With sun-soaked beaches, pristine scenic views, and charming villages, both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket make for a relaxing island vacation off the coast of Cape Cod. Although only 30-miles of water separate them, these two Cape Cod islands are quite different as a New England summer destination. They each have their own unique atmosphere which can help you decide which Cape Cod Island is perfect for you. Here are some of the key differences to take into account when you are trying to decide between Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard.
Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard: Size
Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are one of the many islands in New England. For example, the state of Maine itself has thousands of islands. Many New England islands are just rocky outcrops and uninhabited. For example, many of the 13 islands in the Elizabeth Islands chain near Martha’s Vineyard is uninhabited.
Clocking in at 96-square miles, Martha’s Vineyard is more than twice the size of the island of Nantucket. You could easily spend an entire week on Martha’s Vineyard and still find plenty of things to see and do.
However, you’ll likely need to bring your car or book a bus tour if you want to explore the southern part of the island.
Compared to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket is relatively small. It’s 14-miles long and 3 1/2 miles wide, which means it’s much easier to explore on foot or bike. Nantucket, too, can be visited on a a day trip or over a lifetime of summers.
Although there are only two towns on Nantucket (compared to the six distinct towns on Martha’s Vineyard), there is still no shortage of restaurants, shops, and attractions to see during your visit.
The different towns of Martha’s Vineyard have distinct personalities, such as the elegant Edgartown captain’s houses, touristy and colourful Oak Bluffs, rural and boho West Tisbury and the quiet wealth of the large estates in Chilmark.
As for Nantucket, Nantucket Town is much larger and the main town on the island. There is actually a Main Street and little side streets going off it. You can spend hours walking around Nantucket Town because there is so much to see.
Sconset is more like a cute little hamlet. The collection of cute little fishing cottages hasn’t changed much since it was established in the 18th century. There’s a beautiful beach, a general store, a cafe and a couple of boutique stores. You are in an isolated bit of paradise which is what people here prefer.
Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard: Tourist Season
Each of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are a great place for a summer vacation which is the reason they have become iconic destinations for the summer months in the United States.
Carly Simon and James Taylor grew up spending summers on Martha’s Vineyard. In recent years, celebrities like Meg Ryan and Oprah Winfrey have joined them along with President Obama. Reese Witherspoon is a celebrity who has been spotted on both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Nantucket is the choice of Ben Stiller and novelist Elin Hildebrand whose summer beach reads are set on the island.
During the summer season, Martha’s Vineyard’s population increases from 17,000 to an astounding 150,000 people. That’s an over 800% increase in people on the same island.
If you’re planning a vacation during the summer (or during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays), you should book your accommodation far in advance, especially if you are looking for budget accommodation or Airbnb’s on Martha’s Vineyard. Unlike the many family resorts in Cape Cod, both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard limited family-friendly options, especially what you may consider affordable.
While Nantucket also has a busy season, the island is less touristed than Martha’s Vineyard. There are roughly 10,000 permanent residents that live on Nantucket year-round.
During the summer, this increases to about 50,000 people. That’s a 400% increase in summer tourists! Nantucket only has a handful of hotels and inns, so it’s also important to book your accommodation as soon as possible.
Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard: Accommodation
Both islands have some of the best hotels in the USA for a summer vacation.
Martha’s Vineyard only has a handful of luxury hotels that accommodates families. Your best options are The Winnetu Oceanside resort near South Beach in the Katama section of Edgartown, the Harbor View Hotel and the Vineyard Square Hotel & Suites, both in Edgartown itself, the Lambert’s Cove Inn and Resort in West Tisbury and the Menemsha Inn and Cottages in Menemsha. Many of the upscale inns and bed and breakfasts in Martha’s Vineyard are limited to older children and adults.
There are several good options for budget family accommodation in Martha’s Vineyard as well as a Martha’s Vineyard campground. Most people, moreover, rent vacation homes on Martha’s Vineyard.
Nantucket also has some good options for family-friendly luxury hotels. For example, there is the Nantucket Hotel and Resort, White Elephant Nantucket, The Wauwinet, Harborview Nantucket and The Summer House Cottages.
There are lots of quaint inns and bed and breakfasts in Nantucket. Some of them, however, have been bought up by hedge funds (such as The Faraway Inn) and renovated so that they are more mainstream and less quirky in character.
Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard: Geography
With rolling hills and rocky cliffs, Martha’s Vineyard is an outdoor lover’s paradise. There are also several beaches and harbors where you can spend the day enjoying the sea breeze. However, it’s important to note that some Martha’s Vineyard beaches are private and may only be accessible to visitors with permits allowing them to do so.
While also a great for outdoor adventures, Nantucket’s geography is much flatter compared to Martha’s Vineyard. While you don’t get the diverse cliffs and hill that you’ll find on Martha’s Vineyard, you will still find sandy beaches and quaint towns.
Thanks to coastal erosion as well, Martha’s Vineyards cliffs are eroding on the south side near Chilmark and Aquinnah. Difficult decisions have had to be made on what gets saved and what gets reclaimed by the sea. For example, the Aquinnah lighthouse was moved back from the receding cliff in 2015 in order to preserve it for a bit longer. Who knows? Martha’s Vineyard in the next century could be as flat as Nantucket!
Although both islands have miles of beaches, Nantucket has a 14 mile coastline that is all public whereas a lot of Martha’s Vineyard 100 mile coastline is private. Either way you will have plenty of white sand beaches whether you are looking for a quiet secluded spot, a family-friendly beach or a beach for water-sports.
For exploring by land, there are plenty of hiking trails and cycling paths on Nantucket, as well. These tend to be easier for all abilities thanks to the island being flatter.
Get out onto the water with kayaks, canoes or boats. All Nantucket beaches are public. Nantucket is also famous for its three distinct lighthouses.
When it comes to Martha’s Vineyard vs. Nantucket, both islands offer plenty of activities for beachgoers, outdoor enthusiasts, and families alike. You can spend the day cycling along the coast, visiting the Flying Horse Carousel, or admiring the colorful Gingerbread Houses in Oak Bluff. You can also make a quick day trip to neighboring Chappaquiddick Island for an afternoon of golf or sunbathing.
Nantucket also offers a mix of cultural and outdoor events for all types of travelers. Take a leisurely stroll along Sconset Bluff Walk, hop on a boat for an afternoon harbor tour, or visit the Whaling Museums in the heart of downtown Nantucket.
You can also rent a bike and explore one of the 30 or so public beaches lining the island’s coast.
Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard: Atmosphere
Martha’s Vineyard’s laid-back vibe and relaxed atmosphere make it a desirable destination for those looking to escape the city. While the island is a hotspot for celebrities, musicians, and politicians, the overall feeling is casual and laid back. Everyone may be in shorts but some of those swimshorts are Vilebrequin. Think preppy boho.
On the other hand, Nantucket has more of an upscale vibe. While it’s perfectly acceptable to hit the town in flip flops and shorts, the vibe is preppy chic.
Both islands have historic sites and museums that add character and depth to their summer beach fun ethos.
The beautiful Martha’s Vineyard Museum is fun for all ages. The Cottages Museum is a tiny museum that tells the story of the Oak Bluffs cottages. Children love the tiny Edgartown Fire Museum. The Mariposa Museum also in Oak Bluffs is an offshoot of the New Hampshire Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center.
In Nantucket, the Nantucket Lightship Basket museum tells the story of this sailor’s craft of lightship-basket making. The Whaling Museum tells of the importance of the whaling industry in Nantucket’s past. There’s also an offshoot of the Boston Museum of African American History in Nantucket. The island had a history of African Americans living on the island thanks to its Quaker inhabitants who opposed slavery.
Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard: Summer Sports
Both islands have great opportunities for summer sports. Nantucket has four golf courses of which 2 golf courses are open to the public. Sconset Golf Course, a public golf courses opened in 1899, is one of the oldest golf courses in the USA.
Martha’s Vineyard has 5 golf courses, three of which are pubic and two of which are private golf courses. The Royal and and Ancient Chappaquiddick Links on Chappy is a hybrid where you can become a member or just pay the day rate. President Bill Clinton loved to play at the public Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs while President Barack Obama was a fan of the members-only Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown.
There are plenty of tennis courts on both islands, too, which are one of private, community and public.
Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard: Shopping
Both islands have their own home-grown clothing too.
Martha’s Vineyard started the regional favourite Black Dog shops for casual tee-shirts and sweatshirts. Vineyard Vines has expanded to national fame for colourful preppy gear. Menemsha Blues is also trying to break into the casual clothes market.
When my kids were little, they lived in Black Dog clothes which were incredibly sturdy and well-made. Now they have moved onto Vineyard Vines which I personally find to be more of a young person’s aesthetic.
Nantucket does not have a national name brand but more of an aesthetic – that faded pinkish red known as Nantucket Red. It helps that the Nantucket Reds color is supremely flattering on sun-kissed skin.
The color comes from a sailcloth trousers introduced in the 1950s by Murray’s Toggery Shop on Main Street. Murray’s Toggery Shop is the only store that can officially sell the Nantucket Red items which now comes in all types of clothing such as hats, sweatshirts and trousers.
Both islands have good shopping with lots of little boutiques. Nantucket Town has a lot more choices in boutiques though from antique stores to home stores and clothing stores. There’s lots of well-curated choices.
The shopping in Martha’s Vineyard is more spread out. Antique shopping tends to be best at the weekly artisan markets run at the West Tisbury Agricultural Fair. Clothes shopping is excellent in Edgartown. You can find cheaper, casual clothes in the town of Oak Bluffs especially for souvenir items. For home goods and gifts, Vineyard Haven is a good choice.
Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard: Going Out
Both of the Cape Cod Islands have plenty of gourmet restaurants where you’ll spot some of the most affluent vacationers in the world from Wall Street, government and Hollywood.
Both islands have family-friendly restaurants in the downtown areas of their towns. The elegant dining options on Martha’s Vineyard are spread out over the island. There are several elegant establishments in Edgartown such as L’etoile Restaurant and Detente, The Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs, State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury and the Outermost Inn in Aquinnah.
Nantucket definitely has more upscale options for restaurants as well with at least a dozen options in Nantucket Town itself, e.g., Straight Wharf Restaurant, American Seasons, Brant Point Grill, Dune and The Proprietors’ Bar and Grille. Two highly rated restaurants, Toppers and Chanticleers, are located on the other side of the island near Sconset.
Nantucket has more bars and nightlife as well attracting an affluent young crowd that likes to party. Since Nantucket Town is a relatively small space, it’s easier to drift from bar to bar on foot as well.
Martha’s Vineyard has some bars on Oak Bluffs and others in Edgartown. You’ll need to taxi between the two towns which is not only expensive but takes time. You are generally better off staying in one town or the other for the night. Oak Bluffs has a mix of locals and tourists. The Ritz MV is a dive bar and institution since the 1940’s which also have a live music space. Edgartown has the college kids hooking up at The Seafood Shanty and the preppy 20 somethings hang out on Main Street near The Port Hunter.
Martha’s Vineyard tends to be casual day and night. Shorts and tee-shirts are fine for men in most places. The women dress up in summer casual dresses at night. Both men and women in Nantucket switch from casual to chic for evenings. You can even spot men in blazers!
Martha’s Vineyard vs. Nantucket
We know families in London who have homes in Nantucket but we knew this Cape Cod island was not the choice for us. Smaller and more conservative, Nantucket is just too far for us to travel when you consider we have to add an international flight into the mix. (It’s a 2 hour car ferry ride from Woods Hole).
Plus, the ferry service the Steamship Authority provides is generally reliable but there are times when the weather does not cooperate. I don’t even want to imagine having to deal with tired, jet-lagged little children forced to delay their vacation.
Martha’s Vineyard has an affluent African American community and quite a few mixed-race families like us. We also loved Martha’s Vineyard for its cosmopolitan liberalism, artsy flair, and intellectual leanings. When you know, you know.
Choosing between Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard comes down to your personal taste and vacation style. Both islands have their personal devotees who wouldn’t consider living on the other island!
In all honesty, you can not make a wrong decision with either island because both are pretty special. It’s like trying to decide between beer and wine. People have their preferences but both are pretty great.
Getting to Nantucket
Nantucket definitely has less ferry services and airlines flying to it. Note that a car ferry can take 2 hours to get to Nantucket from Woods Hole. You really need a car on Nantucket if you have children in tow.
Nantucket makes an easier day trip destination than Martha’s Vineyard. Nantucket town where they ferry lands is charming and there is plenty to do between the cafes, restaurants and boutiques in town and the beaches nearby.
Martha’s Vineyard is more spread out and harder to get a good flavour on a day trip. Car ferries come into either colourful Oak Bluffs or the more practical Vineyard Haven from Woods Hole. For day-trippers, Oak Bluffs is a better option because there is plenty to see in town and State Beach is nearby.
Some of the passenger ferries come into Edgartown (e.g,. from Hyannis) which is more like Nantucket Town in that there is plenty to do in town and great beaches nearby.
How to Get From Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket
Getting to both Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket is relatively easy. Martha’s Vineyard is only seven miles off the mainland, which means a trip from Woods Hole in Cape Cod only takes a 45-minutes ferry ride. You can take a passenger ferry from New Bedford in Rhode Island as well.
Nantucket is a bit further (30-miles from Cape Cod) and takes anywhere from one to three hours, depending on where you’re departing from.
You can take the ferry from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket if you’d like to see both islands on your trip. Operated by Hy-line Cruises, this inter-island ferry between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket takes one hour and leaves three times a day during tourist season.
How To Get To Nantucket from Cape Cod
The Steamship Authority runs car ferries from Hyannis in Cape Cod to Nantucket which takes a little over 2 hours. There’s a passenger only catamaran from Hyannis to Nantucket that cuts the time down to an hour.
You can fly from Hyannis to Nantucket on Nantucket Airlines in about 15 minutes. You can also take Cape Air from JFK in New York or Logan in Boston directly to Nantucket in about 1 hour or, 1/2 hour, respectively.
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