- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

Martha’s Vineyard rises from the blue-green water of the Atlantic Ocean seven miles off the elbow of Cape Cod’s curled bicep.

Sculpted by a transient glacier, the landmass is easy enough to find on a map, but visitors strolling down a ferry gangplank or along the airport tarmac may find themselves lost when they encounter the island’s eclectic blend of contradictions.

“On island,” as the saying goes, fishing villages and old ideals lull alongside four-star restaurants and luxury resorts.

Martha’s Vineyard has been slow to change, built on traditions and a dogged determination to repel the pollution of the mainland’s modern ways.

Yes, cell phones abound and cable TV keeps the year-round residents entertained during the dead winters. However, it is still a place unlike any other, where artists find safe haven and no fast-food chains or skyscrapers blight the view of the many harbors with fleets of brightly colored fishing boats.

Vacationers who enjoy a world where everything moves a little more slowly and neckties are forbidden should fit right in.

The island could be called small at 25 miles long and a scant seven miles wide, but the variety and diversity on Martha’s Vineyard belie that once you slice the island into its component locales.

First, there are up island and down island, an important fact when trying to get directions from a native. Up island holds three main towns, West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah. There’s also Lobsterville, Chilmark’s town beach.

Taking a day trip up island is a chance many visitors overlook, being entranced instead by all there is to do down island. In doing so, they miss out on a lot of island history. Up island, you get the feeling that time’s ceaseless march missed a step.

West Tisbury — “West Tis” to the locals — holds a lot of picturesque farms and miles of stone walls. It’s also home to Alley’s General Store, an island landmark that offers cold drinks on the way to the clay cliffs of Aquinnah and a nice seat on a shaded porch for the weary biker. Keep your eyes peeled for farmers’ stands dotting the roadside and offering a chance to take home some island produce, fresh from the field.

Chilmark, beyond West Tisbury, is chock-full of winding roads that gradually rise well above sea level, affording fantastic vistas, but watch for bikes and mopeds if you’re driving, as the roads are extremely narrow and don’t have shoulders.

John Belushi is buried in Chilmark, at the Abels Hill Cemetery, although finding him isn’t easy. Memorial headstones were erected for Mr. Belushi shortly after wear and tear from visitors started to damage the cemetery. Tread lightly if you stop to pay respects.

Menemsha, within Chilmark, is a postcard fishing village with weathered shacks on stilts surrounded by mounds of bone-white clamshells and stacks of wire lobster traps. Stroll along the town dock for a glimpse into the gritty world of commercial fishing, as giant trawlers and shell-fishing boats sit tied up and jet black cormorants perch on rooftops.

Alongside the harbor are a number of fish markets that hawk the day’s catch and invite people to sit on wooden boxes out back and devour a lobster while they watch the sun play off the ships. It’s a messy, glorious way to celebrate the bounty of the sea as butter dribbles down your chin and onto your swimsuit. (The town beach is at the end of the dock and is billed as the island’s best cheap date; all you need is a light picnic dinner, and the sunset will do the rest.

At the Western tip of the island rise the clay cliffs of Aquinnah. Against the backdrop of the raw Atlantic, the cliffs are known for their rivers of earthy colors. At the top of the cliffs, shops and eateries run by the Wampanohe tribe offer good food paired with great views. There’s also a public beach and, below the cliffs, a permit-only nude beach, so try to keep the binoculars trained on the colors.

Aquinnah is one of the spots on island that beg the question, where am I? The sloped kaleidoscopic cliffs look as if they’re straight out of a hairpin turn on the California coastline, and it’s only after one takes in the Gay Head Lighthouse and stained shingles of the shops that it dawns: I’m in Massachusetts.

While up island offers up pretty pictures and tranquillity, the three towns down island hold a lot of color and diversity. Each of the three is unique, with its own character. Vineyard Haven can be described as the prude of the group, Edgartown is the upper-crust socialite of the trio, and Oak Bluffs is best known for its honky-tonk feel.

In Vineyard Haven, one of the two towns where a ferry-goer can expect to land, Main Street looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, a cliched example of how small New England towns should look.

There’s a lot to do, from strolling with ice cream cone in hand along the varied shops to lulling at the town beach and watching the bright white ferries come and go or lingering at the harbor, considered to be the working waterfront of the island, complete with a very busy shipyard.

Come happy hour, don’t expect to seek shelter in a pub populated by locals; the town is dry. Most of the restaurants in town will gladly pour you a drink — provided you bring the booze and pay a modest uncorking fee, much cheaper than a bottle of the house vintage elsewhere.

Vineyard Haven is the home of the original Black Dog bakery, made famous by its iconic canine that can be seen the world over gracing the fronts of T-shirts. Be forewarned, though: Outfitting your family in matching Black Dog wear is considered an island fashion faux pas, akin to wearing a band’s T-shirt to its concert.

From Vineyard Haven, you can drive to Oak Bluffs, the town’s frat-boy brother. On the way, you’ll pass the island’s only stoplight, the one that turns red when the drawbridge is up.

Oak Bluffs is the place to go after a day at the beach for a light dinner or a gin and tonic at one of the many open-air bars that line the harbor’s bulkhead. Though the night life belongs to the young and hip, it’s also a great family town, with a sprawling arcade and the Flying Horses Carousel, the nation’s oldest merry go-round, built in 1876-78.

With real horsehair for manes and glass eyes hand-painted with tiny scenes inside, the attraction will delight children and adults as they spin around and try to grab rings — if you catch the silver one, you get a free ride.

The rabble-rousing potential of Oak Bluffs is only part of the town. Along the end of Circuit Avenue (the main drag in OB), the shops and eateries give way to campgrounds, started in 1835 by a group of Methodists. The centerpiece of the settlement is the Tabernacle, a sprawling, 125-year-old circular church built with steel support bars that creak and groan in the wind.

The Tabernacle is surrounded by gingerbread cottages, so named for their bright colors of Pepto-Bismal pink, canary yellow and sky blue, and the intricate woodcarvings seen on the cottages’ overhangs and porch railings. Many of the homes have been in families for generations, and it seems to be a major point of pride to have the brightest, boldest house on the street.

On Aug. 18, the town held its annual illumination night, and hundreds of Japanese lanterns were hung out on the cottages and lit. Two days later, Oak Bluffs had a grandiose fireworks show, the official signal of the end of summer.

Traveling along State Road toward Edgartown takes you on a narrow sliver of blacktop with State Beach on one side and Sengekontacket Pond on the other. The second of the two bridges you drive over is a “Jaws” landmark: It is the bridge that Bruce, the fussy mechanical shark, swam under in the 1974 film.

On the way to Edgartown, Farm Neck, the island’s only public 18-hole golf course, undulates on the right. Farm Neck was founded 25 years ago with a goal not normally associated with sprawling visages to mashies and niblicks: conservation. The nonprofit course was constructed after the acres of land over which it spreads were earmarked to be developed into a fleet of houses.

The Farm Neck Cafe, open to the public, is one of the best places for a cheeseburger on island, and though the greens fees may be expensive, lunch is not.

Edgartown lies just beyond the dreaded island triangle, where three roads converge into one. During the height of summer, the intersection is like the Bermuda Triangle, with a penchant for making time, not watercraft, disappear during gridlock.

Edgartown pays homage to the affluent and the nostalgic. It was the home port to many a whaling captain, and their sprawling houses still stand, complete with widow’s walks on the roof, where pensive wives would pace while their husbands were at sea. Many of the houses have blinding-white fences with colorful flowers spilling over them, and everything in the town seems to have a polished yet causal feel.

After centuries, it hasn’t shed its nautical roots. The harbor still holds fishermen, although most of them are charter captains or day-trippers. The Edgartown lighthouse is no longer manned around the clock, but it still shines and guides mariners home.

Across the harbor lies Chappaquiddick, an island unto itself, connected by a thin peninsula that is often washed out in storms. It’s easy to get to, though, thanks to the On Time One and Two, two-car ferries so named because they run the harbor gamut ceaselessly throughout the day. Chappaquiddick has the softest sand in the world, so say the locals, and it is the location of the infamous bridge that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, drove off one night in 1969.

These are the places that grace the island of Martha’s Vineyard, but they don’t sum up what the island really is: a feeling almost impossible to describe, the sense of peace and tranquillity this snippet of land holds. It could be the lack of perpetual sirens or screeching tires, or the fact that seven miles of ocean separate you from all the stress and the frenetic pace of mainland life.

It’s a feeling, a vibe, that sneaks up on you, maybe at the beach, when you finally look up from that indulgent mystery book and realize the sun is sliding into the ocean, or when you stop and watch children flying kites against the green of grass and the whitewashed boulders of Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs.

There’s almost always a sweet-smelling sea breeze blowing on island, but with all there is to do and see, most people don’t stop and notice it, and that, in a sense, is the ticket to enjoying the unique experience. Sstop, slow down and decompress. Tilt your head and listen to what the wind has to say.

Now is a prime time to visit Martha’s Vineyard, as the full-swing season winds up. The August crowd is said to be more hurried and rushed than the rest, but it is after all, the end of summer.

For a glimpse into off-season island life, a weekend trip in early September is recommended, when the ocean water is warm and most of the shops are still open and without crowds. There may be less to do in the forms of events and activities, but that’s what an island vacation is all about: Less is more.

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