Fantasy Islands

Natural Wonders

What's the best way for families visiting Nantucket to experience the island's undiscovered beauty and rich history? By taking a tour with two of its youngest year-round residents.

Nathaniel Raynor is like a lot of 10-year-old boys. He has a strong pitch and is working hard on his pop-fly catches. He likes football and basketball, is rightfully proud of his hybrid bike, and talks with impressive sophistication about the memory potential of his new computer. He, like his eight-year-old sister, Jacqueline (or “Jacq,” as she prefers), loves playing with Kramer and Brodie, their two puppies. An energetic diva-in-training, Jacq spends her time drawing, making bead jewelry, and cheerleading. After dinner, she likes to break out the karaoke machine and vamp it up to loud pop music, sometimes changing her outfit three or four times in half an hour.

All in all, they're pretty typical kids.

But something sets the Raynor children apart. They are growing up year-round on Nantucket Island, a place filled with so much natural beauty and historic charm that other families wait all year to spend their vacations here. Their parents, Seth and Angela Raynor, owners of two acclaimed Nantucket restaurants, the Boarding House and the Pearl, are very much aware that where they live is special. And they make a continued effort to keep their children conscious of the island's beautiful environment and rich local history. As a result, the family is always in tune with the changing nature of the island, which goes from a close-knit, quiet community during the off season to a bustling, high-energy playground in the summer.

Families on vacation here may have seemingly endless activities from which to choose on land and sea (from biking and bass fishing to kiting and sailing), but our precocious tour guides, Nathaniel and Jacq, can show off the secrets of Nantucket from a kid's-eye view.

Their first suggestion is the most obvious source for summer fun: the water. Both Nathaniel and Jacq have a deep affection for the ocean. From a young age both children have spent much of their time on and in the sea, and every summer they log as many (if not more) hours on the beach as the families that vacation here. What makes the Raynors' ocean visits different? Their early-morning arrival — not always under sunny skies — and the gear they tow with them: surfboards and wetsuits rather than coolers and umbrellas. With a little help from Nantucket Island Surf School, the Raynor children are happily following in their father's wake. (Seth Raynor is an avid surfer.) The school is the very definition of fun and experiential learning: It uses the ocean surf of Cisco Beach as its classroom; the lessons are taught by teachers named “Raymundo” and “Shagadelis”; and homework means practicing balance and learning to read the waves.

“Everything about Nantucket is the ocean,” says Nathaniel, who monitors the summertime wave and tidal activity. “The beaches are awesome, and the surf can get pretty big. It's also fun just to go out on a boat. You can go fishing if you want or just go out on the water and look at stuff.” That “stuff” translates to humpback and fin whales, sea turtles, dolphins, and seals. With his pal Alex Perkins, also 10, Nathaniel is able to take advantage of a program called Shearwater Excursions that Alex's parents, Blair and Rachael Perkins, run. Blair Perkins, a tall and engaging man, takes his 50-foot power-catamaran on daily trips that leave from Walter Barrett Public Pier. Small and large groups can come along for two-hour seal cruises or advance to six-hour whale watches or daylong eco tours.

“I grew up on a farm here on the island, and the natural beauty really rubbed off on me,” says Captain Perkins, who keeps the focus of every trip firmly on the fragile ecosystem of the wildlife in the air and ocean, and the geography of their habitats. “To show children that there is more to Nantucket than the golf courses and resorts is important to me. The kids are really into it, especially when they get to see a 2,000-pound ocean sunfish up close or when a 40-foot basking shark glides under the boat with its mouth wide open. Sometimes they squeal, but then they think it's cool that this type of shark has no teeth and lives on plankton.”

Both Raynor children have participated in the Strong Wings Adventure School, founded by John Simms. “Every instructor has a specialized skill that they use to guide the kids to connect with their surroundings,” says Simms. “Be it kayaking or rock climbing, we work on having the kids be aware of the moment and empowering them.” A large campus near Nantucket Memorial Airport is home base for an ever-changing series of excursions that incorporate exercise or craftwork with discovering the environs of Nantucket. Remembering her first experience at Strong Wings years ago, Jacq talks about climbing big rocks and wandering through the creeks, looking at “all kinds of crabs and clams and little fish.” She also remembers a lot of mud. “We didn't learn a thing,” she insists. “It was just a lot of fun.” Later, however, she attributes her knowledge of tides and currents to such after-school programs as Strong Wings.

“Strong Wings is good for visiting kids, too,” says Nathaniel, “because they get to see parts of the island they'd never find on their own.” There are also other, more lasting benefits of the experience, he says. “I don't think they'd drop candy wrappers or bubble gum on the street anymore.”

A knowledgeable and curious preteen, Nathaniel is interested in the history of the island, which began as a whaling center in the 1600s. In the center of town, two cobblestoned blocks from the ferry landing, sits the Nantucket Whaling Museum, built in 1847 as an oil and candle factory. It houses exhibits on Nantucket's whaling and whale oil industries, and an impressive collection of maritime artifacts — including pieces from the ill-fated whaling ship Essex (the true-life inspiration for Melville's Moby Dick).

“I go to the Whaling Museum at least once a year with my school, and I think any kid would like it,” Nathaniel advises. “I particularly like the huge jawbone [of a whale, which is on display] and all the tools and stuff for the boats, like the harpoons and the cool thing [called a tryworks] they used to melt the blubber in.”

All talk of whales and blubber goes south, however, once the subject of food comes up. Both children have some trouble suggesting a good place for a sit-down meal, but they are unquestionable experts on the topic of ice-cream joints. “Duh, the Juice Bar,” sighs Jacq rolling her eyes, exasperated that the choice isn't obvious to everyone.

Only after braving the hordes that swarm into the friendly shop and choosing a creamy double scoop each are our guides able to suggest a few favorite spots for full meals: A. K. Diamonds' for ribs (“They are kinda messy, but delicious.”); takeout from Sayle's Seafood, a retail shop that sells fresh seafood and also prepares everything from single lobster rolls to full lobster dinners; and Fifty-Six Union for Sunday brunch. “The food is really good, and all the families go there, so it's like, you always see somebody you know,” says Jacq whose budding social life is increasingly important to her. And to her parents. Sunday pancake outings are an important community activity, after all, and an island tradition the Raynors take just as seriously as all of their family excursions.

Nantucket Island Surf School Local surf instructors with water safety certifications meet at Cisco Beach for group or one-on-one lessons. Surfboards and wetsuits are available for “grommets” (beginners) to “rippers” (advanced). [508-560-1020 or visit] Shearwater Excursions Captain Blair Perkins takes groups of up to 34 on environmentally focused water tours of Nantucket and Muskeget Islands. [508-228-7037 or visit] Strong Wings Adventure School With an emphasis on ecology and building self-confidence, Strong Wings offers 18 different programs for children and adults. [508-228-1769 or visit] Nantucket Whaling Museum [13 Broad Street, Nantucket, 508-228-1894 or visit] Juice Bar [12 Broad Street, Nantucket, 508-228-5799.] A. K. Diamonds' [16 Macy Lane, Nantucket, 508-228-3154.] Sayle's Seafood [99 Washington Street Extension, Nantucket, 508-228-4599 or visit www.sayles] Fifty-Six Union [56 Union Street, Nantucket, 508-228-6135.]

On Island Time

With its carousel, biplane rides, and movie-set scenery, Martha's Vineyard offers more exciting diversions than there are hours in the day. With kids in tow, a visit here means never a dull moment.

It's hard to be bored when your days begin with such things as a ride in a 62-year-old, cherry-red biplane soaring and swooping over the honey-toned dunes of Martha's Vineyard. And while not every day starts that way for Annie, Oliver, and Matthew Snider, many mornings do. It's the promise of such thrills that makes Martha's Vineyard feel so alive in the summer.

Truth be told, Matthew, a bright eight-year-old with chocolate-drop eyes, is still waiting his turn at the biplane. His parents, Gwenn and Mark, who own the Winnetu Inn & Resort in Edgartown, haven't yet cleared him for takeoff. “The age requirement is when the parent says it's okay,” jokes Gwenn, who still cringes when describing the day 15-year-old Oliver spent looping somewhat wildly over the Katama Airfield in the biplane.

For the Sniders, who live in Wellesley the rest of the year, the allure of summer days spent on the Vineyard is simple. It's about sharing old-fashioned pleasures with their kids, from riding bikes and buying licorice whips at the penny-candy store in Edgartown to stargazing on the beach at night.

It was four years ago that the Sniders bought the ramshackle condominiums that stood on the grounds of what is now the Winnetu, tore them down, and built a complex of vacation homes called the Mattakesett Properties. The piece of land had an eclectic history: It had previously been the site of a grand hotel, a Navy base, and the place where Mary Jo Kopechne spent her last night before that fateful drive from Chappaquiddick. But the ambitious couple had even bigger plans. They envisioned a grand resort — one that was flexible and comfortable enough for families, and designed with an eye for the qualities Mark Snider describes as “the quintessential family time. You get on the bike, go visit a friend's house, the screen door snaps shut, and it's that simple.”

Not everything is a throwback to the old days. Opus, the resort's restaurant, serves decidedly elegant, modern New England cooking under the guidance of California chef Roy Breiman. But many of the most distinctive touches suggest bygone years. There's an old-time general store, weekly clambakes, and free rides in the Sniders' '30s-era fire engine (an annual hit in the Edgartown Independence Day parade).

When Oliver, Annie, and Matthew are able to tear themselves away from the distractions at the Winnetu (which include helping out at the front desk and general store, relaxing on the beach, and playing with the new life-size outdoor chess board), they can find enough diversions on the island to keep busy all summer long.

Burgers at Whosie's, the diner at the Katama Airfield, are among them. “They have wonderful burgers,” says Oliver. “They toast the bun,” adds Annie. The view, says Oliver, is another draw. “It's a nice setting because you can look out at the planes.” One upgrade this year holds even more promise for the kids: a new fryer for making French fries that, Gwenn says, will make them even better.

On a cloudy day, Island Cove Mini Golf is the preferred destination. The meticulously planned fantasy world for putt-putters is complete with caves, ponds, and waterfalls. “It's really cool because it's not just your normal putting green,” says Annie. The ice-cream stand at the entrance displays photos of other people who have happily played the greens here, including the island's most famous visitor, Bill Clinton.

Down the street from Island Cove Mini Golf is the Melting Pot, Annie's favorite haunt, where she spends her time painting her own pottery. “I usually do plates and stuff, because at my age I'm not really into the piggy banks,” she says. “I'll give them as gifts. The plates are waterproof, and you can actually use them.”

For Matthew's part, the ideal rainy-day activity is ice cream and a movie. “The best theater is in Edgartown,” Matthew says. “You can see cool movies there.” Everybody has a favorite ice-cream stand, from Mad Martha's Ice Cream to VineyardScoops to Ice Cream & Candy Bazaar. “Candy Bazaar has really wacko flavors like strawberry cheesecake and bubblegum, but they also have the best candy,” Annie says.

When the sun shines, the Sniders like to hit the road — on bikes, that is. Gwenn prefers the scenic route from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs. “Much of Jaws was filmed along that road,” Mark Snider pipes in. The more challenging 19-mile ride to Gay Head (which Oliver and Mark like to take together) has as its reward the gorgeous clay cliffs of Aquinnah and the scenic Gay Head lighthouse at the other end. There is, of course, a trick for those who like to take it easier on their vacation: the bike ferry, a tiny boat that takes bicyclists back and forth from the Menemsha dock each summer day. “The captain is great — he's an old salt and he just goes back and forth,” Mark Snider says. Menemsha also boasts some of the best fried clams on the island, says Annie, served straight from the clam shack there. “You can sit on the beach and eat fried foods and watch the sunset,” she says.

After sunset, the family heads to the West Tisbury Free Public Library, where movies are shown for free. “They use the old 16mm projectors, something the kids had never seen before,” Mark Snider says. Next door, the Field Gallery, which houses works by local artists, also features fanciful sculptures on the lawn outside — an ideal place to run, twirl, and just burn off energy.

Of course, no true Martha's Vineyard summer outing is complete without a ride on the Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs. The nation's oldest platform carousel, in operation since 1884, it's the site of competitions between riders for the elusive brass ring. In the Snider household that competition is between siblings, but all admit that Oliver has caught the most. “It is one of the great island institutions,” Mark Snider says. “It's been a dollar since I was a kid, so it's inflation-proof entertainment.” It's also the kids' preferred way to wrap up an excitement-filled day — no matter how they began it.

Winnetu Inn & Resort [South Beach, Edgartown, 978-443-1733,] Whosie's/Katama Airfield/Classic Aviators Biplane Rides [508-627-9018.] Island Cove Mini Golf [386 State Road, Vineyard Haven, 508-693-2611.] The Melting Pot [208 State Road, Vineyard Haven, 508-693-6768.] Ice Cream & Candy Bazaar [11 Dock Street, Edgartown, 508-627-8735.] Menemsha Bike Ferry [508-645-3511.] West Tisbury Free Public Library [1042A State Road, West Tisbury, 508-693-3366.] Field Gallery [1050 State Road, West Tisbury, 508-693-5595.] Flying Horses [Oak Bluffs Avenue, Oak Bluffs, 508-693-9481.]