An island paradise just off the Massachusetts coastline is a great destination for fresh air, beaches, walking, creativity and good food.
What a great place. An island community just a short ferry ride or ‘puddle jump’ from mainland Massachusetts. We flew in on a 9 seater Cessna from Boston Airport. As you touch down on the enormous runway at Martha’s Vineyard breathe in the delicious sea air. Take a moment and exhale gently, start to adjust to the relaxed and laid-back way of life enjoyed by the locals.
Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod are effectively terminal moraines left by the Laurentian Ice Sheet as it melted and receded northwards at the end of the last glacial period. As the ice melted sediment carried by the ice was ‘dumped’ creating the land forms of ‘The Vineyard’ and the peninsula of Cape Cod. Sea levels were lower then and the island would have been part of the continental land mass of North America. Over time sea levels rose and the island was cut off from the mainland. A unique and distinctive environment developed, natural harbours, fresh water ponds, wild vines and pine trees.
The locals talk about up-island and down-island. Up-island is the west, Aquinnah, Gay Head and the spectacular coastal cliffs where you can see thousands of years of geological history in the hillside. Down island is to the east. Here the former whaling port of Edgartown is beautifully preserved. Timber houses with covered porches, flower-filled gardens and timber jetties with boats bobbing in the Atlantic breeze. The watery theme continues, we are here to visit some friends who made the island their home more than a decade ago. We met these friends, Debbie Phillips and Rob Berkley on the Queen Mary II when we did a Transatlantic Crossing from New York to Southampton. Debbie and Rob are both executive coaches, they’ve worked with the great and good of America’s corporate world. More importantly they are fully committed Vineyarders. They love ‘The Vineyard’ for them it is their true geographic home.
After a decent night’s sleep at the traditional and comfortable Mansion House Hotel, Vineyard Haven we are ready to go. Andrew is off for business meetings and I have a free day – yippee! I pick up a hire car – which happens to be a bright red Mini Convertible and I’m off for my own circumnavigation of the island. Heading west, roof down, wind in my hair. Fantastic! First stop is the tiny fishing town of Menemsha. I want to see the boats coming in, see the catch, get a feeling for what it’s like to work as a fisherman. As usual I don’t actually want to be a fisherman I just want to think about what it would be like. Imagine having your livelihood controlled by the Atlantic Ocean. I don’t actually get there early enough to see the catch being unloaded, but I do see fishing nets, boats, lobster pots, a discarded starfish and some very unfortunate crabs who are (rather tragically) bait!
I stand by the lighthouse and start to day-dream about arriving at Martha’s Vineyard in a howling storm years ago. Imagine the relief of seeing the powerful beam of light coming from the lighthouse, guiding and directing boats to a safe haven, the harbour. There are literally hundreds of wrecks in the waters around the island – not everyone was lucky. In the early days of the lighthouses the light was created by a giant candle, consisting of numerous wicks anchored in a shallow dish of whale oil. The lighthouse keeper was a very important man.
That’s the thing about islands you can never escape the importance of the sea – it’s all around you. Shaping and changing the coastline, eroding the cliffs, depositing sediment on the beaches, silting up the harbour. In fact the sandy spit that links Martha’s Vineyard with Chappaquiddick Island was breached in hurricane force winds in 2005. The spit was reformed by the sea quite recently. The presence of the ocean is everywhere too – pathways are made of sand or broken shells, you can smell the salt in the air. The houses are mostly timber frames (originally from trees on the island). Then there’s the maintenance – the salt-filled air is brutal on exposed timbers. Without frequent care and attention buildings will literally fall down.
I hop back in the Mini and head through Chilmark towards West Tisbury. The road sides here are filled with brambles and wild vines. They tumble in chaotic mounds towards the kerb. There are dry stone walls too reminding me of the English countryside – especially the Lake District. Rob tells me that sometimes you can smell the grapes as they mature on the vines. Perhaps an enterprising Vineyarder will start collecting the grapes and create a unique, organic (of course) vin sauvage…….
West Tisbury is a large town by island standards, school, shops, town hall, fire station – it’s a metropolis. I feel like I’ve washed up in a typical New England town and I have it to myself. Next I’m driving alongside the airport. Probably the smartest, cutest little airport I’ve ever visited. There is a tiny, timber-framed terminal building. There are solid timber rocking chairs lining the wall for weary travellers. High quality, timber rocking chairs. Can you believe it! The airport cafe is run by Neil a friendly South African. Such a great place, delicious breakfast, great views of the Cape Air planes. As I’m leaving a group of wild turkeys are grazing and rummaging in the grass. Delightful. They seem happy – it’s a while until Thanksgiving!
The tourist season is coming to an end and yet the sun is still shining. I’m on my way again, back in the Mini heading for Edgartown. Smart, cosmopolitan, historic. This is where the whaling captains built their homes. The Edgartown Historic District is beautifully maintained. Houses are charming with manicured gardens and wonderful porches. The harbour here is just perfect, a sheltered anchorage and timber jetties. Lunch over-looking this nautical panorama is a must! I meet up with Nicole a photographer in the town. Nicole has a great eye, she photographs weddings, family vacations, kids, corporate clients. She takes me on a walk to discover the hidden corners of town, elegant, secluded houses, fabulous gardens and the iconic lighthouse.
The whaling industry is long gone – replaced by tourism. Edgartown is a magnet for the well-heeled East Coast professionals in the summer months. In fact the town is full of builders’ vans and tradesmen renovating and up-grading houses for their discerning owners.
Curiously the tourist invasion of Martha’s Vineyard started with Camp Meetings for Methodists in the 1830s. Church groups came over from the mainland to pray and study the bible in a pure and peaceful setting. The town of Oak Bluffs grew up as a result of these prayer meetings. The Wesley Hotel still stands in town along with the summer cottages that the visitors built. Oak Bluffs has a beautiful village green with bandstand that reminds me of Eastbourne! To this day many restaurants on the island can only serve you an ‘alcoholic beverage’ once you’ve ordered food! On the subject of food – there are some great restaurants on the island. We sampled quite a few! Probably the favourite would have to be the Art Cliff Diner at Vineyard Haven.
Our stay in Martha’s Vineyard was truly rejuvenating. We didn’t want to leave. A big thank you to Debbie and Rob for looking after us. Thanks to Nicole for taking us on one of her favourite walks. We’ll definitely be back – who couldn’t fall in love with an island where the airport has a great cafe (thank you Neil) and wooden rocking chairs for weary travellers!
- Postscript – Sadly Rob Berkley departed these shores in December 2018. He is sadly missed. However I’m still in contact with Debbie and also with Nicole.
- The cover photo for this article was taken by Rob Berkley, a gifted photographer and friend. Outside the Art Cliff Diner.
- Updated: 25th March 2020