Family Vacations to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

The Vineyard's Aquinnah Cliffs
The Vineyard's Aquinnah Cliffs (courtesy, MOTT)

Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard Family Travel Tips

  • Splash at Jetties Beach and Children's Beach on Nantucket.
  • Take a four-wheel-drive tour of a wildlife reserve on Nantucket.
  • See a 46-foot skeleton of a whale at Nantucket's Whaling Museum.
  • Stroll the windswept sands below Aquinnah Cliffs on Martha's Vineyard.
  • Take a nature walk through woods, marshland, and along the beach on Martha's Vineyard.

Windswept shores, historic lighthouses, sand dunes, and tasteful cottages make the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, accessible by ferry or plane, upmarket but low-key beach destinations.

Nantucket served as a famed whaling port in the 18th and 19th centuries, a prosperity evident in the grand properties that line Main, Liberty, and Winter streets. Many of Nantucket's beaches are excellent for swimming, though some are better for beach walks as the surf can be rough. The wide stretch of shallow water on Jetties Beach keeps splash-happy tots content. Another good pick is Children's Beach, which has a playground, lifeguards, and tie-dying sessions for kids on Fridays at noon from mid-July through August. Even in the crowded high season, you can find some relatively isolated sands along the island's northeast coast. On a four-wheel-drive tour of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge see salt marshes, the Great Point Lighthouse, and perhaps even snowy egrets, terns, and oyster catchers. And what would a Nantucket vacation be without some time on the water? Both Nantucket Adventures and Shearwater Excursions offer seal-watching outings to Muskeget Island, home to at least 2,500 grey seals. You can also holler "Thar she blows!" on a whale-watching cruise (offered by Shearwater).

For a needed respite from all that sun and sand, head to the Whaling Museum. Its extensive collection features a 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale, an 1849 Fresnel lens used in the island's Sankaty Head Lighthouse, harpoons, a fully rigged whaleboat, and a large collection of scrimshaw (items made by American whalers usually from baleen or whale ivory). Another good bet is Aunt Leah's Fudge on Straight Wharf, home to 30 varieties of fudge, including chocolate Oreo, peanut butter, cappuccino, and cranberry chocolate. The store does a thriving mail-order business so taking this summer treat back home is no problem.

Martha's Vineyard, another great family destination, also offers beautiful beaches, but unlike neighboring Nantucket, several of the Vineyard's beaches are private. Among the family-friendly public ones are Joseph Sylvia State Beach, between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, which has gentle surf and Long Point Wildlife Refuge Beach, which, in addition to ocean access, has a network of warm, sheltered inland ponds perfect for little children. A walk along public Moshup Beach, at the foot of the Aquinnah Cliffs, affords an awe-inspiring perspective of the rugged, rust- and gray-streaked clay cliffs. At the 350-acre Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, miles of trails lead through woods, marshes, and along the shore, where you might see horseshoe crabs, otters, and deer. If you have young kids, take them for a spin on Oak Bluff's historic Flying Horses Carousel, whose horses were hand-carved in 1876.

Tip: Getting to see one of the world's largest creatures is exciting, but whale-watching cruises are best for 'tweens and teens because the round-trip voyage can take six hours.

Recommended Side Trips: Cape Cod, New Bedford's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 8 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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