I knew the phrase “Call me Ishmael” long before I had heard of Moby Dick or Nantucket, as it is the last lines of the movie Matilda. As I got older I learned that Nantucket occupies a special place in the American imagination, and thus it seemed quite fitting that Matilda, a girl with extraordinary intelligence, would enjoy adventures with Captain Ahab and the white whale.
We first went to Nantucket three years ago during a summer vacation with my family. It was the only rainy day during our week on the Massachusetts coast, but the rain did not diminish the mystique of this island. My boyfriend does not necessarily share my desire to see every historical site in the United Sates, yet visiting an island known in imagination for so long through the words of Melville visibly moved him.
Nantucket is famous for its baskets, woven from rattan with wooden bases. These baskets were first used in the whaling ships in the 1800s and their appearance has changed little since then. They are incongruous in the modern world and yet they look at home amongst the grey cedar shingles of Nantucket’s old whaling mansions. Standing in the rain we watched a well-dressed man wearing an ornate chain of office emerge from the Pacific National Bank at the top of Main Street. Behind him several women, equally well-dressed in pretty linens, processed down the cobbled streets carrying their woven Lighthouse baskets. While we never found out who the people were, we still reminisce about seeing the King of Nantucket.
Although part of the state of Massachusetts, Nantucket is a world apart. Indeed in 1977 the island formally tried to secede from Massachusetts. It is only 30 miles south of Cape Cod, and yet, despite their shared affluence and sea-faring heritage, these summertime meccas are entirely different. Comprised of only 45 square miles of land, Nantucket is a both a step across time and geography. Arguably as influenced by England as by America, Nantucket is a living testament to the vibrant transatlantic culture that flourished in colonial America.
Perhaps because of their colonial connections, Nantucket has a distinctly English feel about it, and this is best exemplified in their annual Daffodil Weekend celebration, known locally as Daffy Day. When planning a trip away for my birthday in April, I was thrilled to learn that Daffy Day corresponded with my birthday weekend and knew instantly that this was how I wanted to celebrate.
Being an island utterly dependent on the mainland, it is easy to understand why Nantucket would welcome the beginning of Spring. While summertime Nantucket plays host to the elite of America and their boats, life on the island is not always so glamorous. I recently read a fascinating New York Times article written after Nantucket’s last funeral home closed. Bodies now have to be shipped to the nearest funeral parlor on the Cape and returned to Nantucket for burial. The Times detailed a funeral at which the body the was not present as rough weather prevented sea travel. With the worst winter on record I can only imagine how hard life was for year-rounders on the island this year.
At this year’s Daffy the sense of a new beginning was palpable. Ferries from the mainland were sold out and Nantucket’s cobbled streets bustled with holidaymakers. The excitement began before we had even arrived at the island as the ferry carried several passengers sporting daffodil attire. For some this was a subtle boutonniere, for others a cycling helmet sprouting daffs.
As you pull into Nantucket harbor Great Point lighthouse greets you. To many visitors, the sight of this national treasure is a welcome sign of summer. For Daffy weekend the lighthouse was bedecked with a large wreath of daffodils, and we jostled with the ferry full of Daffy-goers to get a glimpse of the famous landmark.Walking off the ferry and up the cobbled streets was like walking into fairyland, and I think I nearly broke my boyfriend’s hand I was gripping it so hard in excitement. Window boxes, storefronts, and even parking meters were decorated with daffodils. I don’t know whether it’s the sea air or something in the soil but the daffodils in Nantucket were the largest I have ever seen–the flowers were as big as dessert plates.
As we wandered towards Main Street scores of vintage cars decorated with daffodils and spring flowers gathered for a rally. In total there were about 100 cars, including many classic British designs such as the Morris Minor, a car my Grandparents had once owned. We stood in the sunlight and watched as the cars tackled the uneven cobbled streets. It was clear from the emcee’s lively commentary filled with insider jokes that Nantucket is a very close community. The day was a family affair with several generations cheering and clapping as the cars entered the thoroughfare. Old friends welcomed each other back to the island with hugs and salutations of “Happy Daffy!”
Once the cars had all arrived we wandered to the children’s beach for the next stage of the festivities: a children’s parade and a decorated hat competition. Both were delightfully English and took me back to the Easter Bonnet parades of my childhood. While the English are naturally competitive, the Americans take it to a new level. If an English bonnet had 50 daffodils on it, an American one would have 100. Standing on the beach watching grown men balance daffodil planters on their heads was one of the most surreal experiences I could imagine. Surreal but ever so nice.The final celebration of the Daffy day morning was a dog parade through downtown. The cobbled Main Street in Nantucket is very small, I would imagine there are about 20-30 shops in total. As we ambled back to the Main Street area, a voice over the loudspeaker announced that the dog parade would begin in front of the Ralph Lauren store. This seemed to capture the essence of Nantucket–no funeral parlor but still a Ralph Lauren.
The people of Nantucket have a spark of wonderful eccentricity that delights my English self. I’ve never seen so many bold flower-print clothing garments in my life. Any object that could be decorated was, whether it be headbands, bikes, or Nantucket baskets. This spirit, gusto, and willingness to look, quite frankly, a little daft is quintessentially English. As we walked along the sloping cobbles, a troupe of Morris Dancers came towards us. While they are often viewed as a quaint English village tradition, I, like my mother, hate Morris Dancers. I had to move away as I couldn’t suppress my laughter as I watched a team of men, likely high-achieving lawyers, doctors, and fathers amongst them, painstakingly count out their steps while waving hankies and sticks. I never in my wildest dreams expected to see Morris Dancers outside of English village fetes, but it seems Nantucket is the place to find them.With the morning festivities ending we ate our first lobster rolls of the year before joining a bus to take us to our next destination–the annual Nantucket Daffodil Show. One of the highlights of my childhood calendar was our local flower show. Together with other local children, I entered contests for the best handwriting, seascape, flower display or fairy garden, and the perennial favorite: the vegetable alien. The local village show is so distinctly English it is very hard to explain to an American. For one thing there is not necessarily a winner in each category. For example, you could have only one entry in a category and yet it might only win 3rd prize as it is not deemed good enough to win 1st. In addition, the judges have a little card in which they can (and do) write rather scathing comments about the entry. My boyfriend is fascinated with this odd English eccentricity, and thus was very excited for the Nantucket equivalent.
The 41st Annual Nantucket Daffodil Festival did not disappoint. Approved by the American Daffodil Society, Inc. they follow the English Royal Horticultural Society’s classification rules. We walked through rows and rows of individual daffodil stems competing in different flower categories. My favorite category was “Best Historical Daffodil.” We were thrilled to find that the Nantucket judges could be equally scathing, and wrote comments like “use a sharper knife for a cleaner stem cut,” when disappointed with an entry.
After the individual flower categories we idled through daffodil photo contest, before ending at the flower arrangements based on the theme “Found on Nantucket.” We found that we didn’t really understand the judges’ reasoning, and often disagreed with their awards and comments. But this is part of the charm of a local flower show.
To end our day on Nantucket we wandered along the beach collecting shells before heading to Sayle’s Seafood, an unassuming seafood shack at the end of a residential road. When walking from downtown it seems highly unlikely that there will be a restaurant in this area, but I promise it is there. The restaurant only has three or four plastic tables and chairs, and you sit surrounded by lobster tanks and counters displaying giant tuna and cod. Looking out the window you can see the ocean as you bite into some of the freshest, most delicious fried seafood around. The scallops are the size of burgers and the Fisherman’s Platter easily serves two.
Full of seafood we ambled back to the ferry as dusk drew in across Nantucket Harbor. While ours was a different type of escapade from those of Ahab and the Pequod crew, Nantucket remains ripe for adventure. Spending the first day of my next decade on this fairytale island, I was, without doubt, a very happy daffy.