Nantucket and Maui

The islands of Nantucket and Maui have a related history that spans decades and thousands of miles.

Early residents of the sandy outpost of Nantucket, which is located 30 miles south of Cape Cod, Mass., were some of the first to lead regular sailing expeditions around Cape Horn to the Pacific Ocean in an ever-expanding hunt fueled by the burgeoning whale-oil industry of the mid-19th century.

These early adventurers, and other whalers setting sail from New England ports like New Bedford, Mass., made regular stops in Lahaina for provisions and rest, making them some of the first regular visitors to Maui.

Brash and bawdy whalers enjoying a revelry after months at sea would sometimes run into conflict with local authorities, and ironically, New England missionaries. The Old Lahaina Prison (Hale Pa’ahao), whaling museum at Whaler’s Village and other sites around town help illustrate the story of whalers and other sailors who visited the island.

The island link came full circle for this writer during a recent visit to Nantucket.

The native people of both islands experienced severe change, newcomers and natives helped pioneer multi-cultural tolerance, and both islands have reinvented themselves as resort destinations.

Catching the Grey Lady in Hyannis, a double-hull “fast ferry” that crosses Nantucket Sound in one hour, we landed in the heart of Nantucket’s downtown and caught a shuttle to the Nantucket Inn. The eight-minute ride took us through the historic district, which maintains the simple, Quaker-influenced architecture of its forebears.

After the collapse of the whale oil industry in 1850s, the island’s population shrunk from 10,000 to 3,000 in a matter of decades. The windswept island went into hibernation until descendants of the once-prosperous whaling community came to the realization that their home had a history worth seeing, according to a documentary titled “Nantucket” by Ric Burns that was created for the Nantucket Historical Association. Today, Nantucket is known as one of the best preserved seaport towns in America.

Many of the items on display in the Nantucket Whaling Museum were collected by the children and grandchildren of the whalers. The museum is part of a former candle-making factory on Broad Street. Visitors may experience a variety of exhibits, films, lectures and guided tours of historic Nantucket homes.

Exhibits in the museum document the Wampanaug Indians, the original settlers of the island. They welcomed the first English settlers to Nantucket, which translates to “Far Away Place,” in 1659 and later served as crew members when their neighbors began hunting the right whales that migrated offshore in the winter.

Later, when the Wampanaugs succumbed to numerous famines and their population was severely reduced, much like the Hawaiians, Nantucket whalers turned to foreigners to man their growing fleet. The island recruited labor from around the world. This labor pool created a multi-cultural populace on the tiny island, similar to the variety cultures represented in Hawaii. African-Americans lived in a section of town known as New Guinea and had their own meeting house. An African-American named Absalom Boston captained a whaleship with an all-black crew out of Nantucket in 1822.

Traveling to the far reaches of the planet, the Nantucket whaleships were the spacecrafts of their day and the universe was the Pacific Ocean. By 1830 and 1840, Nantucket was the whaling center of the world. They were the United States’ first economic global power in the industrial age, according to Burn’s documentary film shown at the museum.

Nantucket’s decline came about because the fleet’s decimation of the world’s whale population was unsustainable and a new source of oil, petroleum, was replacing whale oil as a fuel and lubricant in the growing industrial age. A major fire on Nantucket in 1849 and the California Gold Rush expedited the departure of the majority of Nantucket’s residents for more promising locations in the west.

The island languished but was able to re-establish itself as a world-renown visitor destination, another similarity it shares with Maui.

Today, visitors to Nantucket find a variety of shops and restaurants in a town that gives visitors a strong sense of the people who once lived here. Likewise, Lahaina shares its whaling history with the aforementioned historic sites, including the Seaman’s Hospital on Front Street.

Nantucket’s sandy shoreline, bike and walking paths, cozy inns, quaint homes and history as the whaling capital of the world make it a memorable and worthwhile travel destination.

* Rich Van Scoy can be reached at