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Nantucket revels in its whaling heritage, rustic charm

Atlantic isle is rich in history, boasts great beaches

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NANTUCKET, Mass. — For years, the Santos-Kissam family had vacationed in various places all over New England. When it came time to pick a permanent summer getaway, Richard Santos and Nancy Kissam asked their three daughters where they wanted it to be.

The choice was unanimous — Nantucket.

"There's a uniqueness about it. It has a huge charm," Santos said, standing outside their gray-shingled house in Brant Point. "It's absolutely matchless on a gorgeous day."

Most everyone who encounters the "Faraway Island" would concur.

The 3 1/2-by-14-mile island some 30 miles out in the Atlantic off Cape Cod has an intrinsic beauty. Herman Melville called it "a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background." But upon closer examination, it's more than that. Nantucket has an unmistakable passion for its whaling heritage, coupled with quaint New England charm.

As much as Martha's Vineyard can present a breathtaking view at almost every turn, Nantucket revels in its basic, rustic, natural state.

And the island, from Great Point to Madaket, is not nearly as scenic as its rival island 20 miles to the northwest. But here, it doesn't matter. And to be sure, it hasn't stemmed the flow of tourists in the busy summer months.

To better understand the centuries-old tradition of Nantucket town, a walking tour offered by the Nantucket Historical Association is a good place to start.

Here a town historian will guide you through just what it was like in Nantucket's heyday when it was the whaling capital of the world.

No, you won't explore all 100 pre-Civil War buildings, but enough ground is covered in the 90-minute tour for you to get a pretty good feel for an island that was sold in 1659 for 30 English pounds and two beaver hats.

From the bustling Straight Wharf to the majestic Hadwen House, the walking tour covers the volatile — yet profitable — years when whale hunters set sail for the Pacific and Indian oceans to harpoon whales and extract from the sea giant its valuable oil to light their lamps and lubricate their machinery.

The tour makes note of the fire of 1846 that burned one-third of town to the ground, paving the way for the new circa of buildings that stand today.

The Peter Foulger Museum plays host to the "Essex" exhibit, the saga of the ill-fated whaleship Essex and its 21 crew members in 1820. As it's told, an enraged sperm whale rammed the bow of the Essex in the middle of the Pacific off the coast of Peru, sinking the 238-ton vessel.

Survivors of the three-month ordeal detail human horrors, such as weathering fierce storms, starvation, death and cannibalization. The account, written by first mate Owen Chase, was the inspiration for Melville's 1851 masterpiece "Moby Dick."

When you're done taking in the island's rich history, you can set out for a little adventure yourself.

The fastest way to tour the pork chop-shaped island is by moped. Nantucketers may loathe it, but the entire island (and nearly every point of interest) can be covered in a day. You might even have time to kick back, get takeout from Claudette's Lunch Box and picnic on Siasconset Beach.

Heading east out of town toward Siasconset on Polpis Road is fairly uneventful (and lacks the ever-changing views of Martha's Vineyard). Uneventful, however, until you reach the ethereal scenes of Sankaty Head Golf Club.

The private, links-style golf course with its ocean view and well-kept fairways reminds visitors more of Scotland than New England. Adding to the course's mystique is the Sankaty Light House, a red-and-white beacon built in 1849. The original lens can be seen at the Whaling Museum.

Minutes from the course is the former fishing village of Siasconset, or "Sconset." Codfish Park, a residential area, boasts the most unique lay of the land. These cottages, formerly the dwelling places of cod fishermen, are arranged in a multilayer, checkerboard fashion overlooking the Atlantic.

Erosion on Siasconset Beach is among the worst on the island. In fact, a small cottage on Beach Street went recently for $240,000, cheap by Nantucket standards. The reason for the fire sale? Two powerful storms in the past decade washed a row of houses into the sea, eroding at least 100 feet of beach in the process.

Farther to the north (en route to Great Point) is Wauwinet and an elegant inn — The Wauwinet. Built by two ship captains in 1876, the inn overlooks Head of the Harbor and the peninsula of Coatue. One gets a decidedly European feel here — perhaps it's the croquet lawn.

You'll also find a friendly and professional staff — but at a cost. A guest bedroom starts at $330, while entrees at Topper's run between $40 and $60. The rates are somewhat cheaper in the spring and fall.

The inn also offers four-wheel drive tours up to Great Point, one of the best places to surf cast on the island. Seal sightings, especially in the winter, are not uncommon.

If you love the beach, there's no better place to head than to the western half of the island. Most of the island's dozen or so beaches, from Jetties to Surfside, can be found here.

Jetties is the best beach within walking distance of town. With its shore on the calm Nantucket Sound, it's ideal for kids.

At the southwest corner of the island lies Madaket Beach, the first of the great beaches on the Atlantic, along with Cisco, Surfside and Siasconset.

Further east of Cisco is Surfside Beach, but surfers prefer the ride at Nobadeer Beach.