Catch a ferry from the Massachusetts coast in New England, and 40 minutes later you will find yourself transported to the magical world of Martha’s Vineyard. Shaped like a large, 25-mile long wedge of pie, Martha’s Vineyard is close enough to the mainland seven miles away to be accessible ––it has its own airport, of course––but far enough offshore to seem remote and idyllic. Certainly that is the opinion of Hollywood celebrities, presidents and politicians––the rich and famous alike––as well as thousands of other visitors who swell the island’s population from a mere 15,000 to 120,000 during the summer.
Originally populated by the Wampanoag Native American Indian tribe––some members of which still call the island home––Martha’s Vineyard is the third largest island on the East Coast of the United States. It acquired its name in 1602 from an early English-speaking settler named Bartholomew Gosnold, who named the beautiful island after his daughter and the grapes that grew everywhere on it. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776, English-speaking white settlers were raising sheep and growing corn, among other crops. An important industry in the 19th century on Martha’s Vineyard and its sister island, Nantucket, was whaling. In those pre-electricity days when whale oil lit people’s homes, prosperous sea captains built the grand houses that line the streets of Edgartown.
Edgartown and Martha’s Vineyard became famous in the 1970s as the setting for Steven Speilberg’s blockbuster movie about a killer shark “Jaws.” Festivals celebrating the movie still attract crowds of enthusiasts, as does an annual shark festival, which is held in nearby Oak Bluffs. Part of what makes the island so appealing is the number and variety of its six towns. Each has its own, distinctive personality and charm.
In addition to Edgartown with its historic homes and wealthy, aristocratic summer residents are rollicking and Victorian Oak Bluffs known for its affluent African-American summer population and its hot nightlife; the island’s commercial center Vineyard Haven, where most ferries land; West Tisbury, a charming, country community; Chilmark, the rural enclave of the wealthy with its modern mansions and breathtaking ocean vistas; and Aquinnah, the remote home of the Wampanoag tribe and the stunning clay cliffs at Gay Head.
Each town reflects its own version the island’s pleasing environmental variety. Edgartown’s harbor fills with the yachts and sailing sloops of the rich during the summer months. A few minutes’ ride on the tiny ferry, “On Time,” takes tourists and residents across the harbour to the tiny adjacent island of Chappaquiddick. Chappy, as locals call it, offers an exquisitely cultivated Japanese garden, Mytoi, for peaceful strolls; Cape Pogue, where many visitors like to kayak, canoe and bird watch; and Wasque Beach, an ideal place for fishing and picnicking. The surf and sand on South Beach in Katama will more than satisfy sun-lovers. Edgartown Lighthouse serves as a scenic spot for photographs and for wedding parties––the island is a popular destination for high-end weddings––or for watching sailboat races. Four other lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard give it the greatest array of these historic buildings located in a small area in the United States, and they reflect its colorful nautical tradition. Other lighthouses are found at Cape Pogue, Aquinnah, West Chop in Vineyard Haven and East Chop in Oak Bluffs.
The road from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs runs along some of the most breathtaking scenery on the island, with Nantucket Bay on one side and the wide expanse of Sengekontacket and Farm Ponds on the other. Just before entering Oak Bluffs appear the lush, green fairways of a world-class semi-private golf club, Farm Neck, where American presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have played alongside celebrities from Hollywood, TV and the sports world. Victorian architecture distinguishes Oak Bluffs from Martha’s Vineyard’s other towns. The town was a mecca for Methodist campground meetings that became so popular in the mid-nineteenth century that the tents participants put up gradually turned into colourful cottages decorated with gingerbread. One of the island’s most festive annual summer events is Illumination Night, held on the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. After a community sing and band concert, all the lights go out until the enchanted moment when each of the tiny Victorian cottages simultaneously lights its Japanese paper lanterns. It is only one of the many magical moments on a truly magical island.
In nearby Vineyard Haven, where ferries come and go near the mooring of the famous Tall Ship, Shenandoah, a retinue of upscale shops, art galleries, restaurants, inns, a playhouse and a new, modern cinema center compete for attention. Like Edgartown, Vineyard Haven has its share of handsome captain’s houses, as well as modern mansions with spectacular harbor views.
Up-Island, as inhabitants call the more rural sections of the island, are West Tisbury, a mostly inland community, which is nevertheless dotted with fresh and saltwater ponds; Chilmark with its majestic rolling hills, still home to picturesque sheep and cattle farms; and Aquinnah at the southwestern-most tip of Martha’s Vineyard, where breakers curl onto the magnificent beaches below the clay cliffs of Gay Head and its lighthouse.
Beyond its unparalleled natural beauty, the most remarkable quality about Martha’s Vineyard is its small, relatively noncommercial scale. Great care has been taken through conservation restrictions to preserve sections of the island where the public can walk, swim and otherwise enjoy a natural environment at its best. Martha’s Vineyard remains rural without being primitive, small-town without being dull. Four film festivals, live theatre, popular and classic music, modern dance, lectures and opera enrich the cultural scene for those who want more than spectacular beaches or woodsy hikes.
The island is filled with nooks and crannies waiting to be discovered by the first-time visitor. No wonder the rich and famous enjoy their time there; they can hide away or not as they please. Like so many who have been blessed by their time on this precious island, it’s a place you must visit at least once in your lifetime. The difficulty will be limiting yourself to just one visit.