5 Reasons Fall Is the Best Time to Visit Nantucket (and Eat Everything)

Two words: Scallop. Season. 

Nantucket int he fall
Photo: sbossert/Getty Images

Nantucket, the tiny island 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, swells with visitors in the summer months. The population goes from fewer than 10,000 year-rounders to more than 60,000 during peak season, with jeeps congesting its charming cobblestoned streets. Dune-lined beaches and preppy boutiques bustle with crowds, and every table with even the slightest hint of coastal views is filled to capacity. And don’t get us wrong — it’s very fun. There’s a laid-back vibe that belies all that bustle.

But there’s also something to be said about forgoing the chaos and planning your trip for the fall. Prices for some of the plushest rooms on the island plummet in the off-season, restaurants with month-long waits are walk-in ready, and some of the island’s best seafood becomes available. Read on for the five reasons that Nantucket is best in the fall.

1. It's scallop season!

Regan Stephens

Compared to the larger sea scallops, which are available year-round, Nantucket bay scallops have a relatively short harvest window. The commercial season officially kicks off on November 1, with restaurants around the island quickly adding the small, sweet seafood to menus — flash-sautéed with butter and fresh pasta, or tucked inside strips of crispy bacon. If you’re on-island in October, though, you should take advantage of “family scalloping”, which begins the first of the month and allows for recreational scallopers to fill up a basket from Wednesdays to Sundays.

Regan Stephens

Pick up supplies at Brant Point Marine (waders, a push-rake, and a basket attached to an inner tube), grab a permit at the police station a few minutes away, and head to Madaket harbor at low tide. It’s not as daunting as it sounds! And it’s one of the most delightfully New England ways to pass a Saturday afternoon, meditatively wading through the water, sifting a rake through the eelgrass right off shore, and trading recipes with your fellow scallopers.

Alternatively, forgo the gear and just head to any of the popular scalloping beaches at low tide and watch the scallopers wading (and some scuba diving or snorkelling) for their catches.

2. And cranberry season.

Nantucket Cranberries
Regan Stephens

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation hosts its yearly Cranberry Festival in early October. Founded in 1857, 285 acres of commercial bogs are operated by the second and third generation of the Larrabee family, with 155 acres in active production. Along with fun festival standards like live music, hayrides, and face painting, visitors can check out harvesting demonstrations and a vintage cranberry sorting machine that's still in use, or, for the ultimate Instagram souvenir, pull on waders to trek right into the bright red, berry-filled bog.

Cranberry Bog
Regan Stephens

Don’t leave before sampling the fruit of the harvest from local vendors, including cranberry granola and pies from Bartlett’s Farm, chocolate-covered cranberries from Sweet Inspirations, and fresh cranberry pecan bread and cookies from Wicked Island Bakery, and leave with a bag of just-harvested organic cranberries to pep up your fall recipes.

2. You can take off-season cooking classes.

Oysters at The Wauwinet
Courtesy of The Wauwinet

One of the island’s most memorable summer dining experiences involves taking the launch to dinner at Topper’s at the Wauwinet. Meet Captain Rob behind the White Elephant hotel in town, and be transported to the fine-dining restaurant on a leisurely hour-long boat ride across the Nantucket bay, all while sipping cocktails and taking in sweeping views of sea and sailboats. But in the off-season, guests of the historic inn can get a more hands-on experience with a one-on-one cooking class with chef Kyle Zachary. The luxury resort’s executive chef will walk you through preparing a few of his signature dishes, like broiled Retsyo oysters with melted leeks, bacon, and creamy lemon sabayon.

The Retsyos (oyster spelled backward) are cultivated in the bay a mere 300 yards offshore, and can make it to your table here just hours after they’re harvested. Complementing the cooking lesson is wine expertly chosen by wine director and sommelier, Jason Irving, from the restaurant’s award-winning collection. Among the other gastronomically compelling reasons to station yourself at the Wauwinet in the fall: surfcasting for blue fish, albacore, or striped bass on their private Atlantic beach, lobstering trips aboard the Wauwinet Lady, hot apple cider and an afternoon port and cheese hour, both set in the cozy, light-filled library, and lemon ricotta pancakes and fresh-squeezed OJ at breakfast, served with a serene waterfront view.

4. No lines at the ice cream shops.

Ice cream Nantucket in the fall
Courtesy of Island Kitchen

A year-round spot beloved by locals, Island Kitchen offers one of the best breakfasts on Nantucket, with fluffy egg scrambles peppered with house-smoked salmon and panko-crusted eggs benedict with housemade hollandaise. Chef Patrick Ridge opened the restaurant (which also serves an excellent lunch and dinner) a few years ago, but added the Counter at Island Kitchen just last summer, slinging freshly-churned ice cream. Before he did, though, Ridge traveled to roughly 30 of the country’s best ice cream shops to conduct some thorough R & D, and his hard-earned findings are reflected in his stellar scoops.

Made with 16% butterfat (compared to regular ice cream’s 10%, and most premium brands’ around 12-14%), the rich and ultra-creamy confection comes in seasonal flavors like pumpkin spice, and stalwarts like blueberry pie, peppermint brownie, and Captain Crunch. For the latter, Ridge soaks the cereal in milk before mixing it into the batch for a knockout combo of two of nature’s best foods melding into one perfect bite.

Who says ice cream is strictly a summer food? Show yourself.

5. Easy reservations at Nantucket's busiest restaurants.

The Wauwinet
Courtesy of The Wauwinet

For such a small island, Nantucket has a wealth of top-notch dining options, yet it’s still nearly impossible in the summer months to score a reservation at a time an adult human would consider acceptable. In town, the Nautilus is serving tender, pink tuna poké and plates of Thai-spiced blue crab fried rice, reserve wines by the glass, and inventive cocktails made with booze distilled on-island, but from June to early September, reservations are taken day-of only, either in person starting at noon, or an hour later over the phone.

Come fall, though, the system is far less stressful. Make a reservation up to a month in advance, or most nights you can walk in and at the very least find two seats at the bar. Tables all over the island with waterfront views, coveted in peak season, are up for grabs now, too. At Brant Point Grill, from your seats overlooking the quaint Children’s Beach and Nantucket harbor, feast on grilled two-pound lobsters or the restaurant’s signature lobster mac and cheese (or get both — double lobster is totally acceptable on vacation), and choose from the roster of craft beers from New England-based breweries, including Cisco, brewed a few miles away. Also, In late September, Nantucket Restaurant Week has multi-course dinners at some of the island’s best restaurants — from classics like the Club Car and Oran Mor to newer spots like Proprietors and Ventuno — on offer for between $25 and $50, i.e. the usual price for one entree at some of these spots.

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