The island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, nearly 7 miles from the New England coast, is covered with windswept moors, dense forests, dramatic coastal cliffs and soft sandy beaches.
Though relatively small, Martha's Vineyard is made up of six distinctly different towns, each with its own unique personality and beauty. Such pockets of individualism have always been part of the Martha's Vineyard character, and that is a large portion of its appeal.
Oak Bluffs is colorful and somewhat frivolous (on Illumination Night in August residents hang Chinese lanterns out of every window of their homes); Edgartown is more sedate and stately, its wealthy whaling legacy giving it a regal air; Vineyard Haven (Tisbury) is the industrious and very busy sibling, serving as the island's year-round port. Farther out in Chilmark, West Tisbury and Aquinnah, commercialism gives way to rambling farms, stunning vistas and a much more peaceful way of life.
The island's visitors are just as varied. Martha's Vineyard has long been a place of escape—a healthful retreat with an independent, creative air. It's a favorite among celebrities, who find it a welcome respite from the demands of fame. Martha's Vineyard is also home to many artists and writers who gain inspiration from its rich history and the sheer natural beauty of the place.
Sights—Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary; sunset from Aquinnah Lighthouse (formerly Gay Head Light); Menemsha sunsets and fresh fried clams.
Museums—The island's history and culture at the Martha's Vineyard Museum, which also offers lighthouse tours.
Walks—A stroll through downtown Edgartown or the Oak Bluffs Camp Ground Area; a self-guided tour of the grounds at the Polly Hill Arboretum.
The island's European recorded history began in 1602, when Bartholomew Gosnold claimed the island for the British crown, calling it Martha's Vineyard for both his baby daughter and the wild grapes growing on the land.
Under a grant to Thomas Mayhew in 1642, the first European settlers arrived in what would become Edgartown. Primarily farmers and fishermen, the newcomers were greatly aided by the peaceful natives, who shared their knowledge of the land, including the whaling skills that would eventually make a fortune for the settlers. When whaling moved out to sea, the island's economy flourished, as the many grand mansions lining the streets of Edgartown and Vineyard Haven now prove.
The reputation of Martha's Vineyard as a popular resort began when a group of Methodists chose the Oak Bluffs area in 1835 for its weeklong camp meetings. The events continue to this day; however, the once-modest tents have evolved into brightly colored Victorian cottages.
Although the whaling industry had declined by the time of the Civil War, the fame and popularity of the religious campground encouraged separate, secular tourism. By the late 1860s, steamers and railroads were transporting wealthy pleasure-seekers from all over the eastern U.S. to Martha's Vineyard each summer. This level of interest hasn't waned over the years; indeed, Martha's Vineyard is as popular as ever and is still a playground paradise for the wealthy.
Though seafood is both prime and popular on Martha's Vineyard, you can't ignore the variety of its restaurant selection. A good supply of ethnic and regional food is available. In addition, there is a good selection of casual, reasonably priced places to dine.
It may seem a bit archaic, but it is only within recent years that most towns on the island can serve and sell liquor. Of the six towns, Chilmark is the sole survivor of the old laws and the only dry town left on Martha's Vineyard. Diners are welcome to take their own bottles, but keep in mind that you will be charged a corkage fee—ranging US$3-$6—for the job of opening your bottle and providing you with glasses. Casual takeout seafood places don't charge the fee, but any sit-down, full-service restaurant will charge.
Sightseeing on Martha's Vineyard is often done on foot: The towns of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs are best explored with good shoes and a map in hand. Both towns are treasure troves of architecture, reflecting the varying styles and wealth levels of its inhabitants over the years. Maps and suggested walking tours are available at the tourist information centers; for those who prefer narrated tours, there are plenty of those, as well. Most guided tours don't require prior arrangement. Another dramatic sight is the Aquinnah Cliffs, on the westernmost point of the island, located in Aquinnah, formerly Gay Head.
The Edgartown Inn is the site where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Twice-Told Tales, and rumor has it that while there he wooed a woman who inspired him to write The Scarlet Letter.
The red clay in Aquinnah Cliffs is said to come from the blood of whales that were captured and dragged up the cliffs by the mythical Moshup of the Wampanoag tribe.
The Pagoda Tree on South Water Street in Edgartown was brought to the island as a seedling in the 1840s by Captain Thomas Milton.
In 1974, Steven Spielberg filmed the movie Jaws on Martha's Vineyard.
Because of a recessive genetic trait, there was an unusually high number of deaf people on the island (1 in 155) from the early 18th century through the 1950s; villagers created Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) to communicate. This eventually became one of the foundations of today's American Sign Language (ASL).
Comedian John Belushi is buried at Abel's Hill Cemetery in the town of Chilmark.
Dos & Don'ts
Don't climb on or take clay from Aquinnah Cliffs in Aquinnah, formerly known as Gay Head.
Don't take your car to the island if you can avoid it. If you must take your car, make ferry reservations well in advance. Otherwise, you can always get around on foot, bicycle, or by bus.
Do remember that the island's ecology is fragile and tread gently.
Don't make a big deal if you see a celebrity. After all, that's exactly the sort of attention they go to the island to avoid.
Do check yourself thoroughly for ticks when you have been outdoors hiking or even just out in the grass. Lyme disease is a very common yet dangerous disease if not diagnosed and treated promptly.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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