Two wheels, one island: A day of biking on Nantucket

Northeasterners never fight more fiercely than when they’re talking sports — except in the summertime, when they shift to arguments over which Massachusetts island is more idyllic.

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The rivalry between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket — the two major islands that lie just south of Cape Cod — isn’t quite as intense as the one between, say, Yankee and Red Sox fans, but it definitely exists. You’ll often catch a resident of one island insisting the other is inferior in every way. You’ll hear annual vacationers to one island tell you they’ve never visited the other and would prefer to keep it that way. In the local newspapers, you’ll sometimes spy writers making innocent jokes at the expense of their over-island brethren.

Countless thinkpieces and quizzes exist to help people decide which island is right for them, but I wanted to decide for myself. So in the midst of a long weekend on Martha’s Vineyard with my husband, I made the slightly controversial decision to, as the locals say, “get off the rock” and spend a day on MV’s easterly neighbor. (Our Airbnb host told us we were her first guests to ever venture to Nantucket during a stay with her, and she seemed a little disturbed by our decision.)

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For all their differences, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have a major shared strength: great bike trails. Dedicated trails — that is, bike routes that are physically separated from car traffic — run up and down both islands, and because the terrain is so flat, it’s both possible and popular to travel between towns and villages by bike. Ian and I had brought our bikes along from Rhode Island and had already logged dozens of miles on Martha’s Vineyard. Now, it was time to check out Nantucket’s offerings.

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Though most of the island’s activity is concentrated in its one and only commerce center, which is simply called “Town,” I was dead set on kicking off our day here with an eight-mile ride to Siasconset. I’d been swooning over photos of the village’s signature rose trellises and classic red-and-white-striped Sankaty Head Light for years. Plus, I knew it was common to see seals bobbing in the waves on ‘Sconset’s beach, and I never pass up a potential seal sighting.

Our day began with an early breakfast on Martha’s Vineyard and an hour-long ferry ride from Oak Bluffs. There’s no denying that Nantucket makes a charming first impression from the water: Brant Point Lighthouse, wrapped in a giant American flag, protrudes from the harbor on a pristine spit of sand, and the surrounding shallows are dotted with colorful tall ships and fishing boats.

Tempting as it was, we didn’t stay in town long. After taking a few minutes to get our bearings and squeal at the adorable cobblestone streets, we began to travel away from the crowds. We stopped briefly to pick up some healthy snacks at Annye’s Whole Foods; then, we were headed due east toward ‘Sconset.

For most of the journey, our surroundings were sandy and scrubby, markedly different from the lusher and hillier terrain of Martha’s Vineyard. We let out amazed exclamations when, about halfway through the ride, we crested a gentle hill and were greeted with a sweeping view that bore a remarkable resemblance to the Serengeti. I had to remind myself that we were in New England, not Kenya, and a herd of gazelles would therefore not come bounding toward us at any minute.

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I know this photo doesn’t do it justice, but trust me — it looked otherworldly.

After a few more short miles, we journeyed from Serengeti to seaside village.

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“Village” is a generous term to bestow on ‘Sconset, which has little in the way of local businesses beyond a small grocery store, a sandwich shop and a clothing boutique. Yet on this particular day, the main intersection was jammed with cars, bikes and pedestrians milling around. It was a hot, humid day, and most of the crowds gathered under what little shade they could find, ice creams and ice waters in hand. Few of them were going where we were headed: to the sun-soaked Bluff Walk.

Once a fishing village with little more than a common well and a cluster of shingled shacks, ‘Sconset has evolved to become a community of mostly seasonal residents whose houses are considerably nicer than those fishermen’s huts of yore, though they’re still built with the same unpainted shingle siding. In July, though, that siding is slightly obscured…by mass quantities of roses.

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It seems that at some point, all the residents of ‘Sconset got together and decided to plant climbing roses everywhere. Almost every house has joined in on the fun, with many covering their shingles with giant trellises and coaxing the roses ever higher. On good years, they cover almost every surface of some houses.

One of the best ways to see ‘Sconset’s beautiful roses is by going on the Bluff Walk, a pedestrian path that begins not far from the village’s main intersection and continues north for about three quarters of a mile. The public path cuts through the ocean-view backyards of the 1 percent, which means your walk boasts not only sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean but also a peek into the lives of some of the fortunate families who summer here. The path ends near the historic Sankaty Head Light.

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Unfortunately, two things prevented us from completing the whole Bluff Walk. One was the weather — we’d already spent about an hour biking in the hot sun, and we were too drenched with sweat to want to spend even more time fully exposed to the midday rays. Another was the slightly disappointing lack of roses. I’d been told that early July was the best time to see the blooms in all their glory, but it seemed they were blooming a bit late this year, as they were far less abundant than in the pictures I had seen.

No matter: When life hands you too much sun and not enough flowers, head to the beach and cool off in the ocean! We were thrilled to find a small public path that led us from the Bluff Walk directly to the sand below.

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Though we’d had bluebird skies on the bluff not 200 feet away, an eerie fog lingered right on the water. We were grateful to be shielded from the sun and promptly set up a little picnic with our supplies from the health-food store. Swimming, though, wasn’t in the cards: On this particular day, the waves were blood-red with kelp. We were unsure whether these were harmful algal blooms, but even if they had been safe, wading through them would have been uncomfortable and kind of creepy. Luckily, we stayed entertained from the shore as an adorable seal played hide-and-seek with us.

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After lunch, it was time to ride back to Town. For some reason — maybe it was the hot weather, or maybe the soreness from yesterday’s ride was beginning to take a toll —  the journey back felt much more difficult. Each little hill felt like an insurmountable mountain, and twice I begged Ian to stop and let us take a break. I was relieved when the trail leveled off and houses began to appear again.

We parked our bikes near the center of the action and spent a couple of hours wandering lazily down the Town’s cobblestone streets. The stately 18th-century brick houses lining Main Street, which reminded me strongly of Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, seemed so out of place on a sandy island. I had to laugh, too, at the high-end urban clothing we spotted in some of the shops. What sort of person, I wondered, is in need of red-carpet formalwear, a full suit or a pair of equestrian boots while on vacation in the height of summer? Clearly I am not Nantucket’s target audience in many regards. But there were some things I did love about Town, including its abundance of adorable coffee shops and the fact that it has not one but two bookstores.

Nantucket was more crowded with visitors than anywhere we’d gone on Martha’s Vineyard — perhaps because there’s just one population center here — and after a while, we craved a little peace and quiet. It was about 3 p.m., too late to visit a cafe but too early to find many open restaurants. Finally, we found or, The Whale, a brand new restaurant with an attractive, shady patio, and posted up there with a glass of wine.

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Soon, it was time to catch the ferry back to Martha’s Vineyard. After browsing around some of the less preppy shops for a bit, we took our place in the ferry line, bikes in tow.

I came away from our day on Nantucket convinced that the island stereotypes I’d heard are mostly true: Nantucket is preppy, Martha’s Vineyard is bohemian; Nantucket is more corporate, the Vineyard is more artistic. As someone who grew up near a beachfront amusement park, I’m more partial to summer destinations that provide kitsch alongside class…so I’m probably more apt to stick to Martha’s Vineyard, where old-fashioned arcades and late-night donut counters exist alongside the million-dollar mansions and fine dining. That said, I’m dreaming of returning to this beautiful island in the fall or during the holidays. Is there anything better than a brisk, misty morning stroll down a cobblestoned street, especially a street that ends with this view?

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