Did Herman Melville have a problem with Nantucket?
In Moby-Dick, his fanatical Captain Ahab hailed from there. Spooky first mate Starbuck was also a local. The author went on to describe it this way: “Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it; a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background.”
Drab report for such a pretty island. It’s important to note that Melville had never actually set foot on Nantucket when he wrote Moby-Dick. Maybe that’s one reason the first great American novel initially bombed, going unsung until after Melville’s death. It serves as a reminder that experience is context — and context is all.
How should one experience Nantucket? What should your context be? There are many answers, but fine lodgings are the essential building block of great vacation experiences. This is doubly so when you’ve been ferried 30 miles offshore. There are plenty of options here, from the divine to the merely functional. So, what’s it to be?
If the relaxed charm of a New England island cottage (but with housekeeping services and a dialed-in concierge) is the right context for you, Harborview Nantucket is just the thing. Kitty-corner to the Monomoy district, this aptly named hotel property is tucked away (locals barely know it’s there) just off Washington Street, a mere 1,000 feet from the whimsical Oz of Nantucket proper.
There are 11 wood-shingled cottages (some adjoining, some not), built around 2006, and offering between one and four bedrooms, most with views of the harbor and marina. Framed by hydrangeas, they have names like Hermit Crab and Crow’s Nest. All have refined kitchens that can be fully stocked with your preferred beverages and vittles before you arrive. Complimentary local wines and craft beers greet you at check-in. Private balconies and generous porches are arranged around an intimate lawn area, giving a backyard feel. The lawn can host anything from a guest clambake to a rehearsal dinner, which the concierge facilitates through catering partners in town.
The 800+ square foot Ebb & Flow cottage with high vaulted ceiling in the main room combines coastal personality with chic lines for a clean and comfortable feel throughout. Rustic elements like a towering stucco fireplace meld with sleek countertops and hidden appliances in a country style kitchen.
A big nod to eccentric layout happens in the cool sleeping loft that floats high above the main room. A fixed ladder carries you to a cozy bedroom up in the eaves with couch, chair, and a dizzying view of the main room below. It affords a surprising amount of privacy, and is a cosseted aerie for daring guests.
Beds are suitably plush, while furnishings are beachy and functional. Touches like signal lamps, antique birdcages, and homey bric-a-brac add splashes of personality. A 40″ HDTV connected to a home theater system and in-wall speakers in the main room with cable TV and a DVD player is a nice touch, turning the comfy living room area into a fully functional home away from home.
The original concept for Harborview Nantucket was residential, but after the market crashed several years back, the owners started renting the handsome cottages as upscale hotel rooms instead. When Teaticket, Mass.-based Scout Hotels took over management and rebranded the property in 2014, it brought additional services and acumen to the already desirable site. The company has a portfolio of smart boutique hotels from Martha’s Vineyard to Cape Cod to Florida’s Gulf Coast, and even Belize.
But coastal New England is kind of their sweet spot.
“We enjoy managing independent hotels and building a clear identity for them, anchored in a strong sense of place,” says Scout Hotels CEO Robin Kirk, an amiable Englishman who now lives in Cape Cod. “We understand the need people have to escape to exceptional places.”
The introduction of a concierge was one of the most astute things that Scout Hotels did for Harborview Nantucket. Now, guests who want spa services can have them arranged and performed right in their private cottage. The same goes for almost any meal available in local restaurants, as well as a menu of tourism-related amenities. It was a shrewd competitive move for an individualistic luxury retreat.
“Harborview Nantucket is very special to us,” Kirk says. “It’s almost like a secret spot where you can live the island life while being very close to everything in town. It’s not a typical hotel. It gives people enough space to relax and be themselves.”
Kirk notes that Harborview Nantucket has no dining on the premises. “It’s true, we don’t have one restaurant…we have 20 or 30 within a few thousand feet.” Kirk says he’s looking at adding a light breakfast option and evening cocktails with snacks to Harborview in the next few months. Until then, guests have to fend for themselves.
In a clustered foodie paradise like Nantucket, having to find your next meal is kind of a joke. Which is to say, many starred restaurants abound here, from The Boarding House to Le Languedoc Inn & Bistro to Fifty-Six Union to Meursault. The quest for a meal takes on the attributes of a New England town stroll, as people meander past rows of appealing establishments, perusing menus.
Some bright spots (and yummy dishes) to consider:
The Tavern at Harbor Square serves a devastating chunky lobster mac and cheese made with gruyere and topped with Ritz Cracker crumbs. In season, sit on the upstairs balcony (outside if possible) for the breeze. Nabe on Easy Street is Asian-infused American comfort food. Their California rolls with real crab are fresh, and oh, the white truffle fries. Grilled halibut in mango avocado ginger salsa with saffron risotto is inspired. Truffle wasabi-crusted filet mignon served over cheddar-mashed potatoes is hearty and delicious. At the popular Brotherhood of Thieves, chef Shaun Riley prepares a lobster bisque that goes down like lovely liquid gold, and his lobster BLT is luscious. Arno‘s on Main Street is a causal breakfast and lunch place with a pleasant vibe. The lobster salad is refreshing, the chicken Caesar is ample, and the eggs are well made. Sweet Inspirations on India Street is a mecca for candy lovers. The butter crunch is decadent, and it’s impossible to eat less than 10 chocolate covered cranberries at a time. After dinner, half the town forms a line outside of Juice Bar for the homemade ice cream and fresh-pressed waffle cones.
Ergo, the absence of on-site dining at Harborview Nantucket is pretty much a non-issue. The sumptuous fare described (and far more) is all within a 5-minute walk.
The retail therapy available here can also sate just about any craving, as the town is chockablock with lively brands. No visit is complete without seeking the dainty Nantucket Baskets on display everywhere (thanks to Howard Chadwick of Antiques Depot on Federal Street for a history lesson about basket originator, Jose Reyes). Make sure to visit perfume purist John Harding of the Nantucket Perfume Company on Straight Wharf — a former professional “nose” who replicates designer fragrances, sans alcohol. His “resembles” of the finest scents (some that are no longer in existence) makes his apothecary style parfumerie all the more unique.
Attractions and activities here, from the profound Whaling Museum to abundant boating opportunities to hiking and beaches, are as good as it gets.
Nantucket is paradoxical in a way that many such places are: the cruel industry of a bygone age created something beautiful. In Melville’s time, whaling made the island into a kind of city-state. Today, the majestic Second Empire homes of long ago whaling captains are like ornaments, dotting romantic cobblestone streets.
From the lazy pleasures of summer, to fall foliage season, to the town’s holiday stroll and festival of trees, Nantucket is the quintessence of New England island leisure. Smaller and mellower than the Vineyard, its appeal is in some ways deeper. With its marvelous wood burning fireplaces, Harborview Nantucket is one of the few hotels that stays open in the winter months, when all traces of tourists are gone and the island becomes a true escape.
That’s context for you. And experience. Harborview Nantucket is a captivating luxury hotel without a restaurant, a spa, or even a lobby. What it lacks in the expected conventions it more than makes up for in comfort and elegance. It has a distinctive identity, anchored with a sense of place, making it irrefutably special.