On Martha’s Vineyard, you can escape to an insular world of yachting traditions, summer amusements, celebrity spotting and quiet rural charm. Surrounded by Vineyard Sound to the northwest, Nantucket Sound to the east and the Atlantic to the south, the island is ringed with 18 public beaches, from placid sound-side sands to boisterous Atlantic surf.
Its six farming and fishing communities, settled in the mid-1600s, are equally diverse and often less than a day sail away.
Soon after whaling collapsed in the late 1800s, the railroad arrived in Woods Hole. Ferries brought affluent vacationers, turning the 100-square-mile island off Cape Cod’s south shore into a summer playground for the rich and famous. It still is, although “everyman” also comes. The Vineyard’s year-round population of 17,000 expands to 100,000 in the summer, when ferries disgorge tourists daily in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown.
Edgartown’s harbor opens to Nantucket Sound. On busy summer weekends you may have to anchor outside the sand spit where the 1838 lighthouse stands. Gorgeous yachts, many owned by celebrities and industry titans, fill the inner harbor’s slips and hundreds of moorings. Reservations are recommended — those for the July 4th holiday fill in 45 seconds. Otherwise, contact the harbormaster at (508) 622-4746 or VHF channel 74 on North Wharf, near full-service Edgartown Marine. Call Old Port Launch on VHF channel 68 or take your dinghy to the town float at the foot of Main Street.
Here yachting, with a gold “Y,” centers on the Edgartown Yacht Club, founded in 1905.
This understatedly elegant town on the island’s eastern end honors sailing traditions dating from its halcyon whaling days more than 150 years ago. Lovely old trees, including a pagoda tree brought from China in 1837 as a seedling, tower over sidewalks lined with mid-1800s churches, classic homes and vine-covered cottages. Bronze plaques note donors of the Victorian lampposts, and modest gold-leafed signs warn “No Parking.” Tasteful whale motifs grace many doorways, and charming gardens flourish behind white picket fences.
The whaling captains’ Federal and Greek Revival homes are most impressive along North and South Water streets. One resident was Capt. Valentine Pease, master of the whaler Acushnet. Crewmember Herman Melville drew on his experiences aboard Acushnet when he was writing “Moby Dick.” Other homes are now museums or luxurious inns.
From the harbor, you can easily walk to boutiques and restaurants that run the gamut, from snack bars and takeout to wine bars and fine dining. Nightlife keeps summer launches running till 1 a.m.
Walking or bicycling is best in town. Rental cars are a hassle; parking is extremely limited, and taxi drivers can better deal with the traffic. At the visitors center, you can take a Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority bus to beaches and other island communities.
Edgartown’s beach surrounds the lighthouse. Farther afield are State Beach and South Beach, where surfers challenge the waves. For less-crowded sands, anchor off Chappaquiddick Island’s Cape Poge and dinghy ashore. From Memorial Wharf, you can watch the ferry, On Time III, make its three-minute crossing to “Chappy.”
In Oak Bluffs, which split from Edgartown in 1880, elaborate Victorian hotels and tiny gingerbread-trimmed cottages of the former Methodist Campground show the community’s lighthearted spirit. Restaurants, shops, an arcade, fireworks, concerts, parades and the 1876 Flying Horses — America’s oldest continuously operating carousel — are only steps from the municipal marina. Begin your evening at Back Door Donuts before joining the lively night scene.
Oak Bluffs’ East Chop Lighthouse and the 1817 West Chop Lighthouse mark Vineyard Haven harbor’s north-facing entrance. Here, 19th-century sailing ships awaited a fair tide or wind. Vineyard Haven remains the island’s major commercial port and boatbuilding center. Immaculate wooden vessels, from the windjammers Shenandoah and Alabama to handcrafted dinghies, occupy most inner harbor moorings. The original Black Dog Tavern and Water Street Bakery are among the shops, galleries and restaurants.
Farther west, Menemsha’s pocket harbor shelters fishing and lobster boats. A few shops and BYOB restaurants cluster nearby. Sunset viewing from the beach is superb.
The bus to Aquinnah winds among the stone-walled fields and rolling hills of West Tisbury, passing the driveways of hidden Chilmark estates and the famous Chilmark Chocolates shop. Gay Head Lighthouse in Aquinnah (renamed by its original Wampanoag name) tops the multicolored clay western cliffs. Tribal members operate several shops and restaurants near the tower.
This fall, 3,000 anglers will compete in the 68th annual Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby from Sept. 15 to Oct. 19. Then locals can relax until the new season next year. www.mvy.com, www.edgartownharbor.com, www.mvol.com
See related articles:
July 2013 issue