Martha's Vineyard Travel Guide

Overview

The island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, nearly 7 mi/11 km 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.

Geography

The island of Martha's Vineyard is roughly 7 mi/11 km south of mainland Massachusetts. A glacially formed combination of rolling hills, cliffs, salt marshes and sand, the island measures approximately 20 mi/32 km long and 9 mi/14 km wide. Visitors will often hear the nautical terms "up-island" (westward) and "down-island" (eastward). As a result, the eastern towns—Edgartown, Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs—are lumped into the "down-island" category. The towns to the west and south—West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah—are considered "up-island."

History

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. The native Wampanoags called their island "Noepe," meaning "island in the stream."

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.

Sightseeing

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.

Visitors seeking nature are also in luck; there are thousands of acres/hectares of preservation lands open to the public. Another dramatic sight is the Aquinnah Cliffs, on the westernmost point of the island, located in Aquinnah, formerly Gay Head.

Nightlife

Martha's Vineyard always has plenty to do at night, whether you're up for live theater, music by the sea or just a good movie (there are theaters in Edgartown and in Oak Bluffs open year-round).

Many lively bars can be counted on for live music—in Oak Bluffs, especially. This loud little town seems to want to make up for all the peaceful evenings elsewhere. Taverns in Edgartown are a little more sedate but still offer plenty of entertainment.

You probably won't find another experience quite like the weekly Community Sing at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. Each Wednesday evening in July and August, folks gather to sing popular ballads in a giant sing-along under the lights. The fun is free to all, though the organization does take donations.

Dining

Though seafood is both prime and popular on Martha's Vineyard, you can't ignore the variety of its restaurant selection. New American cuisine is very popular. A good supply of ethnic and regional food is available also, from Mexican and Cajun to French and Italian. 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.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

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