Thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Nantucket is among New England’s loveliest and most exclusive summer hideaways, an idyll of 19th-century charm, sandy beaches, and seafaring lineage. Many summer visitors imagine it almost deserted after Labor Day, when most of the fair-weather tourists depart and locals hunker down for long bouts of fog and winter weather that give the island its “Gray Lady” nickname.
Yet Nantucket Town may be at its most beautiful during the cold off-season, particularly for the festival known as Nantucket Noel, running from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Indeed, some of the savviest tourists visit the island specifically for the event, for which residents bedeck the halls, doorways, windows, and even the island’s distinctive landmark, the Brant Point Lighthouse, with seasonal cheer. The streets are lined with 200 Christmas trees individually decorated with personal and family mementos, as well as natural ornaments such as starfish, shells, and the island’s famous cranberries. Few places during this time offer a warmer ambience or more welcoming spirit.
Nantucket’s allure today stems from a combination of its isolation and its fabled past. The island rose to prominence in the early 1800s as the whaling capital of the world, back in the days when the sea giants were a global source of fuel. Herman Melville immortalized his own whaling experiences and the local industry in Moby Dick. Captains and merchants who reaped the financial benefits of the trade built stately homes clustered around Nantucket Town on the harbor, the hub of commercial activity. But the boom went bust after the discovery of petroleum, and Nantucket fell, for a period, into obscurity.