For those who think of Nantucket as the kingdom of pink-and-green -- pretty but predictable and steeped in if not stifled by tradition -- you're in for a surprise. While not exactly being rocked by innovation, some creative locals are hard-at-work reinvigorating the island.
I escaped to Nantucket for a couple days this fall, drawn by the reasonably priced ($126 round trip -- cheaper than driving nearly anywhere) and 37-minute speedy direct flights from JFK on JetBlue. And driven by my hunch that while neighboring rival island Martha's Vineyard was turning into another Hamptons, Nantucket remained blessedly untouched and unspoiled.
I stayed at the Union Street Inn because I'd heard that its owners had an unexpected pedigree: Ken Withrow was the former manager of the Royalton and his wife Deborah used to work at Henri Bendel. I was curious what they might do to a sweet, shingled 12-room inn from the 1700s. Another attraction: the location is right in town, and rooms start at a reasonable $149 a night.
What the Withrows did to the Union Street Inn was to respect the local style vernacular, but add in appealing sophistication and top-level service; most B&Bs don't have a concierge who will arrange private helicopter charters, for instance. Last year the Withrows hired interior designer Trudy Dujardin to do a total renovation, and the results are four-poster beds covered in creamy matelasse coverlets and piled high with pillows, black and white photos of racing sailboats on the walls, and small bathrooms kitted out with grey marble and gleaming Kohler fixtures. The grounds were also redesigned by landscaper Marty McGowan to add a pretty sitting garden next to the newly expanded brick patio where guests can enjoy hot breakfasts, thanks to Inn being the only B&B on the island with a license to cook.
Another pleasant Nantucket surprise: I never expected to find menus that weren't overdosed on fish. I never expected to dine so inventively, thanks to a community of locals intent on respecting their island and supporting each other. Case in point: the owners of the restaurant American Seasons and its more casual offspring Proprietors -- the chef Michael LaScola and his wife Orla -- feature meats and vegetables from Dylan Wallace's nearby Faraway Farm. The dishes are seasoned with spices mixed by Wallace's wife, Claudia; her shop, Ambrosia, sells her aromatic blends of teas, spices and salts (Alder Smoked Sea Salt is great rubbed on steaks, Goma Shio Sesame Salt on veggies) and out-of-the-ordinary chocolates (dark chocolate with coconut cream, chili, vanilla and Ceylon cinnamon). There are also pieces of pottery for sale, made by her friend Nell van Vorst, whose plates are also used at American Seasons and Proprietors. It's a nice case of friends supporting friends and sustaining year-round activity on the island.
I know all this because as I was sniffing the spices at Ambrosia, Nell walked in and talked turned the recently-opened and hugely-popular Proprietors. I had dined well there the night before on Duck Breast with Peruvian Pepper Sauce and Quinoa Salsa, and "Pork-umms" on a Kimchee Biscuit, and met the chef Tom Berry and pastry chef Liz O'Connell (her dark chocolate and ricotta ice cream is one of her many luscious inventions.)
In short, I met a lot of islanders in those couple of days -- and not one of them was wearing kelly green slacks embroidered with lobsters. As I was window shopping I never expected to find the cocktail dresses reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face" that I did at Susan Sutherland's Style Paris; never thought I'd see leopard stilettos like the pairs at Vanessa Noel's chic shoe shop.
I had heard that the stately white-columned Atheneum was worth a visit. Today it's a library but back in the 1800s it was the site of speeches by some of the more enlightened minds of our country -- Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, women's rights advocate Lucretia Mott and abolitionist Frederick Douglass -- hardly proponents of the conservative politics I always thought ruled Nantucket (resident John Kerry aside...)
It wasn't until I was returning home that I had a more expected Nantucket experience, picking up a lobster roll in a fish shack by the harbor to enjoy on the Jet Blue flight back to New York. And it was one of the best airplane meals ever.