The island off the Massachusetts’ coast offers beaches for every age, low-key accommodations, miles of biking paths and an epic whaling history worthy of story time.

Nantucket, that handsome, blue blooded island off the coast of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod is the “just right” Goldilocks choice of kid-friendly summer destinations along the United States’ eastern seaboard.

At three-and-a-half miles by 14 miles long, the island is contained enough to navigate without a car, but big enough to explore for days. It has great beaches, quality family attractions and is devoid of could-be-anywhere low-quality amusements like go-karts, hair braiding and mini-golf. While mostly residential, the island has a wide selection of low-key accommodation options. And it has dining choices that eschew fast food chains -- though perhaps they should make an exception for Starbucks given the island’s role in the inspiration of the novel, Moby-Dick. It has everything you need for a family vacation, and brilliantly, nothing more.

The only downside is the high cost of vacationing there, but with great expense comes great service, and it has done a good job of curtailing modern commercial blight and crowds. The island’s long slow trend from being a romantic getaway to a family one has merely extended its high standards to a wider age range.

Despite the wealth and exponentially increasing property values on the island, none of Nantucket’s more than 80 miles of beach are privately owned. The first, and most revisited, on our four-day trip this June, was Children’s Beach. The only beach in the island’s small main town (also called Nantucket and the loci for the whole island since the early 1700s), Children’s has a playground, a small field and a stage with organized activities for kids. I was initially underwhelmed, because it is more of a park than a beach and moored boats float 30ft from the sand, but my four-year-old daughter, Alice, found something that made it hugely attractive to her: fast new friends with whom to splash in the shallows and climb on the jungle gym. 

Jetties Beach, just north of town, was the family crowd pleaser with a far expanse of warm, shallow water, a decent concession stand and -- while we were there -- seal sightings. Less crowded Surfside, directly south from Nantucket town, was farther away and had fewer food options, but the waves were bigger, which is more fun for the boogie board set. Public buses can take you there, Jetties and Madaket, on the western end of the island, which has no on-beach services other than a portable toilet, but is the best spot to watch the sunset.

Our only overly ambitious parenting decision (read: mistake) was to bike nearly eight miles out to the east end of the island, to the village of Quidnet, where my wife stayed on family trips throughout her childhood. Its beach is lovely, and the neighbouring Sesachacha Pond offers an alternative to chilly ocean temperatures, but the hot journey and lack of lunch options made the children overheated, cranky messes.  

Other attractions

My heatwave folly aside, biking is a fun way to get out of Nantucket town, especially to areas not serviced by the local buses, such as Quidnet. There are more than 30 miles of wide, dedicated bike paths that cross the island, some running along the route of an old tourist  railroad which ran from 1881 to 1917. I thought the $69 price tag for two adult bikes and a Burley child trailer for the kids from Nantucket Bike Shop was a bit steep, but when we got a flat tyre on the far side of the island, the price more than paid for itself with the free and quick roadside assistance.

More to the liking of Alice, for reasons that are evident in its name, was the Ice Cream Cruise that putted around the town harbour for close-ups of boats, houses and birds. While passengers merrily slurped their cones and ice cream sandwiches, Captain Max Perkins discussed local fauna and, just as knowledgably, local politics. He also gave my daughter a thrill by letting her take the wheel of the 26ft-launch when we were far from any obstacles. For kids old enough to handle longer excursions, the same company does whale watches, which can last for six hours. And we were visiting too early in the season to go, but the sailboat Endeavor has a kid-centric pirate-themed cruise during the high season of July and August.

Back on shore, the two-room Maria Mitchell Aquarium might be overlooked unless your kids are excited to see local fish and touch hermit crabs. But for a few dollars more, it is worth going on “Feeding Frenzy” mornings (9 am Monday through Saturday in the high season) to witness fish, crabs and an 80-year-old lobster go wild for their breakfast. They also offer week-long summer programs for budding Cousteaus ages four to 15.

The town library, a stately old building called the Atheneum, was a surprise hit, with a beautiful children’s wing, a climbing tree outside and an event calendar full of activities, including the Mexican folk singers who were entertaining a dozen kids on the lawn when we arrived.

Prior to visiting the excellent Whaling Museum in the centre of town, which retells the island’s nearly 100-year-history as the whaling capital of the world, my daughter had peppered us with questions about the whaling trade, so the subject was not upsetting (though it may upsetting for younger kids). She even sat in the front row for an adult-geared telling of the story of the whaleship Essex, famous for being the inspiration of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. But before the tale turned to the starving crew’s desperate cannibalism after the whale sank their ship, my wife steered her to the museum’s Room of Curiosities where a friendly docent chatted to Alice, and my wife leaned over the balcony to hear the end of the gripping tale. A suspended whale skeleton, a lighthouse light, a roof deck and a model version of the tourist train that starts with a push of a button are all appealing to little ones, but the Discovery Room, with its facilitator-led nautical craft making, themed children’s books, interactive exhibits and period dress-up, can happily occupy a youngster for hours.

For movie-going aged children, the island’s new Dreamland theatre is the nicest option – it was the main venue for the star-studded Nantucket Film Festival while we were there. But the smaller Starlight Theatre & Cafe has a nice option of combining a film with a kid-friendly meal.

Restaurant options on the island range from haute cuisine to seafood takeaway, and most places cater to young guests. The friendly Fog Island Cafe has the feel and cuisine of a small town diner, with hearty breakfast options such as cheesy huevos rancheros (a Mexican take on eggs, beans and salsa) and “trail cakes” (pancakes made with granola and bananas), served in cosy wooden booths with bottomless cups of coffee. Better still is the popular Black Eyed Susan’s, with excellent buttermilk pancakes and a hash brown scramble that is worth the wait for a table.

There are many great spots for lunch, but catering to the pack-‘n’-go beach-bound crowd is Something Natural, set back in an old house a short walk from town. It has thick, fresh sandwiches with choices of veggies and meats (made even more delicious on their famous herb bread), and huge cookies. The best lunch spot we found was Claudette's Sandwiches (10 Main Street; 508-257-6622), an informal spot out in the easterly village of Siasconset (shorten to ‘Sconset, lest you sound like a tourist). Their hearty and lovingly prepared sandwiches are served on a shady deck across from the public bus stop.

For a quick dinner in the heart of Nantucket town, we tried the newly opened Sea Dog, a lively and airy pub with burgers, corn, sweet potato fries, crispy beer battered fish ‘n’ chips, and beers from the local Cisco brewery. Admittedly more appealing to adults for its beer selection alone, the Brotherhood of Thieves is split into two dining areas that appeal to younger patrons, one a shady patio and garden, the other a dark and cool former whaler’s drinking hole. Our meal of a kids-sized grilled cheese with vegetables, black bean veggie burger and chunky lobster roll, washed down with a milk, Peak Summit ale and a Painkiller cocktail (rum, coconut cream and fruit juices) respectively, left everyone happy.

But Millie’s, a few blocks from Madaket Beach, was our favourite spot. Their hourly shuttle bus picked us up from the town visitor centre and we went swimming before dinner. Still in our wet bathing suits, we picked out two picnic tables – the second, a pint-sized one my daughter preferred. Inside are pictures of the salty local after whom the restaurant is named, including a shot of her with Fred Rogers, the famous children’s television presenter, who also lived nearby. Our affordable meal of seared tuna tacos, vegetable-stuffed quesadilla and margaritas, was probably the best we had on the island -- enhanced by al fresco sea breezes.

The winner of my informal poll on where to get the best ice cream was nearly unanimously Juice Bar (12 Broad Street, 508-228-5799), a small corner shop in Nantucket town that deservedly has a line snaking out its door and around the corner during high season. We happily raced to catch the rivulets of locally made chocolate chip cookie dough and mint Oreo ice cream melting down our cones and dripping onto our hands.

We stayed at the Cottages & Lofts at Nantucket Boat Basin, individual one- to three-room weather-worn cabins with views over the water, located on the piers at the eastern end of Nantucket town. With kitchens and full-sized refrigerators and no adjoining cottages, they are great for self-sufficiency and noise insulation. The office has DVDs for all ages and colouring and activity books to hand out, but it is worth staying there for the “beach bus” alone — an exclusive pick-up/drop-off service for guests that includes towels, folding chairs and beach toys.

The Cottages are part of an accommodation group that owns some of the best real estate in town. Its White Elephant Hotel, pricier than the cottages, is located next to Children’s Beach and was ranked last year in the top 20 of Travel + Leisure's list of the best family hotels in North America for nice touches like the kids’ story hour in the library. The company’s Residences and Inn, the highest end of the group, have posh suites and exclusive amenities such as boat rentals and its own pool (with free ice cream in the afternoons).

There are many other options, of course, including inns and bed and breakfasts, both in and out of town. has a comprehensive list of options, with descriptions and links to the properties.

The general affluence of Nantucket means the shopping experience is more Ralph Lauren than T-shirt shops. But there are still opportunities for kids to find memory-worthy souvenirs. Nantucket Bookworks has a kids’ room jam packed with books, book-related toys and other fun games and puzzles. My daughter was charmed by the cute, nautical-themed apparel at Kidding Around (2 Broad Street; 508-228-7952), but finally gave in to one of the high quality options at the Toy Boat, choosing a fairy princess doll she immediately took to the tiny fairy garden just outside the shop.

Getting there
Part of Nantucket’s preserved charm is its 30-mile distance from the mainland (the island’s name means "far away land" in the indigenous Wampanoag dialect). The ferries of the Steamship Authority and Hi-Line Cruises leave year-round from the town of Hyannis on Cape Cod, while the Freedom Cruise Line runs June through September from the Cape’s Harwich Port. Ferries are fun and romantic and a great option when time is on your side, but for a quicker option from New York, Jet Blue has a 40-minute flight from JFK to the island’s small airport. The Jet Blue terminal wisely built play areas in which kids can tire themselves before getting on a plane, and the airline has extended the route into the late October shoulder season this year. Delta also flies from New York directly to Nantucket until September, and Cape Air flies from Boston.