The island of Nantucket, or ACK as it’s frequently abbreviated, is located 30 miles off the coast of mainland Massachusetts and is just over 100 square miles — about half the size of neighboring Martha’s Vineyard. While the two islands are not far apart geographically, culturally, they are separated by a wide chasm: Martha’s Vineyard is more subdued and laid-back, while Nantucket is more glamorous and ostentatious. Martha’s Vineyard feels more like New England, while Nantucket feels more like Manhattan.
Nantucket is synonymous with vacations for the wealthy, and the island does beckon high-rollers comfortable splurging on some of the priciest hotels, restaurants, and boutique shops in the nation. But the island does not preclude visitors on a more modest budget from visiting and having a good time. In fact, some of the most rewarding activities on the island are free or almost free, and there are also plenty of delicious cheap eats. With the glorious, crisp weather of the coming months, now is the perfect time to start planning a last-minute budget vacation to Nantucket.
Reasons to visit in the fall
Nantucket’s high season gives way to the more laid-back shoulder season after Labor Day. Almost all businesses remain open until Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day (October 11), but in the fall, the floods of tourists of the summer reduce to a mere trickle. After Christmas, most businesses close until the spring, and tourism essentially ceases.
Fall is the best time to be on Nantucket. The relentless summer heat yields to mild, sunny days — still great for hours on the beach — and cool, invigorating nights. The island’s foliage transforms into a palette of yellows, reds, and oranges, and the heady scent of burning firewood wafts through the island’s cool air. The fall sunsets are even more dramatic than those of the summer. (Pro-tip: go to the neighborhood of Madaket to catch the best views of the island’s sunsets over the Atlantic.)
For foodies, the fall is the ideal time to try restaurants that are usually booked solid for weeks or months during the summer, and menus change to incorporate scallops (September to November is the harvest season for this succulent bivalve) and produce like apple, squashes, and cranberries. Speaking of cranberries, visitors can visit cranberry bogs during the fall months and watch the harvest — a celebrated tradition on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.
How to get to Nantucket
The most popular way to get to Nantucket is by the Steamship Authority from Hyannis, Massachusetts. Tickets are $55 per adult, and the ride takes about an hour and 45 minutes. With the ocean breeze and a local Whale Tale Ale in hand from the ship’s bar, the ferry ride passes pleasantly. You can also bring a vehicle on the Steamship Authority with prior reservations (about $118). Still, Nantucket is so small that bikes are an easier, and more enjoyable, way to get around the island. If you choose to drive and leave your car in Hyannis, long-term parking is available near the ferry terminal for about $10 per day.
You can go directly from Manhattan to Nantucket on the Seastreak Ferry, a ride of about four hours. Seastreak’s NYC port is located on East 35th Street, and round-trip tickets are $260 during non-holidays and $330 on holidays (e.g., Easter, Christmas, and Labor Day). Seastreak also ferries passengers from New Bedford, Massachusetts to Nantucket, a two-hour ride that costs $90 for a round-trip ticket.
Memorial Airport on Nantucket has flights between most major cities in the Northeast. Cape Air, JetBlue, American Airlines, and United Airlines regularly travel to the island, but flying is several times more expensive than taking the ferry (and much less romantic).
Getting around Nantucket
Since the island is small, we recommend exploring Nantucket on bicycle. You can rent bikes from Nantucket Bike Shop for $35 a day. Renting a jeep is worth the money if you plan to drive out on the sand and costs about $60 per day. The Nantucket Regional Transit Authority maintains shuttle buses circulating throughout the island — a convenient and cheap way to get around. Fares are $2-3 dollars per ride, and the shuttle buses are equipped with bike racks. Lyft and taxis are easily hailed, too.
If you can afford pricey rates ($800-1000 per night), the island is home to a handful of world-class hotels, like the Relais & Chateaux Wauwinet boutique hotel. If you’re traveling with more modest means, cheaper options exist on the island, too — especially if you book in advance. Hotel Pippa, a boutique guest-house popular with bachelorette parties, runs about $400 per night and has impeccable online reviews. Hotel Pippa is conveniently located in downtown Nantucket, a few minute’s walk from cafes, restaurants, bars, etc. The Nantucket Inn offers rooms for slightly over $350 and is well-reviewed as a no-frills accommodation. The Languedoc Inn provides simple but comfortable rooms for as low as $195, an absolute steal on Nantucket — and the hotel boasts a renowned French restaurant to boot.
Staying in Airbnbs or bed-and-breakfasts is another affordable option. For a little under $200/night, you can Airbnb a sailboat anchored in the harbor that sleeps five people. The host has almost perfect reviews, and if you’re traveling with others and splitting costs, this option is ideal. Other Airbnbs, like the Enchanted Cottage, cost around $500 per night — spendy indeed, but again, if you go in with a group, you stay comfortable and reduce the price to a reasonable rate.
Bed-and-breakfasts on Nantucket are cozy and charming, and if you book a couple of weeks in advance, you can find reasonable rates. A bit more of a splurge, 76 Main offers sumptuous and beautifully decorated rooms for around $850 per night. Seven Street Inn offers rooms for around $500 per night, a price that includes breakfast.
Free and near-free Nantucket activities
Nantucket’s most enjoyable daytime activity, namely whiling away the hours on a beautiful beach, is free. While many of the island’s beaches are private and only accessible with explicit permission, there are many public beaches on the island.
Crab apple tree- and beach grass-lined trails winding through sand dunes take you to Steps Beach, a low-key seashore without facilities or lifeguards but with thinner crowds. Like the neighborhood of Madaket, Steps Beach is one of the best places on the island to watch the sunset over the Atlantic. Settle in with a beach towel, a good book, and some sandwiches from Henry’s Jr. Sandwich Shop, and feel the stress melt away.
Dionis Beach is about three miles outside of town, far enough away to deter heavy crowds but close enough to make for an easy bike ride. Sheltered by dunes and serviced with lifeguards and facilities, Dionis Beach is an easy walk from the parking area, and its calm waters are perfect for less adventurous beach-goers or families with children.
Nantucket has a handful of excellent surf spots. Cisco Beach and Surfside Beach are popular spots to catch waves, and both beaches have lifeguards on duty and plenty of available parking. If you didn’t bring a surfboard, rentals are available at Nantucket Surf Club right in the middle of town.
Lighthouses and hiking trails
Bicycling is one of the best ways to explore the island’s three historic lighthouses, each located in a distinctive island sector. If you set out early and are comfortable with long rides, you can easily hit all three in a day. In centuries past, when shipwrecks around Nantucket were not infrequent, the lighthouses guided captains through the often-treacherous waters around the island; nowadays, they only serve as historical points of interest and symbolic reminders of the island’s legendary maritime history.
Great Point Lighthouse, a lonely, storm-weathered white tower on Nantucket’s northern extremity, is about an hour’s bike ride from town. Brant Point Lighthouse is within walking distance of town, and Sankaty Lighthouse, an imposing red and white tower, is on the island’s eastern coast and about an hour by bike from town. The Sconset Bluff Walk, one of the best hikes on Nantucket, is a two-mile trail around Sankaty Lighthouse and the eastern coast of Nantucket. The walk offers nonpareil views of the open Atlantic, Nantucket’s sea cliffs, and many of the island’s most luxury homes.
An afternoon of Disc Golf is another way to have fun on Nantucket without spending money. Disc golf operates on essentially the same principles as traditional golf, but instead of golf balls and holes in the ground, the game is played with frisbees and hanging baskets. According to their website, the non-profit Nantucket Disc Golf aims to “promote the mental and physical well-being of the youth on Nantucket by providing a healthy, inexpensive, family-friendly, year-round recreational alternative.” Their championship course, comprised of 18 holes and with a par of 68, runs through Nantucket State Forest, a 143-acre sweep of untouched woodlands in the middle of the island.
Museums and history
Tickets to the Shipwreck and Life-Saving Museum are only $10, and this museum allows visitors access to some of the most beautiful views of the marshes, bogs, and seagrass-speckled dunes of Nantucket’s interior. The museum takes about an hour to visit and is a great way to learn about Nantucket’s maritime and whaling history.
If you’re up for some exercise, rent a Kayak from Nantucket Community Sailing for $25 and explore the island’s coastlines, ponds, and marshes. Kayaking off the coast of Nantucket offers glimpses of the island’s private docks, yacht clubs, and sailboats. Out on the water, you might even be lucky enough to spy a gray seal or any number of species from the island’s thriving avian life, like ruddy ducks or mute swans.
Nightlife on Nantucket
To catch some live music, throw back a few cold ones, and blow off steam in a milieu of both tourists and islanders, head over to the Chicken Box or The Muse. Depending on the show, tickets at either venue can cost anywhere from $40-100; on weekends; however, the cover charge at the Chicken Box is always $10, no matter the performance. Disguised inside a clapboard building that looks more like a private home than a music venue, the Chicken Box hosts local bands, as well as acts from Boston, Greater New England, and beyond. The Chicken Box’s patio, a fenced-in area with large picnic tables, is a welcome respite from the crowds indoors during popular shows. Like those of the Chicken Box, The Muse’s concerts tend to be lively, packed, and raucous, with reggae, rock, and indie bands taking the stage. Locals swear that The Muse’s kitchen whips up some of the best pizza on the island.
Dining on Nantucket
Beer-lovers visiting Nantucket cannot depart the island without a visit to Cisco Brewers, one of New England’s most acclaimed breweries and the creators of Whale Tale Ale. The brew pairs perfectly with games of beach volleyball, bonfires on the beach, and fishing trips. Cisco Brewers also houses several of Nantucket’s best food trucks, serving up delicious, affordable plates as varied as dumplings, raw oysters, and buttery lobster rolls. Their fall offerings, like the Dock Lager Dark Lager, are among their best seasonal beers.
While not anywhere near the Mexican border, Nantucket has a couple of decent — and relatively cheap — Mexican/Tex-Mex joints. Easy Street Cantina slings elegantly crafted tacos for around $5 and big, satisfying, bean-, meat-, guac-, and cheese-laden burritos for about $12. The fish tacos are a highlight. Henry’s Jr. Sandwich Shop serves oversized grinders — New England’s version of the elongated sandwich known to New Yorkers as a hero and Philadelphians as a hoagie — choc-full of shredded lettuce, assorted cold-cuts, and tangy Calabrian peppers for under $10.
New England beach towns go hand in hand with excellent ice cream parlors, and Nantucket does not disappoint in the department of creamy, cold confections. Juice Bar and Jack + Charlies are both tried classics. Order your cup or cone topped with chocolate or rainbow “jimmies.”