Nantucket vs Martha’s Vineyard: What Sets Each Island Apart?

The longstanding debate about which is the better of the two famous sister islands rages on. Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard - nothing separates them but a few miles of shoal-ridden waters, and on a clear day, each can see the other’s silhouette glinting across the horizon. So how different could they possibly be?

The numbers are easy enough to come by. Martha’s Vineyard is 23 miles long by 9 miles wide, with a population of 16,000 year-round and 100,000 in summer. She sits 7 miles and a 30-minute ferry from the coast of Cape Cod and supports six separate towns - Edgartown, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, Aquinnah and Chilmark.

marthas vineyard

Little Nantucket is 14 miles long by 3.5 miles wide, with a population of 12,000 locals and 50,000 peak season residents. At 30 miles and a 1-hour ferry ride out to sea, we know why her name is derived from the Algonquin word meaning “faraway land.” And don’t blink when you pass through Nantucket town, because there’s just the one. Unless you count the even smaller, far-flung community of ‘Sconset, all the way on the eastern edge of the island. Five shops and a post office hardly constitute a town, but some people insist on it.

The numbers don’t tell you much, though. What you really need to know to judge the unique qualities of two so similar places is, what is the vibe? What does it feel like to be there?

Even though both islands were created by deposits from a melting ice sheet thousands of years ago, their topography is actually quite different. Martha’s Vineyard is all rolling hills and towering bluffs streaked with clay. Nantucket is flat and sandy, with vast open grasslands and moors. And it isn’t just mother nature who has shaped them into two distinct locales.

Main Street Nantucket

Because of its size and close proximity to the mainland, the Vineyard is less of a culture shock. You have to get in the car and spend time driving to get from place to place. There are lighthouses, vistas, and adorable, brightly painted gingerbread houses along the way, but you don’t exactly get the feeling that you’ve entered another dimension. And there is little worry of running out of new places to go.

In contrast, Nantucket’s increased isolation is palpable. First-time visitors often step off the ferry and feel as though they’ve been transported to another world. Cobblestones, bricks and cedar shingles as far as the eye can see understandably leave some wondering - where is my horse and buggy? The hassle of life in “America” becomes but a distant memory. Many people even choose to walk or bike most everywhere, taking in the scents of wild rose, honeysuckle and salt air.

In recent years, what with certain famous politicians choosing to visit one island and some well-known tech CEOs favoring the other, stereotypes have grown up around which is the fancier, wealthier, or snootier of the two. The truth is that both exhibit different elements of these qualities and both are also still the laid-back escape destinations that people fell in love with in the first place. Where else do the 1% rub shoulders with blue-collar locals at the bar every night?

The Vineyard is replete with fish shacks and quaint little chocolate shops, where you can veg out without a care. The top-rated activities include relaxing, wholesome pursuits such as visiting lighthouses, country farms and natural landmarks. The biggest excitement you’re likely to get is on the Jaws tour, making it unlikely you’ll ever feel the need to change out of a well-worn pair of flip-flops. Yet low-key enjoyment gives way to high society when beach parcels are sold at exorbitant prices. Passed down from generation to generation, along with keys to unlock gated beach access, this type of private ownership leaves less than 40% of the shore open to the public.

Meanwhile, Nantucket is more about fine-dining and resort wear. Showing off your crisp preppy threads about town, while sipping a craft cocktail and name-dropping restaurants is a favorite pastime. Other popular forms of highbrow entertainment include touring the exhibits at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, private yacht, and fishing charters, and swooping into town for one of the many annual festivals. How about a cultured weekend surrounded by actors, politicians, entrepreneurs and all sorts of world-class people at The Nantucket Project? You can also enjoy the perk of Nantucket’s coastline being easily accessible to the public free of charge, complemented with laidback, popular bars nearby.

Sayles Beach Nantucket

Most visitors tend to choose one island or the other, and if you ask a local, they’ll likely tell you they’ve never even been to that other island. Why would you when you’ve got miles of beaches and plenty of lighthouses all to your own? Besides, both islands have charms aplenty, and anyone privileged enough to visit the pristine shores of either is undeniably lucky. At the end of the day, everyone’s watching the sunset over the same ocean.

It all comes down to what kind of experience you’re looking for. You can get fancy on the Vineyard, you can go down to earth on Nantucket, and vice versa. It’s easy to escape the crowds and tuck yourself away into some secluded nook if you know where to go.

But look closer and you’ll still find that old, burnished charm of years gone by. That relaxed, no problem attitude and appreciation for the simple life, which attracted people to these islands way back in the days of yore.

Nantucket Congdon and Coleman Real Estate


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Fraser Long

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