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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: U.S. Vacations

Martha's Vineyard - Tranquility on the East Coast
Sabina Lohr

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.

All seasons of the year the Vineyard gives people reason to visit. But it is the summer - 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 to vibrant life.

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 go up, you're going 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 a look past their exteriors, enter some of the homes-turned-museums, including the Vincent House, believed to be the oldest house on the island, and the Thomas Cooke House. Both give visitors 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 in its entirety 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 sings in the tabernacle on Wednesdays during these same summer months. The tabernacle was not the only tent which turned into a permanent structure. Many of the meeting attendees 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.

Just 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 drive 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 this area one of the island's most popular draws for visitors. 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 but is 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. Its small beach with its 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 Vineyard.


Summer on Martha’s Vineyard brings with it both typical holiday festivities and unique island traditions. One holiday is celebrated in style in Edgartown. On the 4th of July an early evening parade through its streets lets you see island groups, schools and businesses bring themselves to life in their own interpretations through costumed parade walkers and floats. And in a nighttime harbor-side fireworks display, the entire town's sky fills with color. In August, multi-colored Japanese and Chinese lanterns begin appearing by the thousands on the porches of the gingerbread cottages in Oak Bluffs.

In a tradition harking back to the camp meeting ground days, these lanterns hang awaiting the one and only night on which they will be lit - Illumination Night.This night helps mark the end of summer on Martha‘s Vineyard. Usually held mid-August, its exact date is not announced until just a few days beforehand. On Illumination Night, hundreds of people gather for a sing-along in the Oak Bluffs tabernacle. Afterward, the gingerbread houses take on all-new color when the lanterns are finally lit. They continue to shine in the darkness until the time arrives for their lights to be extinguished to await their illumination the following year.

One island tradition was made famous in an opening shot of the movie "Jaws," filmed on Martha's Vineyard. On the road that runs along the water between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown is the American Legion Memorial Bridge, where at all hours during summertime days you'll see kids and the occasional adult jumping off the bridge into the Nantucket Sound. The jump is short but still a blast. After you jump, you swim to the nearby jetty and climb ashore. And jump again if you want.


There are no bridges that connect Martha's Vineyard to the mainland, so you must arrive by sea or air. Most people arrive by ferry. Several different locations in Massachusetts, along with one in Rhode Island, have ferries which will take people to the Vineyard. If you want to bring your vehicle along, you need to make a reservation for it on the Steamship Authority ferry located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This is the one and only ferry that transports vehicles as well as passengers to the island. If you own a boat, the island's numerous harbors have room for hundreds.

There is an airport on Martha’s Vineyard, so you can fly from anywhere to the island. Having a car on Martha's Vineyard is really unnecessary. Their extensive shuttle bus system can easily and inexpensively ($1.00 from one town to the next) take you anywhere you wish. It is handicapped accessible and runs year 'round. You can pay when you board the bus - in which case you must have exact change - or buy passes for one or more days. If you do wish to travel by car and you haven't brought your own across on the ferry, you can rent one on the island.

Moped rentals are also available. If you’re up for it, riding a bike along the island's bicycle trails can get you most anywhere you want to go, as well as the roads, which are not heavily trafficked and are fairly safe to bike on. You can bring your own bike across on the ferry for a small fee or rent one when you arrive on Martha's Vineyard.
Local info and bookings here

© Sabina Lohr - March 2009

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