Martha’s Vineyard, popularly known as an exclusive summer spot for the wealthy and well-known, is, in actuality, a vacation locale where thousands of visitors pour ashore each year. This 100-square-mile island in the Atlantic holds six towns, five lighthouses, miles and miles of bicycle trails, and plentiful beaches and harbors. Its remote location seven miles off the southern shore of Cape Cod, its abundance of weathered cedar shake homes, and its absence of franchise businesses give Martha’s Vineyard an away-from-the-rest-of-the-world feel.
Each season has reasons for a visit, but it is the time known as "the season" – the period
between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day – when ferries and private
boats sail vacationers through the Atlantic to its shores, when summer
residents return, for a time, back to the island, when its population
swells from 15,000 to 75,000 – that Martha’s Vineyard springs into
vibrant action. Summer life on the Vineyard – this is what brings me
back year after year.
Remaining true to its seafaring heritage, the Vineyard uses nautical terminology to divide itself into two sections – up-island for the western section and down-island for the eastern. In nautical terms, when you travel up, you’re traveling west because it’s further from zero degrees of longitude than is east.
Martha’s Vineyard is comprised of six towns – three of them up-island and three down-island. Aquinnah, West Tisbury and Chilmark – all up-island – have sights well worth seeing. The towns offering the most in the way of shops, restaurants, accommodations and action though, are down-island – Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.
Edgartown, an old whaling village dating back to the 17th Century, is full of residential streets lined with stately colonial homes and white Greek revival houses where sea captains once lived. Strolling the streets to gaze at these homes is a good way to get to know this little town. To get beyond their exteriors, enter some of the homes-turned-museums, including the Vincent House, believed to be the oldest house on the island, as well as the Thomas Cooke House. Both give a view into the past with furnishings from different periods during which the homes existed. Also in Edgartown is the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The museum is steward of the Edgartown, East Chop and Gay Head lighthouses and offers sunset tours for all three. The Edgartown lighthouse is also open to the public during the daytime. All of these lighthouses are still in use today, shining their lights to sailors out on the sea.
A small business district near the water, lined with both upscale and casual restaurants, clothing boutiques, art galleries and small shops carrying souvenirs, helps make this town one of the island’s most popular.
Three miles south of Edgartown, accessible both by street and bicycle trail, lies the very popular Katama Beach, nicknamed South Beach. Small wooden fences blown over onto sand dunes at the entrances of this beach give it a character popular with artists and photographers. At three miles in length, Katama Beach has plenty of room for the thousands who come to enjoy its dramatic waters on the open Atlantic.
Just a three-minute trip from Edgartown lies the five-square-mile island of Chappaquiddick. This trip is taken by ferry. Two ferries run simultaneously to transport vehicles, bicycles and people back and forth between the two islands. Officially called the On Time II and On Time III, they’re nicknamed the Chappy ferries.
On Chappaquiddick, just next to the ferry landing, are two beaches, one facing Edgartown Harbor and the other looking out toward the Nantucket Sound. Beyond the beaches you’ll find an almost purely residential island, full of large homes on dirt roads. Decorating 14 acres of this tiny island is Mytoi, a Japanese garden. The Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge stands at Chappaquiddick’s eastern end and is home to beaches as well as a lighthouse. Originally built in 1801, the Cape Poge lighthouse has been overpowered by the sea and rebuilt a number of times. It currently stands 300 feet inland to protect it from the waters. Chappaquiddick is small enough to explore by bicycle, or you can travel by car to see its sights.
Six miles north of Edgartown, you’ll find bustling Oak Bluffs. Its harbor is host to many a yacht and hundreds of smaller boats, and its downtown area is full of shops and restaurants. Its beach on the Nantucket Sound is large yet tranquil, and its nightlife is known as the best on the island. On the edge of town is Flying Horses, the country’s oldest functioning platform carousel and a presence on the Vineyard since 1884.
But Oak Bluffs’ real draw dates back to the early 19th Century. Beginning in 1835 Methodists began holding annual summer camp meetings in this town. For years, attendees erected small tents in which to stay and a large central tent in which to hold their services. Eventually, they replaced the worship tent with a steel tabernacle, which is still in use today. Interdenominational services are held on Sundays in July and August, and people gather for community singing in the tabernacle on Wednesdays during the summer months.
The tabernacle was not the only tent which turned into a permanent structure. Many who traveled each year to the meetings were so drawn to Martha’s Vineyard that they began replacing their tents with cottages which they could call home. Painted in a variety of bright colors and decorated with filigree trim, these were nicknamed gingerbread cottages. This style of house became so popular in Oak Bluffs that today hundreds of these colorful cottages exist on the former camp meeting grounds. You can get a feel for what life inside them was like when they first were built by touring the Cottage Museum, a gingerbread house full of 1800’s period furniture.
Three miles up-island from Oak Bluffs is Vineyard Haven, less commonly known as Tisbury. This small town, with its shops, galleries and restaurants, is also home to the famous Black Dog Tavern, an establishment on the Vineyard Sound. Despite its name, this is a seafood restaurant, not a bar. In fact, as Vineyard Haven is a dry town, if you want to drink you must bring your own. People sometimes sail from Cape Cod, dock at the Vineyard Haven harbor, then come into town for dinner. Vineyard Haven is also home to the West Chop Lighthouse. On October 5, 1817 its light began to shine. Over the years, as the ground around the lighthouse eroded, another was built 1,000 feet away, and this is the lighthouse that stands today.
The town of Aquinnah, formerly known as Gay Head, lies at the western tip of the island. This is a town that likes to keep its residential areas to itself, but welcomes visitors to explore its beaches and travel to the top of its cliffs, where you can browse through shops and have a bite to eat on the deck of a restaurant overlooking the cliffs and the water. Along with the lighthouse that stands atop them, these cliffs make the area one of the island’s most popular draw. The Gay Head Lighthouse, first erected in 1799, was replaced by the current red brick structure in 1844 and, for a time, was lit by a 1,009-prism Fresnel Lens. Today the lens is gone from the lighthouse; it’s on display at the Historical Society in Edgartown.
Chilmark, another up-island town, is home to a charming and rustic little fishing village called Menemsha. Its weathered buildings house restaurants and gift shops, small beach with quiet waters is a peaceful setting for getting some sun. Across the road from the beach, fishermen reel in their catch from a jetty, and fishing boats tied to their moorings sway in the water. The sunset over Menemsha’s waters is known as one of the most beautiful on the island.
Martha’s Vineyard is a destination that doesn’t disappoint. Traveling to this quiet island on the East Coast, whether making a short jaunt by ferry, or flying across the world to land at the airport at the center of the island, you’ll find the vacation that waits at the end of your journey, will be most anything you want.