Only seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts, the island of Martha’s Vineyard features an unusual history, unspoiled ocean beaches and a large variety of one-of-a-kind shops and places to eat.
With a history that includes a Native American Wampanoag tribe still living there, to the story of the African-Americans who first arrived for religious retreats, to the seafaring tradition that still persists, Martha’s Vineyard offers a much more rewarding visit for “normal” people than the stereotype of a retreat for the wealthy and famous suggests.
How Martha’s Vineyard was formed is even a surprise. The island marks the farthest advance of glaciers 20,000 years ago from the north. When the ice began to retreat, the great chunks of earth and rock that had been pushed in front of the glaciers was left behind, forming the island.
It was discovered in 1602 by Englishman Bartholomew Gosnod, who selected the name “Marthaes Vineyard” to honor his daughter, and because of the grape vines, which according to one member of his crew, “run upon every tree.”
Expecting a fairly small island, we were surprised to discover it takes over an hour to drive from one end to the other, and that there are six distinct villages.
Only a few two-lane country roads transverse the island, frequently running parallel to stone fences and passing through dense forests and fertile farmland. Every few miles a small sign appears advertising an art gallery, antique shop, bakery or other boutique business. Each seems located in a timeless barn or building that looks like a home, sided with weathered gray shingles and painted with white trim.
Along just one section, we stopped at a barn that is the Glassworks, where several artists blow and sell contemporary glass jewelry and vases. Farther along, the view of the sea from the high and hilly pastures of Allen Farm was spectacular. Visitors interested in a truly custom-made sweater can pick out and meet the sheep and examine its wool.
Inside the rustic barn at Morning Glory Farm, shoppers browse for organic and exotic foods, and wait in line next to the oven and sign that reads “Pies come out at 2. Please be patient.”
About 20,000 people live on the island throughout the year, but between June and August, the Vineyard’s population expands to over 100,000.
The origin of the yearly tourist influx began Aug. 24, 1835, when a group of six Methodists pitched their tents in a grove of oak trees for a week of all-day gospel sessions. By 1860, hundreds of tents were common in the campground, and over 12,000 people were attending the yearly gathering.
Worshipers also found the beaches and sunshine appealing, and began erecting permanent wooden cottages for an extended stay. Built to resemble the tents they replaced, front doors were cut to look like open tent flaps. Tassels that had decorated the tents inspired intricate filigree trim and front porches to differentiate each building. Then owners began to add window boxes and paint the gingerbread patterns in brilliant pastel colors.
We found the colorful Gothic-style cottages still huddled in a circle around Wesleyan Grove, where the first meeting took place. Even though most are now summer cottages, it was a delightful walk.
The sea that surrounds Martha’s Vineyard continues to be important to the island’s economy. In the village of Vineyard Haven, the 35-year-old Gannon and Benjamin Shipyard manufactures wooden boats crafted by hand, one piece of wood at a time. In a rickety shed, sections of the front and back walls are cut out to accommodate the bow and stern of the larger boats built there. In the tiny picturesque village of Menemsha (the location of the movie “Jaws”), commercial fishing boats outnumber the pleasure boats in the harbor.
At Larsen’s tiny seafood shack next to the Menemsha dock, workers in rubber hip-boots boil lobsters and prepare fresh oysters, littleneck and cherrystone clams for take-out. Outside on the wharf, we joined other customers sitting on lobster traps while “dining” on paper plates alongside fishing boats being unloaded.
Evidence of the sea’s importance in the history of Martha’s Vineyard exists in the stately white homes in Edgartown, the largest village on the island. Beginning in the 1820s and until after the civil war, this village was headquarters for hundreds of whaling ships. Wealthy sea captains built impressive Federal and Greek revival homes here to flaunt their success. The residences remain as private homes, inns, restaurants and boutique shops.
The sea created a multitude of beautiful beaches on Martha’s Vineyard, and we discovered the residents are committed to keeping them unspoiled. Cedar Tree Neck Point beach, for example, is restricted to just walking and looking. A sign at the beach reads: “Walkers welcome. No swimming, sunbathing, picnicking, fishing or hunting. Dogs must be on a leash (even very good dogs.)”
On the northwestern end of Martha’s Vineyard, the ocean washes ashore on the beach under the 1844 Gay Head lighthouse and the 100-foot-high, multi-colored red and yellow clay of the Aquinnah Cliffs. The cliffs are sacred to the small group of Wampanoag Native Americans still living on the island, who believe that the spirits that resided here taught their forefathers how to fish and hunt.
At the Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge, a 6-square-mile wilderness of dunes, woods, cedar thickets, moors, salt marshes, fresh water ponds, tidal flats and barrier beaches sustaining a myriad of wildlife, the nonprofit Massachusetts Trustees of Reservations conducts tours.
While enjoying the view at the top of the 55-foot Cape Poge lighthouse, our guide told us, “Throughout much of the 1800s, this was the busiest shipping lane in the world after the English Channel. In 1845, over 13,000 vessels traveled through the sound.”
Vineyard history is also on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, a complex of homes in Edgartown. In the Cooke House, each room of this original 1740 home chronicles a chapter in island history, while in the Francis Pease House, we used headphones to hear the oral histories of longtime residents spoken in their own words.
Another exhibit in the Pease home contains several logbooks from whaling expeditions, and the pictures the captains drew each time a whale was successfully harpooned.
Part of the enjoyment of our visit was discovering how informal life was there. More than once we heard that “Anyone disembarking from the ferry wearing a suit is either getting married or attending a funeral.”