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SMITH: Visiting Nantucket a whale of a good time

NANTUCKET, Mass. — Life on this cozy island, which was once the whaling capital of the world, is like a sumptuous smorgasbord that leaves you flummoxed over the choices you have. There’s difficulty in making up your mind as to what you like best.

Luxury yachts are docked about and so are dinghies. Nantucket is also a sailboat haven. It is fun to walk the docks and observe the diversity of sea-going vessels. It is also enlivening to walk the uneven, cobblestone streets, made from the ballast rocks brought over by sailing ships in the old days. Find a coffee place, enjoy that first cup as you remind yourself that some of those rocks were offloaded more than 400 years ago. There’s no neon, no eyesores in the way of signage. The island is clean and kempt because those who live here and play here police up after themselves.

A long weekend here puts your spirits in an upward mode. You can come here and do nothing if you like. I’ve never been good at that, but I think I could succumb with more time on Nantucket. From the cottage where we were staying, I could go outside and look out to the Atlantic past foliage, steeples, and main masts and catch the sun peeking over the horizon. Think of those who have that option every day.

Living where trees surround our property is nice, but I have to leave town to witness sunrises and sunsets. When I have the opportunity to see the sun start or end the day, I consider it one of life’s grand rewards. Here last week, I got to do both. At Wauwinet, a place where the environment gets top billing, you can move out back of a restaurant, Toppers, and look past the low-lying bushes and water to see the sun slide down past the horizon. Then to get up the next morning and see the sunrise over the Atlantic, the doubling of your pleasure, makes your day.

At Toppers, a waitress, Joy Cran, perked up when she overheard mention of Georgia football. She is from St. Simons and immediately summoned her husband Hieu to talk football with us and our friends Jay and Clare Walker. I have come to believe that you could wander up to an oasis in the Sahara and find a Bulldog. On Weymouth Street there is a gray shingled cottage, built in 1755, that has a neat sign which reveals that John Greenleaf Whittier wrote The Exiles there in 1839.

Downtown there are shops unlimited. Restaurants and alluring watering holes, churches with tall steeples, charming cottages, and life unrestrained. Then there is the whaling museum, billed as one of the places you must see before the end of your days. Many seem to agree as they line up to enjoy the story of the days when Nantucket was the epicenter of the whale trade. It was a risky business, especially when a harpooned whale retaliated with fury and resolve. A quartet of smiling ladies takes turns making presentations about the whaling industry — a mean (danger at sea) and nasty (handling all that blubber) business but one that brought about excessive wealth for the Quaker-inspired community. They will tell you about the Essex, captained by George Pollard Jr., whose ship met an inglorious fate when a whale attacked and sank the vessel in the South Pacific. Pollard’s men set out in small boats, and, even with resorting to cannibalism, only eight survivors returned home to Nantucket. The fate of the Essex inspired the novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville.

The retelling of the tale and a review of the artifacts in the museum is a reminder that doomsayers need to remember the history of Nantucket. For a century, Nantucket prospered because of the work ethic and the whale industry. Industry depended on whale oil to run its machinery. Our forebears lighted their lamps with whale oil. Candles made from the whale were a luxury item.

Then crude oil was discovered in Pennsylvania. Soon we lighted our lamps with the cheaper-to-produce kerosene and the less offensive byproduct of whale blubber. Kerosene lamps were prominent in rural homes in the U.S. in the fifties until the Rural Electrification Act brought cheap electricity to the masses. Kerosene gave way to the electric light, championed by Thomas Edison.

Whaling died away, but Nantucket survived. First it became a place for artists and later a vacation retreat. Today it is one of the favored summer colonies on the East Coast. All of this is to remind us, once again, that necessity remains the mother of invention.