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A visit to Martha's Vineyard offers a wonderful mix of architectural styles and varied landscapes. Up-Island, in the rural towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark, Menemsha and Gay Head (Aquinnah), are country stores, remote galleries, sheep farms, sweeping views of the ocean and the wind-buffeted, gray-shingled homes which are common in the area. Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and Vineyard Haven (down-island) boast bustling downtowns and active main streets, with fine restaurants, galleries and shops, 19th century captain's homes and "Gingerbread" cottages.
The island owes its name to Captain Bartholomew Gosnold who, in 1602, christened the island “Martha’s” in honor of his infant daughter and “Vineyard” for the abundance of wild grapes he found. (It is a tad ironic that an island named “vineyard” would later become a predominantly “dry” vacation retreat -- with the exception of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown - although in recent years, liquor became available in Vineyard Haven, as well.) One of several islands of Duke’s County, Martha’s Vineyard is the largest (about 120 square miles) and most easily accessible.
Once a major seaport, until the construction of the Cape Cod Canal rerouted ship traffic, it is now the destination of those seeking solitude and society alike. But through it all, Martha’s Vineyard maintains its rural ambiance and continuity with the past. Even its references to up- and down-island are reminiscent of its seafaring roots – east is longitudinally lesser on the celestial scale.
The village of Vineyard Haven, which makes up the majority of Tisbury, is the transportation hub and commercial center of the island. It is here that most ferries shuttle visitors on their 45-minute watery jaunt to and from Woods Hole. Packed with shops, bookstores and restaurants, Vineyard Haven is the chief year-round town and summer colony.
Oak Bluffs, to the east, is known for the old Methodist Summer Campground and its “gingerbread” cottages of Victorian vision. Built mostly in the 1870’s, the gaily painted gables, cupolas, turrets and trim are not so synonymous with the origins of the community. Started as a summer meeting place for modest worshipping Methodists, its focal point is the Tabernacle, a large iron structure that can seat 2,000 people. Oak Bluffs is today a colorful, casual resort town – one that offers funky shops, ethnic cafes and a boisterous nightlife.
Edgartown is steeped in history. Once a prosperous whaling port, it was the first town settled on the island. Stately white clapboard homes in Greek Revival and Federal style bespeak the dignity of the island’s center of society and give testimony to the enormous financial successes of her whaling captains. Main Street is lined with art galleries, chichi boutiques and gift shops; South Water Street provides the final resting-place of the famed Pagoda Tree, brought here in a teapot from China in 1833. Here a bustling harbor teems with boats of all types, and regattas are regular events.
West Tisbury, the geographical and agricultural center of the island, is home to the island’s thirty-odd farms. On Saturdays in summer there’s a farmer’s market in the center of town and a real old-fashioned agricultural and livestock fair in August. From town, all roads lead further up-island. The town of Chilmark is rural and private – home to high-profile people seeking a low-profile summer existence and untouched beaches. Menemsha, a tiny, unspoiled fishing village, attracts vacationers rather than day-trippers. It has a general store, the only store, and offers the island’s most spectacular sunsets.
Just beyond Menemsha is Gay Head, recently renamed “Aquinnah.” Here colossal, colorful clay cliffs are dramatically silhouetted against the blue sea and are unique to the entire East Coast. Largely undeveloped, Gay Head is occupied mainly by Indians of Wampanoag descent.
Down-island is worthy of a day trip. But to truly experience the charm, beauty and diversity of the island’s wave-swept beaches and architectural hodge-podge, plan to spend some time discovering the whole island. It’s an enchanting place that offers a climate for any caller.