Living The Island Dream

LIKE HUNDREDS OF OTHER FAMILIES, John Osbon, 45, his wife, Andrea Lee, 44, and their 9-year-old son, Max, are spending their summer on the glistening beaches of Nantucket Island, 25 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. But in a few weeks, when the suntanned hordes are back on the mainland, the Osbons will still be on Nantucket. ""I haven't found any other place I would like to live,'' says Osbon, an investment adviser who traded the suburbs of New York City for a new house--complete with traditional widow's walk--on the island. ""It's pretty much a fairy-tale existence.''

What was once vacation fantasy is becoming year-round reality as more Americans leave cities and even fashionable suburbs for ""recreational counties''--places that once were largely summer getaways. Armed with the latest technological innovations, many professionals are finding they can work from just about anywhere. As a result, the populations of recreational counties have grown almost twice as fast as the rest of the country since 1990, says Kenneth M. Johnson, a demographer at Chicago's Loyola University. ""A lot of people want to live in smaller places where there's more of a sense of community,'' he says, ""the way the old neighborhood used to be.''

Thanks to their size and isolation, islands are the watery outposts of this trend, nurturing the kind of communities that have crumbled like sand castles elsewhere in America. Houses on Nantucket (population: 7,267) have names like Tucked In and Salty. Crime is relatively nonexistent--most islanders can't recall the last time they saw their house keys--and stress is as fleeting as a sandpiper. There are no escalators, traffic lights, McDonald's or Starbucks. And the e-mail address ""Bob'' was still available 18 months after Nantucket got its own Internet server, Nantucket.net. ""The suburbs drove me crazy,'' says John Osbon. ""It was like 2 million people living in the woods. This is a little town on the ocean.''

Not every remote island is attracting newcomers, but those with relatively easy commutes to metropolitan areas are watching head counts swell. Nantucket, where the population has shot up 21 percent since 1990, and neighboring island Martha's Vineyard (the First Family's vacation spot) are the only Massachusetts counties to experience double-digit population growth this decade. On St. Simons Island off Georgia, $500,000 lots stay on the market less than a week. Some 3,000 miles west, Pacific Coast islands are reeling in year-rounders, too. Eric Gold, 40, a software-design consultant, ferried himself from New York to San Juan Island in Seattle's Puget Sound--and didn't return. He's joined the hideaway of writers and artists, who long have enjoyed small-town courtesies. When the drugstore accidentally gave away Gold's New York Times one morning, the store owner paid a house-call apology--complete with poppy-seed muffins.

Such old-world living is accessible through new-world technology. John and Linda Pomeranz ditched the suburbs of Worcester, Mass., in 1993 and moved permanently into their Nantucket summer house. With their two phone lines, a fax machine and a modem, their paper-products business hasn't suffered. So far this year, they've netted $1 million in sales and a boatload of envy from landlocked clients. ""There's no one putting on a tie and jacket, driving in stop-and-go traffic for 45 minutes,'' says Linda.

Of course, nothing's perfect--not even paradise. After the summer tourists go home, locals soak up the quietude. But by March--""Hate Month'' on Nantucket--neighbors have become as pesky as deer ticks. Novelist David Guterson, a 13-year resident of Puget Sound's Bainbridge Island, where the population has more than doubled since the 1970s, complains that it has evolved from ""a rural, quiet place to a neurotic place like anywhere else in the world.'' Islanders who commute regularly to Seattle gripe about rush-hour ferry delays the way most city folk grumble about the subway. Nantucketers are so alarmed that they recently voted to cap new-home construction at 225 dwellings annually.

But even 225 new homes could mean an additional 1,000 people a year crowding the Espresso Cafe on Main Street. Like other islanders, Nantucketers prize their distinctiveness, referring to off-island jaunts as going to ""America.'' But as more mainlanders wash in with the tides, that distinction could blur. And ""America'' could be the ultimate summer guest who stayed too long.

Living The Island Dream | News