THERE are times when you understand instinctively why Nantucket is called the faraway island, and they come most often in the off-season. Usually the moment is a gift, a sense of splendid isolation while walking on deserted paths in the island's moors, or watching seals glide in Nantucket Harbor, or hearing only the sound of your own footsteps as you stroll past the stately Greek Revival mansions of upper Main Street.
But tranquillity can turn to trepidation, as I learned recently after a glorious autumn afternoon of driving on deserted Nantucket beaches.
In the fall, when the federally protected least terns and piping plovers have migrated south, more of the beach is accessible for driving than in the busy summer season. Taking advantage of the opportunity, my husband and I rented a small Jeep that came with a beach-driving permit and set out with our 16-year-old daughter. At the 1,117-acre Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, on the hook-shaped northeast end of the island, we drove for miles along a breathtaking remote spit that ends at Great Point, where the Great Point Lighthouse, first built in 1816 and rebuilt after a storm in the 1980's, stands. We watched seals play in the water - another seasonal opportunity, since they migrate from Maine during the winter - and stayed to see the sunset before reluctantly turning to leave.
As I drove along the beach and entered the narrow pathways between dunes, salt marshes and lagoons, I joked to my husband that I would hate to be marooned there at night. So much for humor. I missed the unobtrusive exit sign and drove for more than half an hour in the gathering darkness before realizing that we were approaching isolated Coatue Point, miles off track. We turned back, and after a nerve-racking search among the dunes, we finally found the exit and drove gratefully to our hotel.
On Nantucket, 30 miles out to sea from Cape Cod, being lost has a special potency. It isn't only the island's location that makes it seem removed, or the absence, even in Nantucket Town, of neon signs, traffic lights and fast-food franchises. Nantucket was molded by its history of separateness, and when the seasonal crowds melt away, the old, lonely island shows its face. "There's some things on Nantucket that haven't changed in 100 years,'' said Rob Benchley, a photographer who lives in Siasconset, on the island's southeastern coast. The islanders still gather scallops and clams for dinner, watch the clouds for storms, learn how to handle boats. Their tie to the past is more evident in the off-season, he said, when "the light is different, the days are shorter, and the smell of the breeze and sound of the sea is evocative of the way things have always been here.''
Residents say they get their lives back when summer ends - and the population plummets to 10,000 from around 40,000 to 50,000. For the visitor willing to chance the appearance of a drizzling rain or to bundle up against sometimes biting winds at the beach, dark and cloudy November, when the island's old nickname, the Gray Lady, seems especially apt, is a good time to find out why the islanders like to stay on.
It is also a good time for a bargain. In most of the off-season - with the exception of the holidays, when there's a second, smaller rush - room prices at the bed-and-breakfast inns and small hotels can drop 50 percent, and it's cheaper to rent a car. Though most businesses catering to travelers are closed, enough restaurants stay open to ensure the availability of an excellent meal, and space opens up on the ferries and airline flights from the mainland. Hundreds of new homes have been built on Nantucket over the last 20 years. Celebrities are among the arrivals, and the prices of even ordinary houses have reached seven figures. Some high-end businesses downtown reflect more the spending habits of the well-to-do newcomers than they do the longtime residents, some islanders say. "When Ralph Lauren moved here, I realized the place was in a worrisome spot,'' said Cary Hazlegrove, a photographer whose book "Nantucket: The Quiet Season'' is to be published in March by Chronicle Books, referring to Mr. Lauren's decision to buy a building in town.
But public land ownership and historic districting protect nearly half of the island, and islandwide zoning rules limit the impact of development on Nantucket's time-warp quality. "If you want somewhere to listen to the sound of your own heartbeat, this is where to come,'' Ms. Hazlegrove said.
In Nantucket Town, where wall-to-wall tourists shuffle along the cobblestones in summer, the off-season brings not only elbow room and cheaper prices but a consciousness-expanding perspective as well. Back up for a good look at the harbor and houses of the historic district, and it's easier to imagine the whaling ships sailing out on four-year voyages and the wives scanning the ocean from their remote island, looking for a sail.
Not that the hardy women of Nantucket didn't keep busy. Centre Street, said Mimi Beman, owner of Mitchell's Book Corner, at 54 Main Street, (508) 228-1080, was known as Petticoat Row because it had so many shops owned by women. With the men and teenage boys gone most of the time - and equality for women a tenet of the dominant Quaker religion - Nantucket took female independence for granted. But when its women left their faraway island, they found themselves with fewer opportunities. In the case of Lucretia Coffin Mott, born on Nantucket in 1793, the resulting indignation helped create the 19th-century women's rights movement that eventually gave American women the vote. Her birthplace is gone, but the site is marked by a plaque on the 1831 house at the corner of Fair Street and Lucretia Mott Lane, now the Ships Inn.
An autumn walk in town, with an eye to history and architecture, works well on uncluttered streets and only gets more atmospheric if the day is gray. The 2,400 houses in the historic district, 800 of them built before the Civil War, run the gamut from the three elegant Main Street Georgian mansions built for the Starbuck family and known as "the three bricks'' to Greek Revivals, a few sturdy colonials and small cottages with hidden gardens along narrow alleyways. Most of the older homes were built with the elegant spareness that is the hallmark of Quaker architecture.
Part of the off-season tradeoff is difficulty in getting inside many of the houses; several are open for tours only during the summer months. This year the Whaling Museum is closed, too, in the midst of a renovation. (An exception is the holidays, beginning with the popular Christmas Stroll, Dec. 3 to 5, when Nantucket Town is decked out with 190 Christmas trees decorated by children, and special events include crafts shows, house tours and performances by carolers in Victorian dress.)
But there is leisure in autumn for conversation with shopkeepers. Ms. Beman's bookstore is named for her father's family, whose most famous member was Maria Mitchell, the 19th-century astronomer and another example of enterprising Nantucket womanhood. The shop has been in Ms. Beman's family for 30 years.
In town or outside it, the best accessory in the off-season is a pair of sturdy walking shoes. (Put an umbrella and a warm all-weather coat in your bag, too: while the nearby Gulf Stream and ocean breezes keep the island 10 degrees warmer than the mainland in the cool months, the wind can be harsh, and last winter was so cold that the harbor froze for six weeks.) Since Nantucket's highest elevation is a little more than 100 feet above sea level, beautiful walks of every description are within the abilities of the least athletic.
Paths snake through the middle moors in the interior of the island, Nantucket's largest contiguous protected open space. More than 4,000 acres of land are off limits to development, owned and protected by nonprofit groups. Trails encircle working cranberry bogs, and shrubs like blueberry, huckleberry and bayberry give shelter to more than a hundred bird species in winter.
We ventured back into the Jeep and out to more of the island's 80 miles of beaches. Polpis Harbor, one of the most sheltered, is dotted with scallop shells from October to the end of March, when scallop fishing is in season. In the space of 10 minutes, I scooped up about 25 of the fanlike shells of every color and size. I had done the same thing on a raw November day 21 years earlier; the ornaments I made from those shells still hang on our Christmas tree.
One clear night on Jetties Beach, not far from the Brant Point Lighthouse,
The beaches that border the seaward south side of the island are where the waves crash on shore and the deep voice of the sea resounds most impressively. As we walked one afternoon along Madaket Beach, the weather turned uncertain and the sweeping views showed, on one side, glimpses of sun through the clouds and, on the other, the bruised sky of an approaching storm. The waves crashed on the beach with rhythmic thunder, and a lone surfer, wearing a wet suit, skidded along the whitecaps.
As the sun disappeared, the Gray Lady revealed herself in all her raw beauty once again. We buttoned up our jackets, turned away from the wind and walked back to the Jeep.