100 square miles of Marthas Vineyard are home to six separate towns which
have evolved six unique personalities since the first arrival of English settlers
to the Island in 1642. The Island, with its beautiful beaches, nature preserves
and historic villages, is a magical place to visit at any season. But one of the
most unexpected delights for many newcomers is the rich variety and unique charms
of these six individual towns.
Port of Entry The three towns of Vineyard Haven, Edgartown and
Oak Bluffs together are home to about three-quarters of the Islands year-round
population. For most visitors, their first steps on the
Island will be in Vineyard Haven, also called Tisbury, because this is the main
port of entry for the Steamship Authority ferries sailing from Woods Hole. (The
SSA also runs ferries to Oak Bluffs, but only during the summer season.)
Vineyard Haven is the town least buffeted by the dramatic population
cycles of the summer and winter seasons. Its a densely settled community,
with a population that matches Edgartowns but on one-quarter the land area.
One of the natural treasures of Vineyard Haven is its harbor, which is
protected by two promontories of land known as East Chop and West Chop. Chop
is an old word for jaws, and these two jutting landforms have left Vineyard Haven
with a natural enclosure that made it one of the busiest harbors on the East Coast
during the heydays of coastal schooners in the United States. Along that harbor
are such working businesses as the Islands main ferry terminal, the Islands
only gasoline and heating oil depot and the famous Gannon & Benjamin boatyard,
one of the finest builders of classic wooden yachts in the United States.
The man-made treasures of Vineyard Haven speak mainly to the towns
history. A drive out to the West Chop point will take you to the lighthouse, and
past impressive private homes with sweeping ocean views. A walking tour of downtown
is a chance to enjoy such Island landmarks as the Bunch of Grapes bookstore,
honored as the best private bookstore in the United States, the Black Dog Tavern
and Bakery and bustling family businesses like the Net Result Fish Market.
Bluffs, the First Resort Before there was even a town named Oak Bluffs
back in the 1830s Methodist congregations across New England would
organize summer retreats to the outlying woods north of Edgartown, where they
would spend a week in revival meetings, hearing as many as four sermons a day.
Many found this setting so delightful, they started coming early on their camping
trips and staying late. That early tradition of the camp-meeting really
gave Marthas Vineyard its start as a summer resort community.
the Methodists expanded their summer visits, they first built wooden platforms
for their tents, and then began building a community of colorful cottages around
their open-air meeting center. Thus was born the Islands only truly original
architectural style, known today as Campground Gothic Revival. Some 300 cottages
with gingerbread scrollwork details and gaily-colored paint schemes
still stand at the heart of Oak Bluffs, around the central Tabernacle with its
graceful arches of wrought iron.
The historic path of this burgeoning
summer resort so departed from Edgartown that in 1880 its residents split away,
forming the town of Cottage City. The town took on the new name of Oak Bluffs
From its revivalist beginnings, Oak Bluffs has grown to
become the Islands liveliest center for after-hours entertainment, with
a downtown district, called Circuit Avenue, bustling well into the wee hours on
summer weekends. Oak Bluffs is also home to such landmarks as the Flying Horses, among
the nations oldest operating carousels, and Union Chapel, a remarkable octagonal
structure that dates to 1870.
The Oak Bluffs harbor is known as
the Islands favorite center for power boaters, with its long concrete dock
and electrical hookup services. Oak Bluffs is also home to the Islands most
impressive collection of public parks. The jewel of them all is Ocean Park, with
a bandstand at the center from which concerts are given on alternating Sunday
nights throughout the summer. Ocean Park is also the center for the August fireworks
display which traditionally draws the biggest crowds of any single Island event,
and which marks the conclusion of the high summer season.
Edgartown, the parent community to Oak Bluffs. In the 1600s it was site of the Islands first English settlement, then called
Great Harbour. In the 1800s, Edgartown was a world center for the whaling trade,
and all along the harbor today are formidable mansions, built by the whaling captains
and ship owners, that testify to the wealth of that era. Fans of traditional New
England architecture will be in for a treat in areas like North Water Street,
with its stretch of immaculate homes in the Federal, Colonial and Greek Revival
styles. The downtown district has a movie
theater and a fine assortment of shops dealing in everything from gourmet foods
to designer clothes and jewelry.
Along the Edgartown harbor is the
yacht club, with a parade of impressive sailing craft that lasts all summer. And
beside the towns Memorial Wharf, which has a spacious public viewing platform
on its roof, the Chappaquiddick ferry service takes cars and passengers back and
forth all day to the Island-within-an-Island whose highlights include the remarkable
Japanese garden, Mytoi, and the large coastal nature preserves cared for by The
Trustees of Reservations.
Tisbury, Athens of Agriculture
If the Island has a town best known
for its rural, agricultural heritage, it is West Tisbury, which lies just west
of Edgartown. West Tisbury is home to the fairgrounds of the Marthas Vineyard
Agricultural Society, whose annual fair and livestock show is the place to be
for four festive days every August.
Driving from Edgartown, the
road to West Tisbury takes you past the 5,100 acres of the Manuel S. Correllus
State Forest, a nature preserve originally created in 1908 in an attempt to save
a dying species of bird called the heath hen. (The bird went extinct, but by happy
accident the state forest turned out to be a critical bit of environmental protection:
it was placed perfectly above the aquifer, the lens of groundwater that provides
the Islands primary fresh water supply.)
Driving from Vineyard Haven, the road to West Tisbury
takes you past farms and fields that speak to the Islands agricultural heritage.
In the downtown village center, youll find a white-steepled church, a quaint
town hall that was once an academy for aspiring young mariners, and the famous
Alleys General Store, whose motto, Dealers in Almost Everything,
pretty much sums up its mission as the last all-purpose retail outpost on the
western end of the Island. After your stop at Alleys for a morning paper,
a monkey wrench or a boogie board, be sure to wander across the street. There
youll find the Field Gallery, its lawns dotted with whimsical dancing sculptures
created by a beloved Island artist, the late Tom Maley.
Rural Enclave The visual trademark of Chilmark, just west of West
Tisbury, might well be the stone walls that wind their way through rolling fields
and forests, recalling the day when vast expanses of the Island landscape were
open land, devoted to sheep farming. Youll still see a working sheep farm
if you look south from the South Road across the fields of Allen Farm to sweeping
vistas of the Atlantic.
Chilmark has two important town centers.
One, at a place called Beetlebung Corner for the trees there, has its library,
school and town hall. Just a ways to the north is Menemsha, a picturesque fishing
village which, remarkably, has kept much of its old New England character. The
beach at Menemsha draws people all summer long, and is especially popular for its colorful sunset and one of the few places on the east coast where the sun sets over the sea.
A Town of 2 Nations
Aquinnah is the most remote town at the southwestern tip of Marthas Vineyard.
This community was known as Gay Head until 1998, when townspeople voted to give
their home a name which recalls its heritage as the native land of the Wampanoag
Tribe. Aquinnah, in the Wampanoag language, means the land beneath the Cliffs,
and certainly a visual highlight of any trip to Marthas Vineyard must be
the spectacular formation known as the Gay Head Cliffs. A national landmark, this
outcropping of colorful clay was created by the shearing force of the same glacier
that formed the Vineyard some 20,000 years ago.
Wampanoags are the same tribe that famously greeted the first Pilgrims at Plymouth
Rock. Originally they had half a dozen villages or more across the Island; it
is only at Aquinnah that they have managed to survive as a distinct Indian community.
In 1978, the U.S. government granted federal recognition to the Wampanoag Tribe
of Gay Head (Aquinnah), making it the only tribe so recognized in the state of
Massachusetts. At the Wampanoag Tribal Center on Black Brook Road, a museum detailing
the history of the Wampanoags on Marthas Vineyard is open every summer.