I was sitting in the back of a six-seater plane with a golden retriever as my seat mate.
My best friend, who had to do some artful persuading and gentle prodding to get me on the “vomit plane,” as I referred to it, turned around slowly from the seat in front of me with a worried look on her face.
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” she said.
I raised my eyebrows slightly to indicate an affirmative answer. I was scared and annoyed, but secretly found comfort in her sarcasm.
We were headed to Nantucket, that elbow-shaped island off the coast of Massachusetts, and she had convinced me that flying from a small, local airport was the best way to travel. I hadn’t worried about flying until I saw the tiny Cessna. And when the crew told me I couldn’t sit next to my friend – but rather had to sit in the back with a dog to balance the weight – I almost cried.
And then we took off.
I closed my eyes and clutched the armrests for reassurance, peeking out the corner of my eyes at the dog, who seemed to be having a great time. I took a deep breath and looked out the window. The East Coast island and its magnificent bluffs, sandy beaches and sprawling nature preserves were all visible from the sky, arranged in a seemingly haphazardly panorama of nature’s magnificence. A reluctant smile spread slowly, but surely, across my face as I eased my grip on the armrests.
As it is with most East Coast islands, the flight was part of the adventure. Getting there is half the fun, and on this particular trip, we descended into Nantucket’s infamously coded airport – ACK – in about a half-hour after takeoff. We had so much time to enjoy the day, I was glad we had flown, despite my apprehension.
Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
Martha’s Vineyard, located off the southern coast of Cape Cod, is a New England summer hot spot, featuring resorts, beaches and wildlife preserves. Day trippers can fly into the island’s airport, or can take the ferry from Falmouth, Hyannis or New Bedford, Mass., or North Kingstown, R.I. Once on the island, visitors have their choice of relaxing on the beach, venturing into a state forest or nature preserve to interact with nature, or sticking close to one of the island’s six charming towns.
Activities in Martha’s Vineyard
As with all of the East Coast islands, the beaches on Martha’s Vineyard are something to write home about. Sun and surf lovers should head to either Gay Head Public Beach in Aquinnah, known for its waves and massive bluffs just around the corner, or Joseph Sylvia State Beach in Oak Bluffs, a 2-mile stretch of unobstructed, sandy beach.
Itching to get out on the water? Book an afternoon or sunset sail with Black Dog Tall Ships Sails, which offers three-hour tours around the island where you can help man the ship, or simply sit back and enjoy the view.
Long Point Wildlife Refuge stretches over more than 600 acres, featuring remarkable environments diverse with beaches, dunes, woodlands and ponds. It is a popular spot for birders, beachgoers and conservation enthusiasts alike. Visitors to the refuge can also rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to enjoy the property from the water.
Closer to town in Oak Bluffs, you’ll find the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, a community filled with ornately decorated “gingerbread house” cottages where members of a Methodist organization live. Visitors are welcome to explore the village and tour the Cottage Museum to see the interior of a sample cottage and learn more about the community.
Where to eat in Martha’s Vineyard
A AAA inspector deems Art Cliff Diner “the best place for breakfast or brunch in Vineyard Haven,” recommending the blueberry pancakes or homemade hash. The retro diner has undergone a creative makeover, and the restaurant also owns a food truck, allowing the owners to take their culinary masterpieces on the go.
Black Dog Tavern – owned by the same company as the Black Dog Tall Ships Sail – is a famous Martha’s Vineyard brand. It’s said that owner Robert Douglas had three passions: his sailboat, the Vineyard and good food, and that he wanted to bring all those together to create something delightful for locals and visitors alike. The restaurant serves up fresh seafood, classic favorites like salads and sandwiches and creative burgers.
Like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket is off the southern coast of Cape Cod and accessible by plane or ferry. Flights take off from all over the region, and ferries sail from New Bedford and Hyannis, Mass., as well as from Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.
Activities in Nantucket
Nantucket has a plethora of beaches, including the popular Jetties Beach, which is close to town and has lifeguards and bathrooms. Driving on the sand is permissible with a permit, a popular activity for folks staying on the island longer.
Head to the Nantucket Whaling Museum, which celebrates the island’s extensive whaling history and tradition with exhibits on boats, harpoons and scrimshaw. You’ll also be able to see the complete skeleton of a bull sperm whale – which washed ashore on the island in 1998 – suspended from the ceiling.
Cisco Brewery describes itself as “just about the coolest place on Earth.” I couldn’t agree more. The brewery, which is actually a brewery, distillery and winery all rolled into one neat package, is located amongst farmland and features a center courtyard with picnic tables and a stage for live music. Here, one can enjoy tastings and purchase the locally made beer, wine from Nantucket Vineyards and spirits from Triple 8 distillery. Be sure to drink responsibly and take the shuttle service, which operates between the brewery and downtown.
Have you ever wanted to swim with sharks? You don’t have to travel to someplace tropical to make it happen. The folks at Nantucket Shark Divers are skilled at finding sharks in the warm summer waters off the coast of Nantucket, and happily take those brave enough to immerse themselves in the infested waters out by boat. Swimmers are lowered down in a cage, bringing them up close and personal to blue and mako sharks, among other varieties, and sometimes even encounter other wildlife like whales and sea turtles.
Lighthouses to visit in Nantucket
(Click each lighthouse link to view a map of its location)
Brant Point Light is Nantucket’s tiny but mighty treasure. The lighthouse is only 26 feet tall, but has been standing since 1746, surviving countless hurricanes and nor’easters. A small wooden causeway leads visitors to the lighthouse, which is located nearby the ferry landing.
Deriving its name from the Wampanoag Indian word for “highland,” Sankaty Light sits atop the bluffs in Siasconset, a Nantucket town on the Atlantic coast of the island. Visitors are not permitted inside the lighthouse, but are welcome to visit the grounds and marvel at its splendor.
Great Point Lighthouse, officially known as the Nantucket Light, is located on the northernmost tip of the island in the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Preserve. Visiting this lighthouse should be a hike reserved for true adventurers, as it can be accessed only by a 7-mile beach walk. Alternatively, over-sand vehicle tours are available, staffed by wilderness guides from the Trustees of Reservations, who own and operate the preserve.
Where to eat in Nantucket
Breakfast: Black-Eyed Susan’s
You won’t find anything fancy at Black Eyed Susan’s, except for the deliciously fanciful dishes. The restaurant is tiny and borderline downright crowded, with a diner bar facing an open kitchen and a row of closely fit tables along the opposite wall. Standout menu items include the eggs Benedict, sourdough French Toast served with orange Jack Daniels butter and cinnamon pecans, and the Portuguese scramble, made with linguicia, tomatoes, spinach and garlic. Be sure to get there early and be prepared to wait – a place this good and this tiny fills up fast.
Lunch: The Juice Bar
You’re on vacation – even if it’s just for a day – and therefore have permission to have ice cream for lunch. Based out of a little building downtown by the ferry landing, the Juice Bar offers over 50 flavors of homemade ice cream, or, if you’re looking for something healthier, try one of their fresh-squeezed juices or made-to-order smoothies. Yum.
If you have the money to splurge on a meal while on your day trip, head to Topper’s, the restaurant extension of The Wauwinet, a AAA Four-Diamond hotel on the north point of the island. Diners who make the trek will be rewarded with sweeping bay views and delectable seafood, including shellfish and lobster, choosing from a la carte selections and prix fixe tasting menus.
Boston Harbor islands
While Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket offer great activities and restaurants, many with the comforts of the mainland, a visit to the much-smaller and uninhabited Boston Harbor Islands is perfect for a more adventurous day tripper. Visitors should pack a picnic and can plan to visit one island or island hop on the ferry, which sails between several of the islands, which are scattered among the harbor just off the coast of Boston. There are 34 islands, all with their own valuable features, but here are three extra special ones that are definitely worth a visit.
(Click each island link to view a map of its location)
Georges Island is home to Fort Warren, which held Confederate prisoners during the Civil War and also played a part in both world wars. History buffs can enjoy guided tours by park rangers and educational exhibits at the visitors’ center. Get there by taking the ferry from Boston, Hingham, Hull or Quincy.
Little Brewster Island is home to Boston Light, the country’s oldest continuously lit lighthouse, which has never gone out since it was first set alight in 1716. Those interested in visiting the island should book the Boston Light Climbing Tour, which includes a three-hour boat cruise from Boston, the opportunity to climb into the lighthouse and an educational narrative from a park ranger.
Spectacle Island is a former dump, but you wouldn’t know it upon visiting. Visitors can stop by the eco-friendly visitors’ center, explore hiking trails with views of the harbor and Boston skyline, or swim at one of the beaches. On select days during the summer, the island hosts sunset clambakes and jazz concerts put on by the Berklee College of Music. Visitors can take the ferry from Long Wharf in Boston, Hingham, Hull or Quincy, or rent a day slip at the island’s marina and travel via their own boat.
Aquidneck Island (Newport), R.I.
As you probably know, Rhode Island isn’t actually an island, though it does have some. History has it that an early explorer thought that Aquidneck Island resembled the Island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea, and thus it was named Rhode-Island. Today, Aquidneck is home to Newport, a historic, seafaring village that has become a popular destination for sailors, music lovers (there are multiple awesome summer music festivals), beach aficionados and foodies alike.
Getting to Newport is fairly easy, thanks to two bridges that connect the island to the mainland, both of which are easily accessible from Interstate 95.
Activities in Newport
The most popular tourist destination in Newport are the mansions of Bellevue Avenue, where the wealthy of the early 20th century, including the Vanderbilts, built their summer homes. The properties offer insight into the decorative and architectural styles of the time, as well as striking views of the water from sweeping lawns. The Preservation Society of Newport County operates several of the properties and offer five-house tickets for just $35 for adults. Check out some of the most popular: The Breakers, Chateau-sur-Mer, The Elms, Marble House and Rosecliff.
The Cliff Walk is a 3.5-mile path that follows the island’s shoreline, winding along the beach at points, over rocks at another, and high above the bluffs at others. About two-thirds of the path is easily walkable, but adventurers should be prepared with proper footwear, as some sections are more cumbersome.
Harbor sail or cruise
One of the best ways to explore Newport and the surrounding waters of Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean is via boat, and luckily, there are an abundance of cruise companies willing to take you out as a passenger. Enjoy daytime cruise or take a sunset cruise to provide the perfect ending to your day trip. Sightsailing of Newport offers sailing cruises, while Amazing Grace offers motor boat tours.
Newport features three main beaches, conveniently referred to by the locals as First Beach, Second Beach and Third Beach. First Beach, also known as Easton’s Beach, is located right at the beginning of the Cliff Walk and the most popular of the three, with fun facilities for children, including a playground and carousel, as well as a picnic area and snack bar.
Where to eat in Newport
Hit up Flo’s while at Easton’s Beach and enjoy fabulous raw bar selections, all-you-can-eat crab legs on Thursdays, clam chowder (when in Rhode Island, try the classic clear) or the lobsta roll platter. It’s casual seafood heaven. Flo’s also has a drive-in location in nearby Portsmouth.
Block Island, R.I.
Block Island is my favorite of the East Coast islands because it has the charm and island feel of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, yet is smaller, and leaves a more personal impression. Block Island day trippers can fly there from various local airports (look for code BID) or take the fast or traditional ferry from New London, Conn.; Narragansett or Newport, R.I.; Fall River, Mass.; or Montauk, N.Y
Activities on Block Island
North Light, at the very northernmost tip of the island, sits amid a wildlife preserve and can be reached only by hiking. Southeast Light, on the other hand, can be reached by road. While visitors can’t venture up into the lighthouse, it features a small ground-floor museum, staffed by knowledgeable lighthouse attendants. An exploration of the grounds offers spectacular views of the nearby bluffs.
Venturing out to Mohegan Bluffs is an excursion, but it’s totally worth it. After visiting Southeast Light, head a little further south and you’ll find yourself at the top of the bluffs, staring over their magnificence among beach plums. Those brave enough to climb down the 140 stairs and scramble across rocks (remember, you also have to climb back up!) will be rewarded with a stunningly picturesque beach sparsely populated by fellow brave beachgoers.
Speaking of beaches, Block Island seems to have sand to spare, as there are several noteworthy beaches on the island. Besides the beach at Mohegan Bluffs, popular beaches include Ballard’s Beach, located behind Ballard’s restaurant and featuring chair-side food and drink service, and Mansion Beach, which can be found further north on the island.
Bike or moped the island
Many visitors (and sometimes, locals, too) on Block Island decide to relinquish their automobiles and bike or moped around the island instead. Necessary exploratory routes include along the south shore, near the bluffs on Mohegan Trail, and up Corn Neck Road past the Block Island Wildlife Preserve and toward North Lighthouse.
Ready for an East Coast islands adventure? Take it from me – get on that scary plane, be as happy as that golden retriever was once he got to the beach and live a little. After all, it’s just a day trip.
To learn more about AAA Diamond Ratings, visit AAA.com/Diamonds.
To set up a trip with a AAA travel counselor, visit AAA.com/Travel.
By Molly Clark