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Postcards: Nantucket Island

Only 30 miles off the south coast of Massachusetts, Nantucket Island's heath and dunes seem light-years away from the mainland. The island has weather of its own, making it as interesting for fliers as for other visitors. Many a pilot has started out VFR to Nantucket only to find the airport socked in by the offshore fog bank, what locals call the Gray Lady. But you can get in and out of Nantucket VFR most of the time if you're flexible and ready to land at an alternate, waiting for the fog to lift. When the Gray Lady departs, air traffic over the island can resemble a swarm of bees around a hive.

Avoid scud runs here because of the loran and radar towers scattered about the island (the highest are at 470 feet msl on the western end and 650 feet msl on the southwestern corner of Nantucket). When Cape Approach (126.1) shuts down for the night, Boston Center (132.9) may not respond; ask Bridgeport Flight Service (122.0) to wake somebody up.

Flotation devices are a must to and around the island, and you're wise to consider the gliding distance for your aircraft when choosing an altitude. You can fly 3,000 feet agl among Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and Cape Cod while staying within the gliding range of a Cessna Skyhawk.

Arriving by airplane, your immersion into Nantucket's relaxed pace will be quick and total: As soon as you kill the engine, salty breezes and the lulling sounds of the surf surround you. (You're advised to engage the starter after shutdown, so the salt air can't do its job and corrode the mechanism.)

Fog, most prevalent in summer when temperature differentials between ocean and air are the greatest, smothers most noises, leaving only the mellow tones of foghorns and bell buoys. Nantucket's residents have made every effort to preserve the muted integrity of their island. Bumper stickers suggest that "Developers Go Build in Hell." While you will see houses scattered throughout the scrubby dunes, they complement the landscape rather than overpower it. Zoning ordinances require that exteriors of all buildings must be unpainted shingle or clapboard painted in an approved color. Although not yet required by law, climbing roses adorn nearly every structure.

Exploring Nantucket is stress-free (this island doesn't even have a traffic light). At the airport, you can choose from several car/four- wheel-drive rental agencies, as well as taxi service and hotel jitneys. For getting around on two wheels, the town boasts five bicycle/moped rental shops—more than 17 miles of paved bike paths lead in all directions. Eight tour operators (including one horse-and-buggy operation) are at your service.

Don't expect to rough it here. On the contrary, what Herman Melville described in Moby Dick as a "mere hillock, an elbow of sand, all beach without a background," is one of the most civilized places on earth.

Since the 1880s, when ocean bathing became popular, Nantucket has offered tasteful and understated amenities to its visitors: You can choose from more than 40 restaurants (no fast-food franchises), 50 lodging places, and scores of antique and specialty shops—all this in a community of only 7,000 permanent residents (that's right, one person per acre). Most of the commercial activity is concentrated in Nantucket Town, leaving much of the island in its pristine, natural state.

Where to go

Nantucket Town—Spend an hour or two walking the town's elm-shaded streets, especially Main, Pleasant, and Orange. In the 1830s, this was the busiest whaling port in the world; 125 whaling captains lived on Orange Street alone. The Nantucket Whaling Museum (open mid-April to Christmas) allows visitors a glimpse into this side of the island's past. Many mansions throughout the town and along the waterfront have been converted into attractive shops, inns, and restaurants; those that remain private residences are described on the historical association's walking tours.

Siasconset—On the eastern end of the island, at the end of Milestone Road, is a charming village that locals call "Sconset." Gourmets flock to Chanticleer Restaurant, "one of the most romantic restaurants in the world." And if you're not flying, try cocktails on a deck in the sand at the Summer House Inn.

Farther afield—North of Sconset, beyond the much-photographed red and white striped Sankaty Head Lighthouse, is the Wauwinet Inn, sitting on a narrow neck of land separating the Atlantic Ocean from Nantucket Bay. This small hotel and its surrounding cottages are so upscale that the speed bumps are made out of brick, and the airport jitney is a 1946 Ford station wagon (a "Woodie").

At the other end of the island is the village of Madaket, a less exclusive community than Sconset. You will find no inns or restaurants in Madaket—only fabulous sunsets. Because many visitors prefer to rent a beach house for their Nantucket escape, some consider this lack of commercialism a plus.

What to do

Numerous beaches and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream make swimming and water sports prime summertime activities. Nantucket Sound starts to warm up in mid-June and stays comfortable until early October, but remember, this is New England (no tepid bathtub temperatures here). Southerners may prefer fishing, golf, sailing, tennis, or lounging around a hotel pool.

Nantucket County maintains eight public beaches. The surf is gentler on the north side and favored by families with small children. Miacomet Beach, noted for nude bathing, is part of the visual approach to Runway 6. But from the air, there isn't much to see unless you have binoculars and are really flying low. Even then, it's a doubtful endeavor.

Whale watching makes a good use of an airplane near Nantucket (the art of fish spotting is well practiced here), but you need to be comfortable with low flying and low maneuvers.

But where are the whales? Local fishermen and sometimes even whale-watching charters will reveal such "proprietary secrets" if you chat them up in a friendly way.

How far out should you go? Consider your own comfort level for flying 500 feet above the water, out of gliding distance. You're wise to choose a clear day, stay within radio contact, and keep within sight of boats or land.

If you want a workout in your airplane flying low-pylon eights, tour some of the 15-odd lighthouses that dot the Cape and islands. The variety ranges from traditional white tower/black top with attached clapboard house to a startling Texas Tower-like installation that resembles a Klee canvas in the middle of the Elizabeth Islands. A complete aerial tour takes about 2.5 hours.

Nantucket Accommodations (Box 217, Nantucket, Massachusetts 02554; 508/228-9559) as well as Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Reservations (Box 1322, Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts 02568; 508/693-7200) handle lodging throughout the island.

Peter Kingsley, AOPA 873420, and Ed Frost are members of a travel writing partnership. Kingsley holds an MEL commercial certificate and has been flying for more than nine years. Frost is proprietor of Glove Compartment Books and a former documentary film maker.


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