To visit New England's most fabled islands, Block, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, in New England's most celebrated season, the fall, and to have them more or less to ourselves, seeing these iconic landfalls with fresh eyes and enjoying their gifts without the plodding presence of summer's madding crowds: It sounded like a dream, all right, something that combined the rare, the sensual and the adventurous into the very essence of yachting. Count me in.
But in dreams begin responsibilities, says the poet, who must have been an ancient mariner in another life. And sure enough, as the day of departure grew near, I found myself dwelling on the realities of late-season boating. It was the last week of September, so temperatures were dropping overnight and the weather was a battleground as tropical systems struggled to maintain a foothold against strengthening arctic influences.
The day of our departure, my wife, Peggy, and I, along with photographer Billy Black and his wife, Joyce, gathered on the docks of the Montauk Yacht Club. Just after lunch, Capt. Glen Grodski, an experienced delivery skipper from Long Island, arrived to fetch us in a Cruisers Yachts 447 Sport Sedan on charter from Staten Island Yacht Sales, fueled and provisioned for a three-day cruise. We had brisk winds and a relentless chop on the starboard bow, but the Cruisers Yachts 447 was more than up to the task, and we were too, thanks to the full canvas on the flying bridge.
Clear and cool were the bywords for the next three days, just enough time to sample some of the delights that each island offers. Pulling into Block Island's Great Salt Pond in the early afternoon, we were greeted by Clif Payne, a third-generation owner of the marina that bears his family's name. He handled our lines and recommended places to see and things to do during our short stay.
Our driver, a native of the island and a top-notch tour guide, took us to the splendid Sullivan House, a historic structure of beach stone and wood with a veranda that completely encircles this Victorian inn, located atop a hill on the peninsula between Great Salt Pond and Crescent Beach. The views were amazing. Our guide also took us to view the North Lighthouse, which sits at the end of a narrowing spit of land on the northern end of the island, as well as the Southeast Light resting atop the dramatic heights of Mohegan Bluffs. Erosion had slowly eaten away the ground supporting the latter light and so, with considerable cost and effort, the massive structure was moved inland to save it. It seemed a fitting tribute, to rescue a lighthouse that had saved more than one mariner.
Late in the afternoon, our driver dropped us at the Spring House, an elegant cupola-topped, mansard-roofed hotel that has played host to luminaries ranging from Mark Twain to Billy Joel, and has also hosted Kennedy weddings in its lustrous history. Here, I sat in an Adirondack chair and gazed out across the water. Before me, a broad sweep of emerald green lawn sloped gently toward the wind-rippled surface of the black-saphire Atlantic. Strong, clear autumnal light bathed the scene, bringing an unexpected fire to the glass of Cakebread Cellars 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon sitting slightly aslant on the arm of my chair, bending a brilliant shaft of crimson onto its clean white surface and sparking my revelation: You know, this isn't so bad
A pair of sportfishermen crossed my field of view, bound for the marker that warns of the long and hazardous Block Island North Reef, where they would surely turn and head for the sheltering Great Salt Pond. To my right, the Spring House perched firmly atop this small mount, one of the highest promontories on Block Island. The lengthening shadows of the chairs on the lawn and the darkening ocean kindled anticipation for the twilight dinner awaiting us.
After our drinks on the lawn, our party of cruisers warmed ourselves near the fireplace next to the entrance and then, fortified, waded into the freshest of seafood dishes-Pepper-Crusted Ahi Tuna, Roasted Atlantic Halibut Filet, Spicy White Tiger Shrimp in Lobster Fettuccini, and Fried New Bedford Jumbo Sea Scallops-all with creative accompaniments that spoke well of chef and kitchen.
Peggy and I paid one last visit to the Adirondack chairs on the lawn after dinner and marveled at the stunning Milky Way. Conditions were so crisp and clear that we saw the lights of the Newport-Pell Bridge. At the far end of our long row of chairs, another couple had the foresight to bring a blanket, snuggle a bit and enjoy the view a little longer. I admired their planning, but we had miles to go and an early start in the morning.
Our 60-nautical-mile passage to Martha's Vineyard was a bit bumpy, but the protection of Vineyard Sound provided a break and prepared us for the last dash down to Edgartown on the northeast shore. Making the turn around Chappaquiddick Point, we headed in to tie up at Mad Max Marina, perfectly located in the heart of Edgartown's waterfront. Visits to the charming shops and restaurants within walking distance soon smoothed the kinks out of the day's passage.
Our accommodations ashore were also a short walk away: The Charlotte Inn, owned by Gery and Paula Conover. An island of calm and relaxation on an island that sometimes gets overstimulated, this exclusive retreat is for those who prize peace, fine original art, antiques of amazing variety and quality, and private gardens maintained to perfection. "The Inn is behind the times, on purpose, Gery Conover said. The house rules keep it that way: no weddings or bridal parties, no outside visitors without clearance, two guests to a room-a code you soon learn to appreciate.
Peggy and I stayed in the Coach House, a comfortable and beautifully decorated room atop a three-bay structure with a vestibule. Swing open the door and you are treated to a host of sporting and garage equipment, a horse cart and even a vintage Mercedes-Benz convertible, all in immaculate condition. Climb the stairs and you find yourself in a well-furnished reading room and study, which admits you to the bedroom. Antique furniture and accessories were literally everywhere we turned, lending their individual stories to an environment that honors fine living over the ages. We dined that night at Atria on fresh-off-the-boat seafood and a bottle of California's 2002 Tattoo Merlot.
Heading in to Nantucket Harbor on our last day, I saw two F-18 fighters streaking low across the island. I was about to look away when one of the fighters rolled over 90 degrees and turned toward us with afterburners engaged. Whoa! It was one of the Blue Angels slicing up the Nantucket airspace in preparation for a weekend air show, and he passed so close we could see the pilot in the cockpit.
Inspired to try some low flying of my own, I placed a phone call to the Wauwinet Inn, where we were planning to have lunch at the well-regarded Toppers Restaurant. Although the buoys leading across Nantucket Harbor to Head of the Harbor were pulled for the season, and the soundings looked quite shallow in spots, I brazenly asked how we could best find our way in.
The dockmaster hesitated, then inquired as to our draft. When I told him his answer was instantaneous: "Get a taxi! Easy for him to say, but for us the words meant a decision had to be made. This was our final day aboard, and Captain Grodski hoped to make it back to Martha's Vineyard before the fog blew in from the southeast. As the fog was itself in advance of a fast-moving storm, we were faced with a true marine conundrum: lunch and a challenging, perhaps even intense run to the Vineyard, or else cut and run right now.
But as lunch promised to be special, and specially vinous, we decided to take, as Captain Aubrey might say, "the lesser of two weevils. Captain Grodski dropped us on the docks of Nantucket Boat Basin and we bid him thanks and farewell. He seemed happy to get off in good time, and we certainly had no regrets once we settled in at Toppers, for our meal there was extraordinary. Executive Chef David Daniels made an appearance just as a group of guests who had been out lobstering landed their catch. He spoke to them at length about the life-cycle and quality of their catch, and how he would prepare and serve the beautiful crustaceans. Stimulated by this discussion, our famished band were moved to select lobster soup, lobster cobb salad, Nantucket lobster roll and the Jonah crab and lobster club.
After dinner, we took a slow, relaxing walk out to the dock to enjoy the view from the Wauwinet Inn's private beach, and wished for the shuttle that they operate during the season for those who stay on their deeper draft boats closer to town. A quick look at the rooms, and a generous invite to enjoy port and cheese with their guests in the afternoon, convinced me that the Wauwinet Inn would be my port of call on the next visit to Nantucket.
As it was, we spent a quiet night at the White Elephant, located about halfway out on Brant Point, home of a lighthouse of the same name. We found dinner a short walk in the fog down Easton Street to American Seasons, consistently rated at the top of the critics' list: a pleasant ending to our three days among the New England islands. Dream cruises don't come any better than this. q
Contact: Cruisers Yachts; www.cruisersyachts.com