A Writer Returns to the White Elephant Hotel on Nantucket

In the summer of 1974, I was working as a waiter at the White Elephant, the grande dame of Nantucket hotels, a rambling gray-shingled pile that sits right on the island’s harbor. One muggy August night, I sent the six lobster dinners ordered by Francis Sargent, the governor of Massachusetts and his guests crashing to the floor when some butter on the heel of my hand propelled my tray off the stand I’d been kneeling to set it down on. Thinking about it still makes me cringe.

I had not been back inside the White Elephant in almost 50 years when, last spring, I returned to the island to check into the famous inn as a guest, size up its recent multimillion dollar makeover at the hands of the Boston architectural firm Elkus Manfredi, and ponder the ways in which both the island and I had changed.

Though it’s hard to believe today, when Nantucket airport is filled with rows of private planes that have delivered their owners to this island 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, many people clucked at Elizabeth T. Ludwig’s hotel when it opened a century ago. Without the social cachet of more accessible resorts like Newport, R.I., or Saratoga Springs, N.Y., it struck many people as folly to believe the swell set would spend their holidays on Nantucket.

Ludwig defiantly named her hotel the White Elephant. The galloping popularity of the place meant she had the last laugh, too.

On a warm day in May, the island smelled the way it always had: a bracing scent of salt brine and peppery bayberry from the protected moors that cover most of its surface. On the way to the hotel, my cabdriver told me Nantucket had become too expensive, and I immediately noticed how much building there’d been. Still, I was amazed to see that the Chicken Box, a dive bar with live music and a pool table had survived.

When I’d arrived to work as a waiter, we’d been strenuously admonished by the maître d’ to avoid the Chicken Box, so of course we went there often. For me, it has always been a sort of shrine to the rough-and-ready character of the island, going back to the days when it teemed with sailors as a busy whaling port.

While the friendly front desk clerk photocopied my passport, I jokingly confided to a well-dressed man in a navy blazer that the last time I’d stayed at the White Elephant was when I’d lived in one of the staff dorms across the street.

He chuckled. “Would you like to see your old room again?” he asked. He handed me his business card: Kahled Hashem, President — General Manager, White Elephant Resorts. We agreed to meet after I had lunch at the Brant Point Grill, the hotel restaurant.

I ate delicious ceviche and a chicken katsu sandwich, which put the wilting plainness of the food I’d once served in the same dining room into relief. Popovers, foil-wrapped baked potatoes, steaks with black scoring from the grill, scrod with buttered breadcrumbs and Boston cream pie had vanished.

When the chef, Joseph Hsu, stopped by my table, he unpacked the inspiration for his menu. “Immigrant cooking often goes mainstream in the United States — look at how popular kimchi has become. It’s also true that Americans are a lot more gastronomically adventurous today than they were in the past,” he said.

Waiting for Mr. Hashem on the porch, I thought back to the summer I’d worked there.

On my first day, I’d been shown to a small room in a wooden dormitory with a window, a white-painted wooden dresser with swollen drawers, a single bed with a mattress that crunched when I sat on it and a clothing rail behind a mint-green shower curtain with three wire hangers.

After orientation, we had canned beef stew and instant mashed potatoes for dinner, then drank beer and smoked joints on the porch of our dorm. In the morning, my bed was filled with sand. It took a very puzzled minute or two to figure out that it had sifted through the cracks of my ceiling, which was the floor of the room above me. The rampant sex began once the staff had sized each other up. I went to the beach every day. It was a fantastic summer.

The new dormitory rooms astonished me. They had dorm-size fridges, microwave ovens and capacious built-ins. There was also a free staff laundry room, which reminded me of my hobo-like attempts to clean my work clothing — a white polyester short-sleeved shirt and black trousers — by soaking it in a bucket with shampoo (not advised).

After my tour of the dorms, Kelly Flynn, the rooms division manager, met me in the oak-floored, white-painted lobby. “Art is a major part of our renovation,” she said, gesturing at the striking mural of a woman in a row boat on the wall behind the front desk. It had been painted by the Israeli artist Orit Fuchs, as part of the hotel’s artist-in-residence program. “The idea is for the artists to produce a work that captures something of the essence of Nantucket or the hotel,” Ms. Flynn said.

During the renovation, she said, each of the hotel’s 54 rooms and 11 cottages was given its own design.

In addition to a color scheme derived from the island’s beaches, moors and surrounding sea, the grass cloth on the walls refers to local dune grasses. The thick custom-designed, blue-and-beige basket-weave, wall-to-wall carpeting in most rooms nods to Nantucket’s long craft tradition of basket-weaving, notably the beautiful Nantucket lightship baskets originally made by sailors.

Ms. Flynn also mentioned that the White Elephant now has a pool and showed me three of the 11 free-standing cottages. Very comfortably furnished, they are done in colors and wallpapers inspired by native plants of Nantucket, including bayberry and beach plum.

Afterward, walking into town on a red brick sidewalk, the sound of Spanish wafted from behind the thick privet hedges, as brigades of Mexican and Central American workers readied the historic homes hidden by this greenery for the season.

In town, I stopped at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, renovated in 2005, which offers a vivid presentation of the island’s whaling industry. It also has fascinating exhibits on the island’s history. One not to miss is “Island People: Portraits and Stories from Nantucket,” a collection of oil paintings, including “Nantucket Indian Princess,” an 1851 portrait of 11-year-old Isabella Drapper, an islander of mixed Wampanoag and African American heritage, by Hermine Dassel, which attests to the island’s historic diversity.

After the museum, I went on an urgent mission. I wanted, no, needed, a lobster roll. I asked the carpenter who was repairing the door jamb of the Club Car, a bar in an old rail car that had been another off-hours favorite of White Elephant staffers, where to go. He grinned. “You’re in luck, my friend. There’s a wicked good one four doors down.”

B-ackyard BBQ is what used to be known as a Townie bar, offering relief from the tweeness of so many other places downtown. It also just happened to serve a generously filled beauty of a lobster roll, crowned with a gild-the-lily garnish of crunchy onion rings. It was perfect succulence, but at $42.00, hardly a workingman’s lunch. Never cheap, Nantucket has become a vertiginously expensive destination.

Driving the island the following day, I was relieved to find most of it still wild but shocked to see the eroded beaches at Tom Never’s Head and Siasconset, the village where a friend and I picnicked on overstuffed smoked turkey sandwiches from Something Natural, an island bakery and sandwich shop.

Nantucket today is a much more joyously cosmopolitan place than it was in the ’80s, when most summer visitors came from nearby Boston, Providence, R.I., and Hartford, Conn., and the staff was filled with college kids like me.

Today, few Americans are among the seasonal employees. Mr. Hashem, himself an Egyptian American from Houston, said that people from more than 20 countries work at the resort, with a large number from the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. My cabdriver was Greek. The chef, Mr. Hsu, is a Chinese-Hawaiian American from Pennsylvania, and my waiter at the White Elephant was Slovenian. “This summer I am here on an H2-B visa,” he told me when we started chatting. “But I want to come back for good.”

The starting rate for a standard room at the White Elephant is $395 in spring; $995 in summer and $395 in fall.


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