Cisco Beach on Nantucket Island

Cisco Beach on Nantucket Island

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Got your bike helmet strapped on?

Then you’re ready to explore the island of Nantucket for a family vacation! Thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Nantucket is as famous for its more than 30 miles of bike trails around the island — you see adults and kids with bikes everywhere — as for its 80 miles of spectacular beaches.

“You can bike everywhere and everyone is really nice,” said John McGlainn, 14, who has been spending summers here where his grandmother lives since he was a baby. “You can have more freedom here than at home,” he added.

“Very safe and kid-friendly,” agreed Leah Bayer, who arrived on Nantucket to teach school more than 40 years ago and never left. Now she runs Aunt Leah’s Fudge shop that tempts kids and adults alike with free samples.

The island of Nantucket — just 14 miles east to west and 3.5 miles north to south — is that rare place for family travel that is prettier than a postcard with its picturesque weathered gray shingle houses, roses climbing white picket fences and cobblestone streets. It offers a unique combination of history (the island literally was the center of the 19th-century whaling industry, as you can learn at the excellent Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum, beaches and good eats with more than 50 restaurants from which to choose. (Sample some of the best with specially-priced dinners during restaurant week Sept. 30 to Oct. 6) and outdoor fun (kayak, fish or sail).

After the decline of the whaling industry in the late 19th century, Nantucket began to attract well-heeled tourists, including artists and theater people from New York. Today, tourism fuels the island’s economy, swelling the population from 10,000 most of the year to as many as 60,000 in the summer.

That’s one reason locals say fall is the best time to visit, when the summer crowds are gone but it’s still warm enough for the beach and there are special festivals like the Cranberry Festival (Oct. 5) when you can watch the berries being harvested as they have been since the 1850s.

Kayak family at Jetties Beach on Nantucket Island

Kayak family at Jetties Beach on Nantucket Island

A little trivia: Nantucket is the only place in the country where an island, a county and a town all share the same name. Many also don’t know that two of the ships carrying the cargo of tea thrown overboard during the Boston Tea Party were built and owned by an affluent Nantucket family.

Nantucket, which means “far-away place” in the native Wampanoag language, was home to generations of whaling captains who would leave with their crews for years at a stretch in search of sperm whales. Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” is based on the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. Check out the 46-foot sperm whale skeleton and the fully rigged whaleboat at the museum!

Today, some of the ship captains’ beautiful homes are bed and breakfasts; others are private summer homes. There are no traffic lights or fast food here. The entire island is a designated National Historic Landmark.

We stayed in The Veranda House, comprised of three historic buildings — 32 rooms in all — that is literally walking distance to everywhere from The Ferry to the Whaling Museum to bike shops and restaurants. (FYI, kids must be 10 to stay here; most families who come opt to rent homes instead. Another time we brought our pooch and stayed happily at the pet and kid-friendly Cottages and Lofts right at Nantucket Harbor.

And because there is just one main town on the island — and shuttle bus service all around the island — you can get along fine without a car, hopping the hour-long Fast Ferry from Hyannis. (We came on Hy-Line. There’s also The Steamship Authority. Fares are a little more than $70 roundtrip for adults, significantly less for kids. The Veranda House and its sister property Chapman House are offering a special package that includes special rates and two complimentary ferry passes for a three-night stay.

Even a broken bike chain in the middle of a 25-mile ride on the popular Polpis Bike path and a lost cell phone couldn’t keep us from having a good time. “It seems everyone comes here and is happy. They leave their worries on the mainland,” says waitress Trishana Strachan, who served us oysters at the Brant Point Grill overlooking the harbor.

Cook’s Cycle Shop not only brought us a new bike to the other end of the island in Sconset, but also only charged us for one rental. That certainly left us smiling.

So did the three-course complimentary breakfast outdoors on the porch of the Veranda House overlooking the gardens and dinners at CRU known for its seafood and views of the water and Oran Mor Bistro spread out across three rooms in a historic Nantucket home. Both places were hosting families, as well as couples.

Teens and tweens congregate on what’s called “The Strip” of Broad Street which offers the Juice Bar for pizza and ice cream — the lines are often out the door — and Stubby’s for a sandwich or fries. Families with younger kids congregate at Jetties Beach and Children’s Beach, both protected by Nantucket Sound.

Everyone we meet has a story of why they are here — the owner of the bike shop whose mother is descended from a whaling family; the young mother who has vacationed here ever since she was a baby; the fudge-making retired teacher, even the owners of the Veranda House who arrived 20 years ago from Pittsburgh on vacation, and decided to make inn keeping on Nantucket their second act, said Dale Hamilton. Now his 30-year-old daughter Hillary is managing the Veranda House.

“Nantucket isn’t a drive-by place,” says Hamilton. “It takes a commitment to get here.”

That just adds to the appeal.

The hardest part — after deciding what to do each day — is leaving.