The adventure of 19th-century whaling days is still alive in spirit among the historic islands off Cape Cod, Mass. Once the whaling capitals of the world, Nantucket and New Bedford preserve the romance and hardships of the young men who went to the sea.
What attracted 19th-century sailors to a miserable and often death-defying life as a whaler? It wasn’t the money, as only a good catch paid a decent wage for three years on the long voyage to the Pacific whaling migration.
America in the early 1820s was rural. Young men looked for adventure and fortune in the newly discovered foreign lands of Asia and the Pacific. They wanted to get away from the farm and a strict religious code. Going to sea was an escape.
Nantucket islanders began harvesting whales as their Native American neighbors did off Cape Cod. The settlement in the mid-1600s grew into the whaling capital as demand for smokeless whale oil for lamps and lubrication expanded.
Today the quaint Cape Cod architecture draws summer visitors and yachtsmen to the island for recreation, increasing the island population from 10,000 to 50,000.
Scattered villages of uniform cottages comply with a color code of grey, yellow, blue or white shingles featuring a weathered look to keep Nantucket in the historic style of Colonial days. The main harbor is the gateway to a picturesque cobblestone main street leading to Pacific National Bank.
Local legend says it was the first place sea-weary whalers went to deposit their wages. I rather believe their first stop was one of the grog shops along the way now housing boutiques and restaurants, including a former mercantile establishment under the name of Thomas Macy. He was an original island settler in 1659 and an ancestor of R.H. Macy, who founded today’s retail chain in 1843 in Massachusetts.
Noteworthy are the huge cobbles used in the street paving. They are a challenge to navigate except at the intersection crosswalks that are paved in brick.
The Nantucket Whaling Museum displays an incredible collection of scrimshaw. Using the bones and ivory teeth of their victims, lonely sailors fashioned practical implements as well as decorative engravings as souvenirs for their loved ones at home. Other artifacts and history of whaling explain how this small island was so important for the economy of New England.
The island became the namesake of the traditional East Coast casual wear: Nantucket Red. Those rosy pink shorts created by Murray’s Toggery on Main Street are de rigueur along the New England coast.
As demand for whale oil for lamps and candles grew, the principal port for the whaling fleets moved to New Bedford in 1823. The deep-water port better served the industry and made New Bedford “The City That Lit the World.”
The historic waterfront stands today as an image of the lively whaling days when Herman Melville strolled down North Water Street gathering his background of characters for his famous novel “Moby-Dick.”
Restored rooming houses and the iconic Seafarers’ Chapel on Johnny Cake Hill provided respite for the sailors between voyages. Another even larger whaling museum features enormous whale skeletons, a full-sized whaling ship and a gallery of period marine paintings.
The most popular island off Cape Cod is Martha’s Vineyard. More of a summer resort playground, there are plenty of Victorian-style inns, tourist shops and yachtsmen. Frequent ferry service from Hyannis and New London bring hordes of day visitors. The best way to tour the island is by municipal bus, which charges $1 for each village stop.
In all the coastal ports and island villages, lobster and other fresh seafood are the specialties. Try the popular lobster roll or the scallops and cod that support the major fishing industry of New Bedford.
A more secluded island destination is Block Island, locally known as the smallest island of the smallest state, Rhode Island. The snug harbor has a waterfront lined with gingerbread Victorian hotels, restaurants and shops that draw visitors by ferry from Newport.
The intimate island is best seen by rental bicycles or mopeds. A popular destination is the Gothic-style Southeast Lighthouse at the end of the island.
Besides the daily mainland ferry service for the three islands, a good option is one of the seven-day New England Island cruises calling at all these ports. I preferred the Blout Small Ship Adventure Line out of Warren, R.I. Other cruise lines are available.
Time permitting, a journey north to the Maine coast offers more island exploration and friendly mainland bed and breakfast accommodations. Booth Bay is a central starting place for day trips to small Maine islands. Most are passenger-only day trips that provide limited amenities to stay over.
Squirrel Island and Monhegan Island are great for hiking and exploring isolated coves. Don’t miss the library on Squirrel Island with a vast collection of bibliophile classics to entertain the century-old colony of summer homes scattered through the woods.
Wherever you explore the coastal islands, you will find summer crowds. That’s why an early fall visit is recommended. Be sure to check for late-season cruise dates and early closings of accommodations.