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Top Things to Do on Martha’s Vineyard

From New England history to maritime culture to classic Atlantic beaches—what not to miss during your vacation to this idyllic, historic island.

 

Just seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts, lies the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Though occupation of the island dates back to 2270 B.C., its modern history begins in 1602, when English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold named it for the wild grapes found there (and also, it’s said, for one of his daughters).

There are six towns on the island, classified as up-island or down-island. Aquinnah (formerly known as Gay Head), Chilmark and West Tisbury are up-island; Vineyard Haven (also known as Tisbury), Oak Bluffs and Edgartown are down-island. The terms “up” and “down” are nautical and refer to longitude on a map.

Vacationers, day-trippers and weekend visitors gravitate to Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. Each town has its own particular charms, from secluded cliff walks to busy shopping areas to historic lighthouses. Most people visit during the summer, but there are plenty of things to do during the off-season too.

Here are some of the top sites and attractions to be sure to visit during your Martha’s Vineyard vacation.

Down-Island Attractions

Oak Bluffs

Oak Bluffs is home to hundreds of colorful 19th-century “gingerbread” cottages (tiny Victorian homes), built by Methodist church members who set up summer camps in the 1800s and eventually built up the area. The Victorian architecture is everywhere in town and makes for a charming tour. Oak Bluffs is also traditionally an African-American vacation spot dating back to the turn of the century and is home to famous Inkwell Beach. [Read more in our Martha’s Vineyard Beaches article.]

Circuit Avenue (Oak Bluffs’ main drag) is the best place to spot celebrities. The Flying Horses Carousel anchors one of the busiest intersections of the island and is a must for all children. $1.50 per ride. Open Easter Sunday through Labor Day. www.mvpreservation.org

Vineyard Haven

Vineyard Haven, the main ferry port, is by far the most touristy of the island’s towns and is where you’ll find the world-renowned Black Dog Tavern. The restaurant is known for its clam chowder, and every meal should start with a cup or bowl. The fish and chips is a standout dish, as well as the huge and delicious burgers. [Get additional Martha’s Vineyard restaurant recommendations.] Vineyard Haven Harbor. Tel. 508-693-9223. www.theblackdog.com

Many tour buses await day-trippers here in the summertime and are well worth the price if you need a quick overview of the island. There are also public transportation, rental car agencies and bike rental shops right by the dock. Near the ferry landing a short stroll along the sand brings you to a small harbor beach and playground. There is a lifeguard on duty in the summer.

Edgartown

Edgartown, where most of the 19th-century wealthy whaling captains lived, is the county seat and the grande dame of the down-island towns that became rich (along with Nantucket) on whaling profits. It’s still filled with the stately white, clapboarded Federal-style mansions of the whaling captains. Walk down North Water Street to see the best of them. Definitely the tonier of the island towns, Edgartown’s Main Street is filled with clothing and jewelry stores, restaurants and art galleries where Pissarros share exhibition space with local artists.

For a detailed glimpse to the past, visit the Vincent House, built in 1672, the oldest-known house on the island; the Dr. Daniel Fisher House, an 1840 Federal-style residence; and the Old Whaling Church, which was built in 1843 for Edgartown's Methodist whaling captains. The Vincent House has five rooms furnished with period antiques that depict life throughout the last four centuries. While the architecture is gorgeous, this is probably more an activity of interest to adults, rather than kids.

The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust offers guided tours of the properties daily from May through Columbus Day at 11 a.m., noon, 1 and 2 p.m. Tours begin at the Vincent House and last 45 minutes. 99 Main St. Tel. 508-627-8619. www.mvpreservation.org

The Farm Institute

An unexpected activity on the Vineyard is a stop at the Farm Institute in Edgartown, a non-profit organization of farmers, teachers and community activists who are dedicated to educating and engaging children and adults in sustainable agriculture on a diverse 162-acre working farm.

While many summer weeklong camps for kids are offered, the Institute does have a few one-day programs, but they fill up fast, so book early. Farmer for a Day for kids ages 6 to 14 allows kids to work on the farm, doing chores like feeding animals and working in the garden; $50.

Farm tours are also offered daily Monday through Friday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. ($10 per family or $5 per person). Stop by the Farm Stand Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. for fresh produce. Other events are offered throughout the year, such as a corn maze in the fall. 14 Aero Ave. Tel. 508-627-7007. www.farminstitute.org

Up-Island Attractions

Aquinnah

Many year-round residents of Aquinnah are descendants of the Wampanoag Indians, who befriended American colonists and even taught them how to kill whales, plant corn and find clay for the early brickyards.

The Gay Head Cliffs and historic Gay Head Lighthouse (also known as Aquinnah Light) are the main visitor draws. The lighthouse is open for sunset tours from late June through mid-September, from 1.5 hours before sunset to a half-hour after, Friday to Sunday. Tel. 508-627-4441. Admission: $5 for adults, free for children. www.mvmuseum.org

Chilmark

Chilmark is where many say the best sunset on the island can be found. The tiny fishing village of Menemsha offers up quaint shops and a few restaurants. The Menemsha Hills Reservation offers three miles of trails to explore and is overseen by the Trustees of Reservations. Tabor House Lane. Tel. 508-693-3678. www.trustees.org

West Tisbury

Rural West Tisbury is home to historic Grange Hall and to the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, which holds the annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Livestock Show and Fair every summer.

This small town is charming to wander through, but the big attraction for my family is the Long Point Wildlife Refuge Beach, one of the best beaches on the island. Off Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. Tel. 508-693-3678. Admission: June 15 to Sept. 15, $10 per car plus $3 per adult; free for each child 15 and under. Sept. 16 to June 14, free to all. www.thetrustees.org

Polly Hill Arboretum

A lovely way to spend a morning or afternoon is at the Polly Hill Arboretum, a horticultural and botanical landmark. The 70-acre property features rare trees and shrubs from around the world, including North Tisbury azaleas, camellias, clematis, crabapples and magnolias, among others. 809 State Road. Tel. 508-693-9426. Admission: $5 for adults and free for kids 12 and under. www.pollyhillarboretum.org

Renting Bikes and Boats

If you don’t want to bring your own car and aren’t inclined to rent one on the island, renting bikes is a great option. There are many bike paths to take, depending on how much time you have (and how fit you are!). There are lots of spots to rent near the ferry docks. For bike trails and rentals, read our Biking Martha’s Vineyard article.

If you’d like to see the island from the water, a kayak is ideal. Island Spirit Kayak (tel. 508-693-9727) in Vineyard Haven offers tours and rentals. Other activities on the island include sailing, fishing and even scuba diving. Visit the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce to find outfitters. Tel. 508-693-0085. www.mvy.com

Annual Events

West Tisbury

No matter the season, there’s sure to be a festival or celebration on the island. Spring brings the Annual Vineyard Artisans Memorial Day Fair with many of the island’s top craftspeople showing work at Grange Hall in West Tisbury. Tel. 508-693-8989. Admission: free. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 24, 2009. www.vineyardartisans.com

The more than 140-year-old Agricultural Fair in August is a must for visitors and residents alike. There are rides, games, livestock, live music, food and animal competitions, craft demonstrations, shopping and an art show. Aug. 20 to 23, 2009. Tel. 508-693-9549. Admission and hours: check Web site for ticket info. Mvas.vineyard.net

Come fall, there’s the Annual Vineyard Artisans Columbus Day Festival, which features artists working in fiber, glass, botanicals, sculpture, photography, leather crafts and more. Tel. 508-693-8989. Admission: free. www.vineyardartisans.com

Oak Bluffs

Oak Bluffs has Harbor Fest in June to kick off summer, an annual celebration with food, music, vendors and fireworks. June 20, 2009. Tel. 508-693-3392. Admission: free. Hours: noon to 5 p.m. www.oakbluffsmv.com

During the fall, there’s also an annual Columbus Day 5K Road Race and one-mile Fun Run (and 5K Walk). Oct. 11, 2009. Tel. 800-505-4815. Admission: $20 entry fee on the day of race. www.mvol.com

Edgartown

The Fourth of July celebration in Edgartown includes a parade and a backyard barbecue held on the Dr. Daniel Fisher House Lawn. The Vineyard Haven Band plays at the Old Whaling Church before and after the parade. Bring a picnic or buy food there. Tel. 508-627-4440. Admission: free. Hours: 4 to 8 p.m. www.mvpreservation.org

Another wonderful fall event is the Martha’s Vineyard Food & Wine Festival, a three-day extravaganza of wine tastings, seminars, tasting and dinners by local and world-renowned chefs at various spots. Oct. 16 to 18, 2009. Tel. 508-939-0880. Tickets are required for each event and range from $20 to $85 per ticket. www.mvfoodandwine.com

The island’s Christmas celebration includes a parade down Main Street, with all the shops decked out, and photos with Santa. www.edgartownboardoftrade.com


Destinations: Martha’s Vineyard

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Museums, Sightseeing


User Comments

Having been to the Vineyard many times, I think this article gives a great overview and also mentions some new things I hadn't heard about.

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