By Ted Scull.
Having spent many summers on Nantucket Island, one summer on the island of Martha’s Vineyard plus at least a dozen visits, and explored Block Island on foot and by bicycle five or six times, I would never turn down an invitation to go “aboard” anyone of them again. Most people may not know that Newport is on Aquidneck Island. I spent three years of my schooling there and back then a ferry connected Jamestown with Newport, so I was most certainly aware of its island status.
Spending summers 30 miles out to sea was a most exciting proposition. Once we were on island, we stayed put, and off island —, i.e. the rest of the world — vanished from my thoughts. As a child, I delighted in the knowledge that any direction I headed there was a beach, with serious ocean waves to battle or more gentle Nantucket Sound lapping at the shore. The Town of Nantucket, comprised of 18th- and 19th-century American architecture, is stunningly beautiful because the whaling industry created much wealth. I began to appreciate the design and craftsmanship of the town when I got older, including Main Street’s cobble stones, though definitely not recommended for cycling.
After whaling died out, the island slipped into a long lull, so it never caught the Victorian-era fever that followed, while Martha’s Vineyard, established as a resort, most certainly did. Oaks Bluff, an early African-American summer colony, shows off a sweeping row of Victorians facing a green that fronts on the sound. Just inland, a Methodist Camp Association established a community of miniature gaily-decorated gingerbread houses, most with just two rooms on each of two floors. Head out to the cliffs at Gay Head or ferry over to Chappaquiddick Island while stopping at delightful Edgartown en route.
Both islands operate convenient and inexpensive summertime bus networks that allow visitors to reach most places of interest with ease, and half-fares are granted for those 65 and over. The fleet helps keep down the number of cars that arrive by ferry from the mainland.
Newport on Aquidnick Island is well known for its opulent mansions that were and are referred to as “summer cottages.” You might visit one or two, but also consider the Cliff Walk that meanders in front of a dozen, so you too can appreciate their ocean views. It was my favorite outing when I attended school there.
At the same time, don’t overlook Newport’s older lanes of late 18th- and early 19th-century houses just in from Thames Street, the touristy waterfront shopping street. And scattered throughout the town are Truro synagogue (1793), the oldest in America; St. Mary’s, the Roman Catholic Church where the Kennedys were married in 1953; and lovely Trinity Church (Episcopal) built in 1725-26. All are within easy walking distance of each other.
Block Island may be the least known of the lot and that has helped keep gentrification in check. The island has strict building codes, hence no extravagant Hampton-style mega-mansions and mercifully little car traffic as the island is compact enough to walk to the beach from the landing, or bike out to the bird sanctuaries and majestic Southeast Lighthouse. Sited on a cliff it warned ships at sea to stay away from the treacherous shallow waters. Old Harbor maintains its Victorian character of wooden hotels, inns and private houses.
New Bedford, Massachusetts rivaled Nantucket for whaling supremacy and that legacy left a rich heritage of handsome houses finished in many heritage styles, with no two alike. They are located just a few blocks in from the harbor where a large commercial fleet is based for lucrative deep-sea scalloping. While not on an island, most small ship cruises call here, and visitors give high marks to the centrally sited whaling museum.
In the early days of summer stays on Nantucket, we embarked in New Bedford by steamer for the island, a four-and-a-half-hour run that stimulated my initial interests in boats and ships that lasts to this day.
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