About the Vineyard
There are times on Martha's Vineyard when you're literally walking on rose petals. The roses that line the streets of Edgartown, decorate the yards of Vineyard Haven, grow wild along the beaches of Oak Bluffs, Chilmark and Aquinnah and sprout unexpectedly in the fields of West Tisbury at the site of a long-disappeared house, all sprinkle their petals in a cool island breeze.
Those are the moments when buying a home on an island seven miles off the Cape Cod coast and accessible only by water or air makes perfect sense.
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A Brief History
Martha's Vineyard has been a destination for adventurous voyagers for 10,000 years when it was still seventy-five miles from the beach. Summer hunters first visited but didn't stay because of the inhospitable weather. Two thousand years later, after the deer, elk, and smaller mammals had replaced mastodons and mammoths, they moved here permanently. A few thousand years after that, they became the original Islanders when the ice age glaciers began to melt, ocean level rose and the low-lying land that connected it to the mainland was flooded.
These Native Americans then welcomed the first white visitors in the early 1600s, 20 years before the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth. The Vineyard has for 150 years been a resort community, first attracting Methodists to summer religious revival meetings under the oaks of Edgartown (now Oak Bluffs).
Today, it's the home of about 15,000 year-round residents, a number that swells to about 100,000 in summer, when those who either own or rent real estate return for magical weeks to enjoy the Vineyard's beaches, six towns, beautiful water and inland vistas, and to find entertainment that is quintessentially "Island."
Most of these visitors arrive by car ferries run by the Nantucket/Martha's Vineyard Steamship Authority that leave Woods Hole, MA, and regularly arrive and depart on the Vineyard from Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven (also known as Tisbury. Others take the passenger-only New England Fast Ferry from New Bedford, MA, or convenient commercial or private flights to the Vineyard's small but fully-appointed airport. If visitors don't bring a car, they can rely on both the Vineyard Transit Authority system that traverses all of Martha's Vineyard, as well as taxis and rental agencies for bikes, cars and mopeds.
But don't be fooled by the word "island" – Martha's Vineyard is 100 square miles, almost nine miles wide and twenty-three miles long. Although the Island is bike-friendly and there are a series of bike paths through the most developed parts, much of it is rolling terrain that can challenge all but the strongest bikers, and the towns themselves are miles apart.
For those looking to vacation or move here, there are infinite possibilities for Martha's Vineyard real estate including rentals, home, or vacant land purchases. Want a quaint fishing camp? An elegant in-town clapboard home? A casual beach cottage? A large accommodating house for a family reunion? A piece of land with a spectacular view? Unlike many vacation resorts, the Vineyard has a wide and unusual selection available, in great part because it's still a "lived in" community. Each of the Island's six towns has very different and intricate personalities, and each offers its own entertainments:
- Edgartown, the oldest of the towns, is a charming New England village, complete with white church spires and elegant historic homes. Located on a natural harbor, it also has one of the largest public beaches on the Island, South Beach.
- Oak Bluffs is a beach town, a little rougher around the edges than Edgartown, but filled with fun restaurants, shops and instant access to the water and beaches. It is also the home of the Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting, a 150-year-old area of colorful "gingerbread" homes built as part of a Methodist summer retreat.
- Vineyard Haven is traditionally the Island's most year-round community, in great part because of the year-round departure and arrival of the ferries. During the summer season, hundreds of wooden boats are moored in the harbor there, including two elegant tall ships owned by the well-known The Black Dog Company. The village includes a number of art museums exhibiting local and off-Island talent.
- West Tisbury is the Island's farming community, and its tiny town village, with church, town hall and general store, is the perfect gathering spot for townsfolk and visitors who want to catch up on the latest news.
- Chilmark, sometimes gently referred to as the "independent state of Chilmark" because of the self-sufficiency of its more isolated community, is a collection of beautiful and sometimes rustic homes set on rolling land, many with views of the seas. Its community center, the Chilmark Store a few hundred yards away, and the town-only beaches along its shore are the residents' and visitors' social gathering spots.
- Aquinnah, at the very tip of Martha's Vineyard, is the tribal home of the Vineyard's original settlers, the Wampanoag Tribe, and is also the place of the Island's only true "tourist attraction," the colorful clay cliffs of Gay Head, protected by historic designation. Like much of the Vineyard, homes here are often sparsely placed along dirt roads, and the social life revolves around the beaches.
One of the first questions an agent at Sandpiper may ask you is if you prefer to be in a town, or in a more rural setting – and, that often translates into homes or property Up Island or Down Island. The terms have maritime roots. When a vessel travels down its longitude, it is heading east. When traveling up its longitude, it is heading west. Therefore, western parts of the Island – West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah – are referred to as Up Island. The eastern towns of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown are referred to as Down Island. For the Vineyard, the more populous communities are Down Island – although there are plenty of secluded spots in all the towns.
The Up-Island and Down Island references are part of the inescapable history of the Vineyard, and color almost all facets of life here: the life of the sea. The Wampanoag's originally called the island Noepe, or "amid the waters." It was named Martha's Vineyard by English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who sailed to the Island in 1602 in his huge masted ship, Concord, and landed at Cape Poge off Chappaquiddick Island, the "island off the island" that is part of Edgartown. He gave the Island a name honoring his own infant daughter and making reference to the many grape vines that once dotted the Island. (Today, there is one commercial vineyard on Martha's Vineyard; it is located in West Tisbury, and is open to the public.)
Although there were 3,000 Wampanoags living on the Vineyard when Gosnold arrived, he deemed it "a dishabitted land." Thirty-eight years later, Thomas Mayhew Jr. and as many as eleven other families from Watertown, MA, moved to the Island, settling what they called Great Harbor – Edgartown. By 1691, fifty-eight English families were estimated to be living on the Vineyard, many of them with the names that still identify Island families – the Mayhews, Vincents, Peases, and Nortons among them. You'll find families, farms and streets named after them. A trip to any of the old but still used graveyards, with their elaborate headstones and descriptive inscriptions, is an education on the life of the Vineyard
Edgartown became the center of the whaling industry that flourished for more than 150 years on Martha's Vineyard, and that left its mark in the town through the beautiful and historic residences of whaling boat captains. During the early 1800s, when whaling was in full bloom, the waters around Martha's Vineyard were among the busiest in the world. Cape Poge Lighthouse was built in 1801 to guide ships around the same point Gosnold had rounded; seasonal tours allow visitors to explore it. Four other lighthouses dot the Island. Other parts of Martha's Vineyard have equally fascinating histories, much of which is documented and on display at the Martha's Vineyard Museum.
The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s produced a cheaper source of oil for lamps and led to an almost complete collapse of the whaling industry on the Vineyard by 1870. Fortunately for Martha's Vineyard, another industry took its place with the opening in 1872 of a railway that led from major points and ended at Wood's Hole: tourism. Many of the oldest summer homes on the Vineyard date from that period, particularly in Oak Bluffs, a seasonal ferry stop. Through the years, the Vineyard became a favorite vacationing spot for hundreds of celebrities, from General Ulysses S. Grant to movie star Jimmy Cagney, artist Jackson Pollock, and former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton, whose regular visits while he was president made the Island famous in recent years.
Dozens of other movie stars, politicians, writers, artists and activists live here part of full-time – you may find the house you're renting or contemplating buying is down the block from Mike Wallace or up the beach from David Letterman, and that the names of the rich and famous are part of everyday life. So much so that the Island has always prided itself on treating celebrities like everyday folk. You may discover comedian Bill Murray buying nails at the Edgartown Hardware or Chris Rock wandering the streets of Vineyard Haven, checking out the many art galleries there.
But if you want to act like at Islander, you'll pretend you don't notice.
The Island Life
The Island is a refreshing blend of the cosmopolitan and the simple life — and most definitely, the romantic: watching the shoreline move into view from the outdoor deck of one of the Island's big ferries is awe-inspiring. People making the trip say they begin to drop the cares and concerns of their mainland life at almost that instance.
The Vineyard (and the Vineyarders) then work hard to make sure you keep that feeling. While Martha's Vineyard is dotted with elegant restaurants, few of them require more than casual clothing. And some of the favorite places, like The Galley and The Bite in the fishing village of Menemsha in Chilmark, are little more than permanent huts with a few picnic tables. There are no fast food chains on the Island (the attempt several years ago to locate the Golden Arches here led literally to an Island-wide revolt), and only a few chain clothing stores of any kind.
Life is slower and the pleasures simpler: there are no multi-plexes, only four old-fashioned movie theatres (one in Edgartown, two in Oak Bluffs, and one in Vineyard Haven) showing the same two or three movies on a rotating basis. A good day may start with a trip to the Farmer's Market held each Wednesday and Saturday at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, and a good night may end with a Wednesday community sing at the outdoor Tabernacle on the Martha's Vineyard Campgrounds in Oak Bluffs.
Visitors and residents have five grocery stories to choose from, including two Stop 'N Shop Supermarkets (one in Edgartown and one in Vineyard Haven). They can also choose from three locally owned stores, two Cronig's Markets (one in Vineyard Haven and one in West Tisbury) and the Reliable Self-Serve Market in downtown Oak Bluffs. (One word of caution: It's an island. Prices are high. Nothing offends an Islander more than over-hearing complaints about quality and costs since they pay them year-round.) Supplementing those, though, are distinctively "Vineyard" shopping opportunities – farm stands that stock only locally grown, usually organic products, honor system flower stands that let you pick and pay without ever seeing another person or the amusing offerings at Alley's General Store in West Tisbury where a bobble-head Sigmund Freud doll may share the same grocery bag as a quart of milk.
Martha's Vineyard is a paradise for those who love the outdoors. With 124.6 square miles of shoreline, there are beaches of all kinds: rocky, wild ones along the Chilmark and Aquinnah coasts of the Atlantic Ocean, the big waves of South Beach in Edgartown, the usually gentle, family-friendly beaches along Beach Road that borders Nantucket Sound between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, the small but pristine Vineyard Sound shoreline along Lambert's Cove Road in West Tisbury, the usually packed but happy scene that abuts the fishing jetty in Menemsha, the breathtaking views of Chappaquiddick's Wasque Point. In some cases, the Island even allows those with annual over-sand vehicle permits to drive the beaches. Supplementing the beaches are dozens of ponds, some fresh and some salt water, where kayakers or canoers, swimmers, sailors, and picnickers can spend hours on the water or on blankets on the shore.
The Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby fishing tournament held in the fall brings hundreds of dedicated fishermen here every year, and there are plenty of "secret" fishing spots guarded by serious fishermen. But a more casual approach can be found on almost every beach and from the Edgartown Memorial Wharf, where children and adults alike cast their hopes into the waters surrounding Martha's Vineyard. And, if you're trying to multi-task, the harbor at Oak Bluffs is a wireless computer hotspot – fishing, gawking and 'net surfing all available from a harbor-side outdoor bench.
When you want to stretch your sea legs, the Island offers miles of trails across protected lands and through myriads of terrain. The glacier that moved across the land thousands of years ago left the gifts of rolling landscape Up Island that resemble nothing less than Ireland's green hills. The 5100-acre Manual F. Correllus State Forest in mid-Island is the perfect place to run, horseback ride, hike, mountain bike, walk, or on a rare day in winter, cross-country ski. Maps and guidebooks can be found in the Island's three bookstores that identify the locations of all public trails on the Vineyard.
Visitors and Islanders alike mark the progression of the season through a few key events – the July 4 parade in Edgartown that starts it, the Agricultural Fair in West Tisbury, and the fireworks in Oak Bluffs that traditionally signal summer's end. Although the true summer season here is only the two months of July and August, those who own seasonal homes are now extending their time here into October, waiting to close their Martha's Vineyard homes and wrap their shrubs with protective burlap until after they've gotten every pleasure from the Island.
The mild fall, facilitated by the surrounding water that cools slowly, keeps the Vineyard warmer long past Cape Cod and the mainland's own fall. The long fall allows the Vineyarders who have worked all summer taking care of Island summer visitors to enjoy the beaches, restaurants -- and each other. When the weather finally does close in and many of the shops and restaurants shut down, the Island goes back to the pace that was probably more familiar fifty years ago. Those are the days when Linda Jean's Restaurant in Oak Bluffs quits serving dinner at 7, and Espresso Love in Edgartown shuts down so its owner/chef can take a six week trip to Europe to learn new cooking techniques.
Yet, as one 13th generation Islander puts it, "Winter is when we get really busy."