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Nantucket glows serenely in autumn

By Elsa DitmarsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1986

Nantucket Island, Mass.

AFTER Labor Day, Nantucket Island seems to breathe a deep sigh as 35,000 ``summer people'' depart by ferry, plane, or yacht for their mainland habitats. Like a wave that rolls up, up, up onto the sand, scattering its pebbles, broken shells, and seaweed, so the island sweeps to a crescendo at summer's end, hesitates briefly, and recedes languidly into autumn's golden serenity.

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Whoever would experience this historic island's special charm and its finest weather can ferry the 25 miles across Nantucket Sound from Cape Cod, or fly over from New York; Providence, R.I.; or Boston.

Late vacationers arrive with the migrating ducks, geese, and swans that rest and feed at the island's freshwater ponds and brackish marshes. Beach buffs share miles of white sand with only sandpipers, herring gulls, and isolated rubber-booted surf casters.

You don't stand in line for the theater, the whaling museum, tennis courts, golf courses, boat rentals, or saddle horses. Restaurant owners, brusque with summer's crowds, become downright gallant in September. And there's sure to be room at the inn.

If you arrive without a reservation, the Nantucket Information Bureau, a few blocks from the ferry landing or a short taxi ride in from the airport, will provide a directory of accommodations. The whole range from splurges to bargains includes, among many others, the splendidly restored 1845 Jared Coffin House, the elegant 112-unit Harbor House and Cottages, the large Beachside Motel, and dozens of cozy bed and breakfast inns like the Wood Box (an authentic 1709 treasure), Chestnut House, Ship's, or Fair Winds. Rooms for two range from $45 to $235 a night.

Some shopkeepers, exhausted by the hectic summer, may lock their doors, but in general September's end-of-season sales in handcrafts, sportswear, and antiques, along with gift shops and galleries, challenge any browser's willpower. Auctions, and sport-fishing expeditions are best in fall, too.

Nantucket is a paradise for walkers and bicyclers, so park your car at the Hyannis or Woods Hole ferry wharf on the mainland. Debark two hours later and rent a three- or 10-speed bike. Some have baskets for carrying youngsters, tennis rackets, or perhaps your own harvest of plump purple beach plums, wild grapes, or seashells and driftwood.

In my basket I carry a slim guide, ``The Whole Island Catalogue,'' plus a crusty round loaf of Portuguese bread from the Nantucket Bake Shop -- and maybe a carton of fried clams from the Orange Street Fish Market. You'll find fruit stands at farms along the country roads.

You may choose to pedal east on the seven flat miles of bike path to Siasconset. Built in the 18th century as a cod-fishing camp, the village is a colony of tiny gray-shingled cottages jumbled together under blankets of climbing roses on a bluff facing out across the Atlantic. At the town pump, a compass points to ``Spain 3,000 miles, Paris 3,746, Bermuda 690.'' You can celebrate this most easterly village with an ice cream cone at the Book Store.

Northward along this bluff toward Sankaty Light, workmen are boarding up grand summer houses. The footpath ascends gradually past magnificent gardens for a mile and a half to Sankaty Head, a prime lookout, one of the few high spots on this 15-mile-long super-sandbar.

Six miles of gently rolling moorland west of Nantucket town is the sand spit Madaket, made up of creeks and a boat harbor on the sound side, a haven for surf fishing on the oceanside.