“Nantucket” most likely derives from a Wampanoag word meaning “faraway land.” But despite its poetic name, the island lies just 30 miles from the south shore of Cape Cod. Its glory days as a whaling port lasted until the mid-1800s, when a double punch of the harbor’s natural limitations and a major fire brought an end to its prosperity. In search of livelihoods, many inhabitants left the island, which went into a Brigadoon-like period of suspended animation. However, this exodus resulted in much of its architecture being preserved. In 1966, the Town of Nantucket was designated a National Historic Landmark District for being the “finest surviving architectural and environmental example of a late 18th- and early 19th-century seaport town in New England.”
Today its population jumps from 11,000 year-round to more than 50,000 during the summer months. In contrast to neighboring Martha’s Vineyard, which gathers a crowd of artists, writers and journalists, as well as showbiz folk and politicians, Nantucket tends to attract hedge fund moguls and Wall Street executives. As a result, property values have become stratospheric. On my recent trip, a real estate broker told me that a two-bedroom starter home now begins at around $1.2 million.
Over the years that I have been going to Nantucket, I have seen the number of mansions increase exponentially. However, the steep price of land and stringent local regulations help to ensure that the island is not overrun. The Nantucket Islands Land Bank levies a 2 percent fee on most real estate transactions, money that goes to preserving acreage for “open space, agriculture and recreational uses.” As a result, almost half the island is protected. A body called the Historic District Commission limits the colors for painting houses to a palette of only about a dozen shades. I once saw a T-shirt that said, “Turn left at the gray house with white trim,” which describes so many houses as to render the directions laughably meaningless.