when the island’s population of 10,000 swells fivefold and what should be a quick trip to the grocery store can turn into an obstacle course and endurance test.
Thank heavens, then, for good hotels, of which Nantucket has more than a few. Nantucket Island Resorts is the name you need to know. It offers different types of stays in three island locations, and the properties run the gamut from swish to simple — “simple” being Nantucket code for relatively basic, but tasteful and highly desirable nevertheless.
The White Elephant is a 10-minute walk from where the Hyannis ferry deposits you on the island, or just five from the Whaling Museum bang in the center of town. Clusters of heavenly cream and pink hydrangeas greet you at the hotel entrance; rooms — many with terraces — are cool and white with louvered doors; there are rockers on the front porch; and a wonderful restaurant, the Brant Point Grille, awaits at the rear. The food at Brant Point is tremendous — fresh and imaginative — and the view at dusk across Children’s Beach towards the yacht club and marina is just postcard perfect.
Down in the Boat Basin, the azure water laps the wharves and everything’s abuzz, by day and also after dark. This is where you’ll find The Cottages, 29 waterfront cottages and lofts lying hugger mugger along the piers, right on the water. Some comprising just a bedroom, bathroom and tiny kitchenette, others larger and more elaborate, each has a thrilling view of the harbor, glimpsed between the megayachts. What I love about The Cottages is that they allow you to be completely independent. Here you can play at being a retired sea captain, perhaps, or find the author within you and write a book. It will doubtless be a tale of the sea.
Interwoven between the Boat Basin’s humming bars and charming restaurants, and its candle shops and boutiques selling overpriced sundresses and strappy sandals, there are real ships’ chandlers and minimarts, reminding you that Nantucket is very much a living, coastal, boating community. But this is no Cannes or Puerto Banús: The island has never attracted a flashy crowd. Yes, we did catch sight of Malia Obama in the Boat Basin last summer, boyfriend Rory Farquharson in tow, sloping lazily between the shops and stalls, untrammeled by bodyguards or paps. But Malia is hardly Lady Gaga or a Kardashian — and that, really, is the point.
Nantucket is remote and this has helped it retain its allure. Not remote like the Hindu Kush, of course, but still tricky, or at any rate expensive to reach in an age when we are used to getting from A to B in a jiffy, with virtually no effort. The fastest — and ritziest — way to get there is with Tradewind Aviation, which will fly you up in under an hour from Westchester County Airport in an eight-seat Pilatus with cream leather seats and walnut trim. Jet Blue or Delta will also do the job, from John F. Kennedy International Airport or LaGuardia Airport, and at one-fourth the price, but you will need to book well ahead, especially for peak season travel.
Otherwise you must drive, and the drive from southern Westchester is long, and the ferry across is notoriously expensive; and, besides, four-wheeled transport is in any case redundant when you factor in the summer traffic gridlock in Nantucket Old Town. My tip, if you stick to downtown, is to come carless (park in one of Hyannis’ public lots before you catch the ferry). The island has an excellent bus service, serving all the towns and popular beaches, and, along with local cabs, Uber, improbably, works well here.
In your own car or taxi, when the summer crowds begin to pall, you must take the road to Wauwinet, a 20-minute drive heading northeast, past the cranberry fields and rose-covered cottages; past fields of wildflowers — fox grape, honeysuckle, pink lady’s slipper and cinnamon fern; past yet more gardens running riot with petunias, pansies, lobelia and lupins. The Wauwinet is a historic hotel, gloriously run by Nantucket Island Resorts, as laid-back as it is chic, as restful as it can be social, a prestigious Relais & Châteaux property idyllically set between calm Nantucket Bay and the Atlantic Ocean surf, just moments from each. One hotel, two beaches — the best of both worlds.
With its spa and tennis courts, picnics and fishing trips, there is plenty to do at Wauwinet, although frankly the best thing may be to do nothing at all. “It felt as if my father and I were the last two people on Earth, as we sat beside each other, all alone, on a pristine, unspoiled beach on the coast of Nantucket Island,” wrote my 13-year-old son last fall, about our time at Wauwinet, in a school essay titled “Best Hour of Summer.” It felt the same way to me too, sweetheart.
The hotel’s 32 guest rooms are elegantly furnished, old pieces mixed with modern ones, along with luxurious soft furnishings. And, for added privacy, there are four sumptuous cottages — each with a glorious small garden — just across from the main inn. (Rent the three-bedroom Anchorage House and a natty BMW is yours for the duration of your stay — transport problems solved in one fell swoop.) Toppers, meanwhile, the hotel’s restaurant, which I first ate at 10 years ago and loved, is one of the best on the island, worth the journey out to Wauwinet for its local fruits de mer risotto and roasted Atlantic halibut, even if you are not staying at the hotel.
Back in town, the restaurant at Greydon House, a handsome 1850 Greek Revival house recently opened as a hotel by the young heirs to the Gant clothing fortune, is probably the most sophisticated on the island. British chef Marcus Gleadow-Ware cooks up a storm, with nearly all the produce local and cocktails made with island ingredients like beach plums, wild grapes and rosehip. The hotel is open year-round. So, too, is the historic and deeply atmospheric Jared Coffin House, dating from 1846, at the top of Broad Street, with its cherry-wood floors, four-poster beds and antique-filled rooms and public spaces. Come to Nantucket off-season and you’ll find substantially lower prices, less harried locals and — joy of joys — parking spaces in the center of town.
For us though, last summer, the dog days were over and all too soon we were on the ferry again, bound for Hyannis and home. “On the deck of the ferry, I took a deep breath and felt the rich, salty, Atlantic air fill my lungs,” wrote my other 13-year-old twin son, for his “Best Hour” essay. “I smelled the distinct, wonderful smell of the open water. I gazed at the bright blue sky, and the misty green of the ocean. Undoubtedly, that magical ferry ride was the best hour of my summer.”
Exposed to sea and sky, out on the deck with my sons, a wonderful summer and the memory of Nantucket’s glorious gardens printed on my mind, it just may have been mine, too.