Martha’s Vineyard is an island just south of Cape Cod. It is only accessible via air or boat, and is known as an affluent summer colony with many people owning second homes on the island. The island was originally inhabited by the Wampanoag and was known as Noepe, meaning ‘land amid the streams’. Bartholomew Gosnold founded and named the island in 1602, probably after his daughter Martha, although the exact story behind the history of the name is debatable.
During the Colonial era, Thomas Mayhew bought a number of islands off the Cape, including Martha’s Vineyard. The Mayhews and the Wampanoags had a historically friendly relationship, and lived peacefully on the island together. Today, there is still a strong Wampanoag presence on the Vineyard. In the 1800s Martha’s Vineyard was home to one of the primary ports for the whaling industry. Once the whaling industry died out, the Vineyard’s main source of revenue turned to tourism.
Steamship Authority: This is the main transportation company serving the island of Martha’s Vineyard, and it operates year round out of Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts. Their ferries can accommodate both foot traffic and motor vehicles, but reservations are strongly encouraged during peak season. The ferries themselves are comfortable with many seating options and a snack bar. The journey takes about 45 minutes from the Cape and lands at Vineyard Haven.
The island has six main towns, all with unique personalities. They could all be seen in a day if you have a car to drive around the island. “Up-island” is considered the more residential area and is made up of the towns of West Tisbury, Aquinnah and Chilmark. While beautiful, these areas do not have much to offer in regards to shopping, restaurants or tourist attractions. For this you will want to focus on Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.
Aquinnah: Aquinnah, previously known as Gay Head, is best known for its beautiful clay cliffs and was officially incorporated in 1870. It is still a center for Wampanoag culture and many of its residents can trace their roots back to the Wampanoag tribe. A drive out to the Gay Head Lighthouse is a must while on Martha’s Vineyard.
Chilmark: Chilmark was first settled in 1660 and incorporated in 1694. It is a mainly residential community and is home to many celebrities.
West Tisbury: West Tisbury was incorporated in 1892 and is historically the agricultural heart of the island, although today it is a growing residential community. Some points of interest include Alley’s General Store and Grange Hall.
Oak Bluffs: Known for its ‘gingerbread cottages’, Oak Bluffs is a haven for tourists during the summer months. It was originally a part of Edgartown, but was incorporated as its own town in 1880. Its buildings are mostly Victorian in design, and color is a huge part of its charm. The most visited part of Oak Bluffs is the Methodist Camp Meeting, Wesleyan Grove (also know as the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association). This neighborhood is made up of extremely colorful Carpenter-Gothic style cottages. Each home is unique, and many were designed and decorated around a theme. At the center is the Tabernacle, which is still used for events and concerts. Be sure to stop in the museum and gift shop if it is open to see what the inside of one of these historic cottages looks like.
Tisbury (Vineyard Haven): Incorporated in 1671, this is home to the main port of Martha’s Vineyard, where ferries arrive and depart all year round. The famous Black Dog Tavern’s original location is here, but its merchandise can be bought at many locations around the island.
Edgartown: The town was founded by Thomas Mayhew in 1642, and was originally called Great Harbor. It was eventually renamed to honor Edgar, the son of King James II. Today it is one of the busiest spots on the island for the thousands of visitors who come to experience life of the Vineyard. It is home to many Cape Cod style homes, which were originally built to house the mariners who worked in the whaling industry. Some of the town highlights include the Whaling Church, the Daniel Fisher House, and the Edgartown Lighthouse. Edgartown was also the main filming location for the classic movie, Jaws.
When I led tours in Martha’s Vineyard we were based in Edgartown, so I know this town the best from a tourist standpoint. Below are some of my hotel and restaurant suggestions for Edgartown.
Harbor View Hotel & Resort: This beautiful property is located on the water and within walking distance to historical Edgartown center. The hotel rooms are modern with plenty of Martha’s Vineyard charm. The onsite restaurants, and service, are also excellent.
Kelley House: Founded in 1742, the Kelley house is one of the oldest surviving buildings on the Vineyard. It is comprised of four classical buildings with an array of rooms and suites. It is located in the center of town, close to many shops and restaurants, and just a couple of blocks from the harbor.
Alchemy: A neighborhood bistro and bar that is open for dinner.
Atlantic Fish & Chophouse: Overlooks the harbor and serves elegant seasonal dishes as well as New England classics.
Atria: Features an eclectic menu, set in an old colonial house.
Chesca’s: Serves Italian – American food; only open for dinner.
The Grill of Main: Located a little farther out of town, but the classic American menu offers many New England favorites.
L’Etoile: Fine, French-inspired dining.
Newes from America: Located in the Kelley House, this pub-style restaurant is one of the most popular places to eat on the Vineyard. The pub is rich with historic character and serves American and British culinary classics.
Seafood Shanty: A casual eatery located right on the water with both indoor and outdoor seating.
Martha’s Vineyard is one of those places that I could happily return to year after year. It may be a small island, but it is full of charm, history and natural beauty. Martha’s Vineyard is a perfect place for any traveler to spend a few days relaxing, exploring and indulging.