By Eileen Ogintz
DAY THREE (OF FOUR) – Martha’s Vineyard, MA — I’m sitting on the porch staring right at a historic lighthouse, our dog at my side, as two kids practice somersaults on the grass below.
Does a summer night get any better? Not on Martha’s Vineyard at the historic Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown that dates back 123 years. We loved sitting on the rocking chairs on the porch and relaxing with our pooch in the one-bedroom “cottage” we were assigned with its own private porch. Kids love the pool. There is the historic hotel, the Governor Mayhew Building and the Captain’s Cottages, together 114 rooms that can be combined to three-bedroom suites with no two alike. We loved that the resort welcomed our dog.
And while she snoozed in our cottage after a busy day exploring the island, we enjoyed a veritable feast at Water Street, which chef Nate Gould now sources 80 per cent locally, he told me proudly—including oysters from a local oyster farm, chickens, pork and of course the seafood and just-caught fish. There’s an herb garden just outside the kitchen. I loved my refreshing cucumber gazpacho—especially the bite from the jalapeno — and my grilled whole trout; my husband feasted on duck with summer cherries and white corn risotto. The menu changes based on what the farms have and what the fisherman catch, he said.
Gould is proud that the informal Henry’s has become the de facto gathering place for locals off season. (A tip: Come in fall when the weather is still gorgeous, the crowds are gone and room rates drop dramatically.
Often called just “The Vineyard,” the island has a land area of 100 square miles and is larger than neighboring Nantucket and in fact, it’s the third largest island on the East Coast of the United States. It is also the largest island not connected to the mainland by a bridge or tunnel on the East Coast of the United States.
Though you can fly here, like most visitors—over 100,000 every day in summer—we took the ferry. We opted for the Falmouth Ferry because we were able to go directly from Falmouth to Edgartown in just under an hour. (Cost is $25 each.) Most people travel by the Steamship Authority ferries from Wood’s Hole to Vineyard Haven , making reservations far in advance if they want to bring a car over. ($15 without a car.)
The island boasts an excellent pet-friendly bus system and 44 miles of bike trails, including Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs to Edgartown and back (roughly 18 miles round trip. To cycle the entire Island, you can easy log 60-plus miles.
Because we had just a day, we opted to rent a jeep from Don Gregory who owns Sun’n’Fun Rentals. (Gregory will also rent you bikes; he brought the jeep right to the hotel for us. )
While Nantucket has just one town, Martha’s Vineyard has six and they are very different. Yes this island is a playground of the wealthy and powerful. Half the summer visitors own homes here, many for generations. The Obamas vacation here; so do the Clintons. But this place is about as far away from fancy as you can get with people in flip flops, shorts and well-used baseball caps. Everyone heads to the island’s many beaches—19 to choose from — with a cooler, blankets, chairs and umbrellas.
We checked out the famous Aquinnah Cliffs, a national landmark. Many of the 400 year-round residents here are descendents of the Wampanoag Indians, who showed the colonial settlers how to hunt whales, plant corn and find local clay to make bricks.
We stopped in the small fishing village of Menemsha located in the heart of Chilmark on the south eastern tip of the island where we sat on overturned wooden boxes eating fresh oysters and lobster rolls along with lots of others, watching the fishing boats come in at Larsen’s Fish Market and Menemsha Fish Market.
We learn that Chilmark is the birthplace of American Sign Language because more than 160 years ago, the farmers intermarried, passing on a hearing disorder to the point that one out of three people were deaf. The entire town spoke by hand and word up till the mid 1800s.
Methodists started tourism here when they camped in tents over the summer in Oak Bluffs, then known as Wesleyan Grove during their annual church camp meetings, drawing as many as 12,000 people; Eventually they built wooden cottages and today, 300 of these colorful Gingerbread Cottages remain.
Oak Bluffs famously is also where prominent African Americans began to vacation, building and buying houses starting at the turn of the 20th Century. Their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren continue that tradition today. There is an African American Heritage Trail that commemorates their contributions to Vineyard life and history. The town is considered the most laid back on the Vineyard and boasts the largest year-round population. Check out the 130-year old Flying Horses Carousel!
Vineyard Haven was once a thriving seaport during the whaling era, with more ships sailing between Boston and New York on Vineyard Sound in the 1800s than anywhere else in the world except for the English Channel. Today it is where most of the ferries arrive and where you’ll find an arts center with everything from theater to wooden ship builders to all varieties of local business.
Edgartown is famous for its beautiful historic homes, most only used in the summer.
Yes, the towns are crowded in the summer. But a third of the land is protected by law so whether you want to go “up island” and see farms and cattle, sheep and even alpaca, you won’t get bored—or go hungry. Kudos to Among the Flowers in Edgartown that seated us on their patio where we could watch our pooch under a shady tree just outside. They even brought her a bowl of water!
There was one downside. We needed more time—A lot more time!