Family traditions: sand, surf and ice cream on Nantucket.

As much as I believe in travel that shows the kids different places and cultures, there is also something to be said for family traditions that take you back to the same place year after year. For us, that place is Nantucket. Every summer, we spend a few weeks on the island exploring the beaches and reconnecting as a family. We read, dig holes in the sand, collect shells, surf, boogie board, eat fresh seafood, and take epic naps (there is something about the sea air!). Over the years, the boys have created a “must-do-while-on island” mental checklist. Not only do we go to the same beach every summer, we eat at the same restaurants, visit the same museums, and eat the same ice cream– and it never gets old. We all look forward to checking in with our favorite spots and this year I had a realization: this is how family traditions are born and emotional memories are created. The boys may not remember every about detail about the time we spend on Nantucket, but I’m willing to bet that boarding the ferry will always trigger the same sense of nostalgia and anticipation for them that it does for me.

brandt point lighthouse

So, back to that must-do checklist. The beaches are the obvious draw on Nantucket, but there is also a surprising (for such a tiny island) amount of adventure, history and marine ecology for the kids to discover. The following list is a mixed bag– museums, restaurants, beaches, and (of course) skateparks– of our favorite places and things to do on the island.

Off Season Travel – We swapped out the peak summer months of July and August for the quieter (and much more affordable) weeks of late June. The crowds in town, on the roads, and on the beach threaten to be unbearable in July and August. But in June, the island is blissfully quiet and just as beautiful, and you can decide at 4:00 p.m. to go out to dinner without reservations. The only drawback to June is the bracingly cold water. It was 59F when we arrived on June 15 and had warmed up only to 63F when we left on the 28th. A few years ago, we invested in four wetsuits which solved that problem, but it’s still a shock to swim in water that cold. September is gorgeous all around and probably my favorite time to visit– warm water, no crowds– but of course there is that darn school schedule to consider.

Cisco Beach – For such a small island, Nantucket has very distinct areas. Parents might be tempted to stay near the kid-friendly Children’s Beach or Jetties– both close to town with snack bars and playgrounds– but we much prefer Cisco. Cisco Beach is only ten minutes or so outside of town, but it’s on the south shore, so you get bigger waves and fewer crowds. Cisco is also home to three of my favorite places on the island– Bartlett Farm, East Coast Seafood, and Cisco Brewers. With these three spots a short bike ride from home, you can almost get away with one big shop at the A&P and then supplement with fresh fish and veggies for the rest of the week. The big news at Cisco this year is the new bike path, which was transformative for the boys. Instead of schlepping everyone back and forth, we made one trip with the car and then rode our bikes back and forth to the house.

surfing cisco beach

Surfing – Another reason we like Cisco is because it is home to the island’s best surf break. We were spoiled almost to the point of ruin learning to surf in the warm waters of Costa Rica, but once we got those wetsuits I had no excuse not to give it a go in the cold Atlantic water. The conditions have to be right– and they are inconsistent at best– but the folks at the Nantucket Surf School set up their rentals right on the beach and can usually help you pick a board that will work. This year, I tried a longboard (9’6″) for the first time and had a blast riding tiny little waves. They also offer group or private lessons and wetsuit rentals. Our boys are not quite confident enough to try surfing at Cisco yet, but they have a blast with their boogie boards!

The Juice Bar – The Juice Bar is as synonymous with Nantucket as Ben & Jerry’s is with Vermont. Packed to overflowing most nights, it is probably one of the most popular spots on the island– and for good reason. The ice cream is delicious, the homemade waffles cones are to die for, and  it’s right in the center of town, so you can walk around with your ice cream looking at the boats.

Crabbing – When the boys have had enough of the beach, the first thing they ask to do is go crabbing. Over the years, they’ve caught more snapping turtles than crabs, but either way it’s a thrill for them to pull one of these creatures from the water. You don’t need much to go crabbing– just some string and chicken wings for bait (and maybe a few anti-bacterial wipes). The best spot is out off Madaket Road.

crabbing madaket

Aunt Leah’s Fudge – Another institution (and indulgence for your sweet tooth) Aunt Leah’s fudge is a required stop. The boys favor penuchi and chocolate, but there are many flavors to choose from, and she ships all around the country if you really can’t wait a whole year for your next fix.

Fishing – My oldest loves, loves, loves to fish and starts begging us to go as soon as we get on island. One year, for his birthday, we went with some friends on a fishing charter and caught a huge striped bass, but most years we content ourselves fishing for scup on the docks. The harbor is teeming with these little fish, and we’ve never gone without catching something. You can grab supplies at Nantucket Bait and Tackle.

dock fishing nantucket

Maria Mitchell Aquarium – The tiny little Maria Mitchell is home to sea life commonly found in the waters around Nantucket. Fisherman with unexpected finds in their nets bring various species to the aquarium, which is home to lobsters, clams, muscles, hermit crabs, scup, and a dogfish named Rufus. There are a couple of tanks, including a touch tank where kids can pick up and explore harmless little sea animals. This year, we went on a marine ecology walk out in Madaket with an incredibly well-informed staff of aquarium interns. We helped to collect, sort, and document crabs and scallops from the bay, and learned about the various species found on the island. Like many other islands, Nantucket is a unique habitat for marine life, as it is free from many predators found on the mainland.

maria mitchell trip

Pocoma Point – We usually spend at least one beach day at Pocomo Point. The flat, shallow water is great for younger kids, and for kayaking and shell collecting. It’s also a well-know kite surfing location. We don’t kite surf, but there are almost always a few people out on the water and it’s fun to watch.

Millie’s Restaurant in Madaket – One thing you won’t get in Cisco is a sunset. So, at least once (and usually twice) we head over to Millie’s for dinner and a sunset walk on the beach. The restaurant is named after Madaket Millie, a Nantucket legend who spent her life caring for the beaches and animals in Madeket. The food is great– fish tacos, fresh guacamole, excellent margaritas– and there a little ice cream stand next door if the kids get fidgety after dinner.

The Skatepark – We discovered the skate park behind the school two years ago, and it’s a favorite of the boys. It’s really well done with a bowl, ramps of varying height, gaps, rails, and jumps (I had to get this lingo from the boys as I’m out of my league here). And, it’s free!

skatepark nantucket

The Nantucket Whaling Musuem – Before it became a summer playground for East Coast vacationers, the tiny island of Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. The Whaling Museum is– like most things on island– small but very well done. There are lots of relics from the whaling days, the history of how the island influenced the whaling industry worldwide is pretty interesting. Highlights include a full skeleton of a sperm whale, scrimshaw, an 1849 lens from Sankaty lighthouse, and history about the islands Native Americans.

Nantucket Bookworks – I’m a sucker for an independent bookstore, and this is one of my favorites anywhere. It’s cozy and small, but filled to the brim with excellent reads for all ages. There is a fantastic kids section (though the boys have graduated to the “young adult nook”) and I always find a great book for vacation. Looking for a Nantucket inspired read? Try Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, one of my favorite pieces of historical fiction.

nantucket bookworks

The Sunken Ship – Last, but not least, no trip to Nantucket would be complete without a trip to the Sunken Ship (conveniently right next to the Juice Bar). Full of toys, souvenirs, beach games, hats, and t-shirts, the boys burn through their hard-earned spending money splurging on necessities like water balloons, cap guns, legos, and whoopie cushions.

My guess is that every family that visits Nantucket has their own favorite beaches and traditions. These are ours, but I would love to hear about your “must-do” list…or better yet, where your family has built its own traditions. Happy summer!

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