Eleven kilometres off the Massachusetts coastline in the North Atlantic Ocean lies Martha’s Vineyard, an oasis of protected greenery, exclusive million-dollar homes off dirt trails, pristine beaches, small towns packed with New England architecture and small shops selling American and exotic curios, home decor, clothing and jewellery. And not a McDonald’s or Starbucks in sight.
One regular visitor to the island, Reita Donaldson, gets excited just upon walking up the plank leading to the ferry to MV from Woods Hole on Cape Cod to the port of Vineyard Haven, which became a busy town in the days of whaling. “You realise that you’re leaving the mainland. You leave your mainland life behind, and leave all your responsibilities and your cares behind,” she says.
“I especially enjoy the big waves at South Beach,” she exclaims, referring to the island’s longest and most popular stretch of sand.
Alison D’Amour, a sixty-something beach fan and regular island visitor, says that she “enjoys bouncing in the waves at South beach, which I consider to be quite a feat at my age.”
Every summer, the population of the triangular shaped island, which measures 28 by 16 kilometres, swells from 10,000 to 100,000.
The smallness of the Vineyard’s population is reflected in the people you find here. For example, one summertime resident, whose home is adjacent to that of James Taylor, and wanted the singer to cut back some of his trees so the resident had a view of an ocean inlet. He also once crossed paths with US actor Ted Dansen, who was picking up a pizza in the general store servicing the town of Chilmark in the “up-island” (western) side of MV. And his son once mowed the lawn and raked the beach on the property for the late former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite.
After the family of then US president Bill Clinton started vacationing in the 1990s, the already popular island has been seeing a surge in summer visitors. What’s more, US President Barack Obama and family vacationed here for their first summer holiday as the First Family in 2009.
Edgartown, a great assemblage of boutique shops and stately, white Greek Revival, decades-old houses with beautiful gardens, is home to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which houses black-and-white photographs of the island from long ago.
A surprising find in town is The Golden Door, a gallery stuffed with artistic creations from around Asia, Oceania and Africa. The owner, John Chirgwin, lives in Bangkok collecting art pieces for his shops from November to May. “When it’s cold here on the island, we’re there,” says Chirgwin, who has a Thai girlfriend.
“I sell jewelry, hand-made Thai silk, accessories. When you go downstairs you’ll be surprised.” Here are alcoves stuffed with Paupa New Guinnean ceremonial shields, and African tribal arts. Buddhist statues are upstairs.
Instead of chain stores, the island is blessed by MV institutions, such as the Black Dog bakery-cum-clothier (its dog, the unofficial logo of the island, is emblazoned on shirts, mugs and much more.) Mad Martha’s ice cream parlour; and Chilmark Chocolates. D’Amour says the chocilatier “is one of the highlights of the island. The home-made sweets here are so tantalising.”
There are seven major towns on Martha’s Vineyard – Vineyard Haven, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, Chilmark, Menemsha and Aquinah.
Down-island is more densely populated; its towns are bigger.
Rustic Chilmark abounds in fields in which sheep herders created stone fences by moving the stones from the fields so that their animals could more easily graze.
Nearby in the fishing town of Menasha, the independent, generations-old Larsen’s Fish Market offers fresh swordfish, cod, big shrimp and other delights from the North Atlantic.
Oak Bluffs is the home to several prominent African-Americans, including director Spike Lee and Vernon Jordan, a confidant of former president Clinton.
The hip town’s highlights include rows of cute, pastel-coloured gingerbread-style houses, bars on Circuit Avenue, and the Flying Horses Carousel, the oldest continuously operated merry-go-round in the US.
An intriguing part of old Martha’s Vineyard’s unique ethnic make-up is the Wampanoag, a Native American tribe living in the far western head of the island in Aquinah, which means “land at the end”. To them MV is still Nopepe, which means “amid the waters”.
Shops here are owned and operated by Wampanoag. The Aquinah Cultural Centre answers many questions that visitors have about the area. There are some 300 to 350 Wampanoags on Noepe, the largest concentration of the 1,000 or so Wampanoag living around the world.
The How-Wass-Wee Trading Post has been open for three years. Inside is a sign on the wall supporting the long forgotten, abandoned land-sharing treaties between Americans and Native Americans.
The store is owned by former Wampanoag tribal chairman Donald Widdiss.
He does jewelry design and graphic designs for the shop’s various souvenirs of the island with Native American touches.
“My 93-year-old mother makes some of the jewelery on sale in the shop. She’s the last of the traditional Wampanoag potters,” he says.
For sale are mampuna decor pieces made of deep-purple clams shells that are only found in Massachusetts. Also here are Native American arts from around the country.
Martha Vanderhoop owns the nearby Hatmarcha Gifts store. “Everyone knows about Native Americans in the Southwest US. But we want to show people that there are also tribes in different parts of the country.”
As a reservoir for both Native American and American culture, with a sprinkling of international and upscale flavours, Martha’s Vineyard should remain popular for visitors for all time.