THIRTY miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., the island of Nantucket is wonderfully far away from some of the less pleasurable diversions of so many other beach towns. You won't find fast-food joints, tacky souvenir shops or even a single traffic light. And Starbuck is just the name of one of the island's original families, who made their wealth from whaling oil - the island's staple commodity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Getting there - by slow or high-speed ferry from Hyannis, or by plane - can be a challenge, however. Taking a car requires planning well ahead (think wintertime) for a spot on the ferry, and the flights can be pricey: about $500 (Continental from Newark) and $630 (US Airways from La Guardia) round trip in August.
But no reservations are necessary to walk onto the Steamship Authority ferry, which takes about two and a quarter hours; South Dock Street, Hyannis, (508) 477-8600, www.islandferry.com, $25 round trip, $12.50 for kids. And the trip puts you in the perfect state of mind for visiting this quaint 19th-century village that hasn't visually changed much from its origins as a whaling seaport.
Nantucket's heyday as the whaling capital of the world ended with the discovery of petroleum-derived kerosene and the Great Fire of 1846, which destroyed much of the island's downtown and many of its wharves. Housed in a former spermaceti candle factory, the newly restored Whaling Museum, 13 Broad Street, (508) 228-1894, www.nha.org, recalls the island's past with exhibits that include a 46-foot sperm whale skeleton, a whaleboat and a collection of scrimshaw. In the discovery room, young buccaneers can rummage though several sea captains' chests. Admission $15, children $8.
For a larger view, interpreters from the Nantucket Historical Association (telephone above) lead walking tours to the wharves and Main Street; $10, kids $6. Afterward, you can continue on your own to upper Main Street for a look at the magnificent Greek Revival mansions once owned by sea captains. For a bird's-eye view, climb 94 steps to the top of the bell tower at the First Congregational Church, 62 Centre Street, (508) 228-0950; $2.50.
Relaxing doesn't get any better than finding a spot to dig your toes into the sand on one of the island's unspoiled beaches. Jetties Beach, a mile from town, offers calm water for swimming and a variety of watersports - kayaks, windsurfing boards and Sunfish are available for rent. Children's Beach, on Nantucket Harbor, has a playground, lifeguard and homemade doughnuts for 60 cents at Mac's Place. Concerts and puppet shows are performed in the bandstand.
Popular Surfside Beach, accessible by the island shuttle, has crystal-clear water and big waves. At sunset, families can go for a sail on the Endeavor, a 31-foot Friendship sloop; Straight Wharf, (508) 228-5585, $35 a person. Young pirates (ages 3 to 5) can don hats during the Pirate Adventure sail, on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, that ends with a treasure hunt on the wharf; $22.
At Francis Street Beach, kayaks can be rented from Sea Nantucket for a paddle across the Nantucket Sound to Coatue, an isolated strip of beach where children can search for beach glass; hourly and half-day rentals, $15 and up; Washington Street Extension, (508) 228-7499. Nantucket Community Sailing - at Jetties Beach, (508) 228-5358, also Polpis Harbor, (508) 228-6600 - offers private sailing lessons for $100; kids, $75. You can notch up the adventure with a surfing lesson at
Prefer land-based activities? Then rent Cannondale and Trek bicycles ($25 a day or $90 a week) at Young's Bicycle Shop, 6 Broad Street, (508)-228-1151, www.youngsbicycleshop.com. The island has five paved paths (mostly flat terrain) that range from three to eight miles. A trip out to Siasconset will take you past rose-covered cottages and gray-shingled mansions along Ocean Avenue. The view of the heath-covered moors from Altar Rock (off Polpis Road) will make you thankful that more than a third of the island is protected from development.
Save town for early morning, when the traffic is light on Main Street and farmers sell flowers and produce from their old pickup trucks. At Straight Wharf, you can gawk at the megayachts, then have the kids pick out their own miniature one at the Toy Boat, (508) 228-4552. In the evening, strolling around town and visiting the galleries on Old South Wharf is more fun for little ones with ice cream cones ($2.75) from Congdon's Pharmacy, 47 Main Street.
WHERE TO EAT
Though long lines for a table at dinner and $30 entrees can be the norm, there are less expensive alternatives. An affordable approach is to have a hearty breakfast and grab lunch on the fly. Islanders will steer you to the Downyflake, 18 Sparks Street, for stacks of blueberry pancakes ($5.75).
For those evenings when you don't want to leave the beach, you can pick up packed lobster, steamers and corn, and even cheeseburgers for the children, from the Nantucket Lobster Trap, 23 Washington Street, (508) 228-4200. Leave your cellphone number when ordering and a taxi will deliver your meal to you on the beach. The restaurant itself offers early-bird lobster (market price) specials from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
At Arno's, 41 Main Street, (508) 228-7001, generous kids' portions of fish and chips are $6.95, but it's the individual packs of bendable wax Wikki Stix, which can be made into bracelets, animals etc., that will keep their attention most. Parents might want to try the lobster-crusted cod fillet with a citrus beurre blanc sauce ($22.95).
The Summer House Beachside Bistro, 16 Ocean Avenue, (508) 257-4542, on the grounds of the charming Summer House Inn in Siasconset, offers the island's best alfresco dining (open daily 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.). The oceanfront setting itself is worth the hefty lunch and dinner tab. Dishes include caprese salad ($15), made with Bartlett Farm's tomatoes and Italian mozzarella, and braised cod and Nantucket bay scallops with shiitake mushrooms ($32). Though there is no children's menu, the chef will prepare bowls of pasta ($12). When the young ones get antsy, they can play in the sand, just a stone's throw from the table.
WHERE TO STAY
The Harbor House Village, 7 South Beach Street, (508) 228-1500, www.harborhousevillage.com, has sunny yellow and blue rooms in a handful of town houses and buildings; from $270 in summer. Kids can swim in the pool, or meet children at the Harbor House Village Kids program (ages 5 to 13, half-day, $30 per child with lunch; afternoon, $20; evening camp, Thursday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m., $40 with dinner), where counselors lead them on nature hikes and take field trips to the aquarium.
Adjacent to Children's Beach, the White Elephant Hotel, Easton Street, (508) 228-2500 or (800) 445-6574, www.whiteelephanthotel.com, offers chic digs in town. Most of the 53 rooms have fireplaces and water views. The upscale Pottery Barn-style two-bedroom garden cottages come with living rooms and kitchenettes; one- and three-bedroom cottages available. Guests with children can take advantage of the pool and camp at the Harbor House Village. Rooms start at $525 in summer; cottages at $570.
The island has dozens of charming bed-and-breakfast inns (starting at $175), some in former sea captains' homes. Nantucket Accommodations, (508) 228-9559, www.nantucketaccommodation.com, can recommend a variety of historic inns, cottages and private homes (for a $15 fee).