Don’t go to Martha’s Vineyard searching for a Sideways-style wine tasting trip. Four of the island’s six towns are dry (no alcohol is served or sold). Outside of a few errant thickets, grapes were never even grown on this Vineyard.
"I hereby claim this island for…"
In spite of the dearth of the noble vine, the inappropriate name apparently stuck after Bartholomew Gosnold, an English seafarer, found some wild grapes during his coastal explorations of the area in 1602. By some accounts, the now-famed namesake was his daughter, by others, his mother-in-law. Martha, whoever she may be, became forever associated with an island she never visited and where grapes were never harvested.
Before the last Ice Age, the vineyard’s original inhabitants likely strolled across the low valley to what was once the last reaches of Cape Cod. Here, they eked out an existence in the harsh, cruel environment and rugged landscape during the late Pleistocene Era. The island was separated from its motherland following the last Ice Age, when the great glacier retreated and waters filled in the valleys. Over the years, steady ocean winds created a unique sandy, acidic bed of topsoil (sandplain), unique to all the world, making the area a bit more hospitable.
White Man Cometh
Around the 17th century, when white adventurers first arrived, four separate tribes of Native Americans shared the small island, creating the densest concentration of tribal communities in New England. But English explorers, believing that since they had discovered the place, they owned it, took possession. Soon, Thomas Mayhew nabbed the land rights from two feuding noblemen back home in England and moved with his family to the island, where he named himself governor. With his son and a handful of settlers, they succeeded in converting the locals to Christianity and establishing a new order of life.
There was a price to be paid for spreading the word of the Bible and the king. As happened in so many isolated aboriginal communities, the arrival of the white explorers also brought disease that eventually decimated the original population. Within a century, the native population had dropped from over 3,000 to 300. (Descendants of those stalwart survivors still make the Vineyard their home near Aquinnah, site of the famous clay cliffs and lighthouse.)
Thar She Blows!
Farming, fishing, and a simple life satisfied early settlers for decades. It was the onslaught of the great whaling era that brought prosperity and notoriety to the island. From the ports of Martha’s Vineyards, whale fleets took sail as far away as Hawaii, which not coincidentally shares many similarities with Martha’s Vineyard far beyond mere island status, except for the tropical climate and volcanoes.
Whaling became so popular and lucrative because whales produce the intensely valuable baleen, which was used for a smokeless lamp oil. When alternative fuels were discovered, the whaling way of life and immense profits it produced dried up. What the era left in its wake all over Martha’s Vineyard are authentic Victorian gingerbread clapboard homes, painted ladies replete with widow’s walks, and broad porches where captain’s wives yearned for a glimpse of a sail signaling the safe return of their seafaring men.
Today, accessing Martha’s Vineyard is no simple stroll across the valley, yet the journey is far more expeditious than it was for the prehistoric hunter gatherers. A mere 9 miles wide and 23 miles long, located just 5 miles from the Cape Cod coast, visitors are ferried from various mainland ports many times a day. Note that the only service transporting autos is from Woods Hole and requires an advance reservation. Alternative approaches to the island include swimming across the freezing Atlantic channel through shark-infested waters (surely you remember the movie Jaws), or, for a much more civilized alternative, do as we did and tender ashore from a cruise ship anchored in the harbor.
Is It Real, Or Is It Oak Bluffs?
Stepping foot on the Vineyard immediately brings visitors face to face with evidence of the island’s history -- and its contradictions. Known today as Sin City, Oak Bluffs is ground zero of the island’s infamous tourist trade. Anything but "dry," Oak Bluffs caters to day-trippers, college students, gawky tourists, and families with a hearty selection of kitsch, gimcracks, and gewgaws. But it is the fabulously restored whimsical storybook houses that are the real attraction.
The homes are leftovers from the days when salvation came a second time to Martha’s Vineyard. First there were the missionaries, then the wealthy whale merchants in Edgarton, and then John Wesley’s followers set up camp and held Methodist summer revivals in Oak Bluffs. The gatherings eventually grew into elaborate social functions, prompting many followers to trade in their temporary tents for the lacy-trimmed, multicolored homes we see today on narrow Circuit Avenue and surrounding the old camp ground.
Soon enough, amenities were added to accommodate the revivalists and visitors, including the Flying Horses Carousel, built in 1876, the country’s oldest operating merry-go-round. With beautiful hand-carved horses and carnival music, it provides an authentic step back in time. Who can resist going for the brass ring for only $1?
The tourist season opens officially on Memorial Day and closes on Columbus Day, as does the carousel. We arrived just days too late to take the magical ride, and after strolling the town from back to front and beach to knoll, we shuttled to Edgartown on the very convenient island bus service, with stops located directly across from the main town park and gazebo where bands entertain visitors and residents with starry-night concerts in the summer.
Edgartown: A Perfect Preppie, Posh Port
She sells seashells… and everything else imaginable in Edgartown.
The boutiques in Edgartown are decidedly upscale, intriguing, and unique. Restaurants cater to both sophisticated palates and day-trippers’ appetites, heavy on the seafood, of course. Historical buildings abound: the Old Whaling Church, its stark white steeples piercing the brilliant blue vineyard sky; whaling captains’ elegant homes; and perfectly manicured bed-and-breakfasts with rose gardens straight from a Victorian illustration.
It’s best to stroll around the town, wander into a garden or two, knock on the Harbormaster’s door, and rock a boat moored in a prized slip. Check out the posted bulletins of this month’s youth fishing derby. Stop in the bakery (again) for gigantic pastries and decadent fudge. As the Vineyard Gazette reports, "summer residents came to enjoy the simplest kind of life -- because that’s the only kind of life Martha’s Vineyard can offer."
Just don‘t go for the wine tasting…
Note: If you visit the Vineyard during the sun is high season, be sure to indulge in any of Martha’s Vineyard’s 14 public beaches, hike or bike through the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, explore the East and West Chop lighthouses (a chop is an indent in the coastline, not quite a harbor), and tour the up-island pastoral wonders of Menemsha and Chilmark.