Famed for its whaling history, the tiny Cape Cod island of Nantucket has a modern speciality – its vibrant foodie scene

Sarah Gilbert

As I feasted on delicacies from Cru’s raw bar – little neck clams, lobster cocktail with avocado and preserved lemon, a half dozen Fifth Bend oysters washed down with a Crucomber, a cocktail of bison grass vodka, cucumber and toasted sesame – I could see everything from sailboats to sleek super-yachts bobbing around in the postcard-perfect marina.

While Cru wouldn’t look out of place in Saint-Tropez, it’s in a prime people-watching position in Nantucket. Lying 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, this diminutive jewel of an island – around 15 miles long and three miles wide – became a late 19th-century refuge for city-dwellers escaping the hustle and heat of New York and Boston.

Today it’s one of America’s most exclusive summer destinations. Banish thoughts of the celebrity-packed beaches of the Hamptons and the opulent Gilded Age mansions of Rhode Island; Nantucket is low key, the epitome of laidback New England charm with shingled cottages surrounded by white picket fences, pristine white-sand beaches and a vibrant foodie scene.

I’d arrived by the fast ferry from Hyannis on Cape Cod and my base was The White Elephant Village, part of Nantucket Island Resorts’ small collection of luxurious hotels and inns, each with its own unique charm. Less hotel room, more beach-chic apartment, my vast one-bedroom Residence came with all the comforts of an ultra-stylish home-from-home.

It was just a short stroll to town, where I joined a walking tour of the island’s fascinating past from outside the Whaling Museum. Nantucket was home to the Wampanoag people, until 1659 when it was colonised by English settlers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It soon became the wealthy whaling capital of the world; Nantucket whale oil lit the streets of London and the sinking of the whaling ship Essex inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

In its whaling days, sailors said that you could smell Nantucket before you saw it. The island is a bastion of conservation, so they might still recognise the cedar wood shingled houses and cobbled streets, but today they’re filled with boutiques, cocktail bars and five-star hotels. Franchises are banned – you won’t find Starbucks or McDonald’s here – and, apart from a Ralph Lauren outpost, Main Street’s old-world storefronts are filled with one-off designs.

The foodie scene has become increasingly sophisticated too, with top chefs raving about produce from the island’s farms and the seemingly endless supply of fresh seafood.

That evening, I ate at Nautilus, a buzzy restaurant that serves creative cocktails and Asian fusion dishes with a Nantucket twist. Irresistible small plates kept appearing from the open kitchen – crispy marinated calamari, Hawaiian tuna poke, charred octopus – followed by Nantucket Bay scallop khao soi and blue crab fried rice.

The following morning at The White Elephant’s all-day dining restaurant, Brant Point Grill, I couldn’t resist the New England Lobster Benedict, while I drank in the views over the water. Then I borrowed a bike in a bid to work off some of the gastronomic pleasures.

The island is pancake flat so it made for a leisurely ride. Almost half of it is protected, crisscrossed with around 30 miles of cycle lanes, which make two wheels the perfect way to go beach hopping. There are certainly plenty to choose from and locals have their favourite, from calm Jetties Beach close to the town, to the glorious sunsets of remote Madaket Beach on the west and Cisco, the surfers’ spot, on the south.

I took a taxi for a tasting at a different Cisco, a brewery, winery and distillery all rolled into one. The ramshackle appearance of this popular local hangout is deceptive. What began as a cider press and boutique winery has morphed into a state-of-the-art distillery and their barrel-aged single malt has been named best non-Scotch single-malt in the world.

I ordered a tasting of their inspired collection of craft beers, from hop-heavy IPAs to seasonal fruity flavours, before settling for a pint of Whale's Tail, and whiled away the mellow afternoon listening to live music.

I headed east to my next resort, The Wauwinet, an island fixture that’s welcomed guests since the late 1800s. Over its long life, the erstwhile inn has turned into a sophisticated boutique bolthole, with 32 elegant rooms decked out in soft pastel shades, white shutters and marble bathrooms. A path from the hotel garden leads down to a beach that stretched into the far distance in both directions, separating the calm of Nantucket Bay from the wild Atlantic rollers.

I explored this corner of the island with Captain Rob in Woody, The Wauwinet’s gleaming, perfectly preserved 1948 Chevy. Rob’s family has lived on Nantucket for 300 years and as we barrelled down the narrow lanes, passing woodland and the island’s famous cranberry bogs that are a sea of fiery red in autumn, he told me that Nantucketers talk of ‘leaving for America’ when they go off the island.

At dinner, it was hard to choose from deconstructed clam chowder and a sea urchin risotto, or lobster poached in seaweed butter and a cooked-to-perfection duet of Sirloin and short ribs.

He drove me to Siasconset, known locally as Sconset. In the early 1900s, it attracted actors and writers from Broadway; now it’s less about show business and more an under-the-radar hangout for billionaire businessmen and politicians, where former fisherman’s cottages come with a multi-million dollar price tag.

That evening, after taking in the stunning sunset from the deck, chilled Chablis in hand, I indulged at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, Topper’s, with a seasonally inspired menu from chef Kyle Zachary that focuses on hyper-local ingredients. Luckily there were not one but three sommeliers on hand to guide me through the dizzying array of wines from the 20,000-bottle cellar.

Lemon ricotta pancakes are popular at breakfast, while a low-key al fresco lunch might include an over-stuffed lobster roll, or a succulent Wagyu burger, washed down with a spicy Bloody Mary.

At dinner, it was hard to choose from deconstructed clam chowder and a sea urchin risotto, or lobster poached in seaweed butter and a cooked-to-perfection duet of Sirloin and short ribs. I managed to save room for dessert and the – literally – just-baked cookies that melted in my mouth were worth the wait.

I returned to Boston by puddle jumper. Skimming low over the city skyscrapers, I was already missing Nantucket’s combination of timeless island pleasures – salty air, sun and seafood – that keep people returning year after year.

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