by Sandra Hutchinson
For nearly 35 years my closest friend from childhood, who now lives in New York State’s Dutchess County, has rented a place on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard for an August getaway. She has been generous in her invitations to me to stay with her, and I’ve been blessed to spend time there. This summer, 2020, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, all of her plans, and mine, were cancelled because of concerns of being in crowded spaces in a place that attracts visitors from across the world.
The island is a place of great natural beauty and history, with an abundance of cultural opportunities during the summer. I’ve had so many images cropping up in my head as I approach the date when I had expected to go to the Vineyard, that I am sharing some of my experiences on my blog.
The cottage apartment my friend rents is in Oak Bluffs, one of the entry points to the island due to its ferry terminal. The other ferry terminal is at Vineyard Haven.
Oak Bluffs is famous for its “gingerbread” or “Carpenter Gothic” cottages, many of which are located in the area known as the Camp Meeting Grounds. This area was used beginning in the mid-19th century by the Methodists to hold camp meetings each summer. Small sleeping tents on platforms gradually gave way to wooden cottages, many colorfully painted and adorned with intricate decorative woodwork.
In the center of the “grove,” ringed by gingerbread cottages, is the Tabernacle, a circular, open sided structure with a metal roof built in the 1890s, and still in use today for public gatherings and religious services. A highlight for me has been to participate in the weekly Community Sing, occurring for over 150 years, where everyone is welcome to come together to sing hymns, patriotic songs, folk songs and spirituals. Each time I’ve gone it has been led by the enthusiastic Bob Cleasby, who in his trademark red pants, leads the crowd in singing favorite tunes like the “Swiss Navy Song” (an oxymoronic title). During regular Community Sings, the crowd is accompanied by a piano player and the the lyrics are projected onto a large screen. The photo below is from the 2019 night of the Grand Illumination, when a band accompanies the singing.
The Grand Illumination is an August highlight, usually held during the second week of August. Begun in 1869, all the cottages are bedecked with colorful paper lanterns that are illuminated at dusk. Huge throngs of visitors wander through the camp ground after participating the Community Sing in the Tabernacle. The night after the Grand Illumination, a massive fireworks display is held in Oak Bluffs near Ocean Park.
These images are from the 2019 Grand Illumination.
Oak Bluffs is also known for being one of the first American summer resort communities that was open and welcoming to African-Americans. Shearer Cottage, operating as an inn since 1912 and built by a man from Virginia who was born into slavery, is believed to be one of the earliest inns in America catering to black visitors.
If you visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, DC, be sure to look for the Martha’s Vineyard exhibit, where you can read not only about the Shearer Cottage but about the island culture of welcoming black vacationers. See photo below.
Other highlights in Oak Bluffs include the Flying Horses Carousel, said to be the oldest operating platform carousel in America, which was moved from Coney Island to the Vineyard in 1884, featuring twenty hand-carved horses. Oak Bluff’s main street, Circuit Avenue, has many shops and restaurants.
The historic Union Chapel, completed in 1871, holds interdenominational services each Sunday, but it also hosts many speakers and programs. In August, 2019, I heard Valerie Jarrett, former Senior Advisor to President Obama, speak there, and I attended a service with the sermon delivered by Rev. Calvin Butts of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. I’ve also enjoyed the dance festival held there called Built on Stilts, which features nonstop dance performances for six or so consecutive nights.
Another classic Oak Bluffs activity for years has been to wait in line, at 11 pm or so, at the rear of the building that is home to “Back Door Donuts,” to purchase a freshly made, hot donut. Maple bacon is a favorite of many, as are apple fritters, which have been described by my friend as “being as big as your head.” Within the past couple of years, though, new owners have taken over the bakery and now the line forms several hours earlier, in daylight. And we hear the fritters are smaller now. Just not the same.
An iconic Oak Bluffs tradition involves the “Polar Bears.” Unlike the Polar Bears at my home lake of Lake George in northern New York, who jump into the frozen waters on New Year’s Day, these swimmers meet up every morning at 7:30 am, from July 4 to Labor Day, at Inkwell Beach. The Polar Bears began about 75 years ago when a group of African American women staying at a nearby inn started swimming together in the mornings at the beach. The first white person joined in 1970, according to newspaper reports. Now, the morning is a mix of races and genders. The motto of the group is “I am the source of my joy and infinite possibilities.”
Anyone is welcome to come and participate. It’s not really swimming — it’s more like a big exercise group with singing and motivational pep talks thrown in. And once you’re initiated, after your first time with the group, you are sworn to never explain what happens in the water. So that’s all I can tell you. The group made the difficult decision to cancel the morning gatherings during the summer of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Beyond Oak Bluffs
Each of the several communities or hamlets on the Vineyard has its own character. About six miles from Oak Bluffs is Edgartown, which has a different feeling than Oak Bluffs, in large part because of its origins as a whaling port. In contrast to the Victorian cottages of Oak Bluffs, Edgartown has many large historic homes, referred to as “Captain’s Homes.” It is reminiscent of Nantucket, with what I would call a more “preppy” vibe than Oak Bluffs.
One time while in Edgartown, I happened upon the offices of the Vineyard Gazette, the preeminent newspaper on the island, founded in 1846, itself housed in a 1760s building that was home to a Revolutionary War militia captain. I went inside to buy a paper, which is printed there as an oversized broadsheet, and was treated by the editor to a personal tour of the building, its collection of antique and current presses, and the art and editorial offices, after I told him we own a weekly newspaper in New York State.
Near the Vineyard Gazette is a charming, upscale inn called The Charlotte Inn. The interior decor is like a comfy English library.
The Vineyard is home to many farms, and there is no better place to explore the local offerings than at the twice-weekly West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. After being held for years at the Grange in West Tisbury, in 2020 it was relocated to the Ag Hall at the Fairgrounds. The market is a mix of fresh produce, prepared foods like homemade jam, flowers, meats, prepared foods, baked goods and crafts.
A few other of my favorite things to see, do, and eat on the Vineyard.
There are a number of great art galleries on the island. Two of our favorites are the Field Gallery, and the Granary Gallery. Both offer a wide range of paintings, photographs and sculptural pieces, some by highly acclaimed and recognized artists. At the Field Gallery, you’ll find playful sculptures outside, in the yard, by Thomas Maley.
The fish market called Net Result, on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, is a frequent must-stop place for us for fresh seafood. Don’t miss the smoked bluefish pate. Absolutely out of this world. Over in Menemsha, still a real-life fishing village, there are great seafood options at Larsen’s Fish Market and Home Port restaurant.
Vineyard Haven is a bustling village with lots of shops, including a nice independent bookstore called Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. Writer and artist Susan Branch, who spent time with my group in England’s Lake District (see my post by clicking here), lives in the village and you can find her books and calendars there, and sometimes, one of her beautifully designed mugs, made in England of bone china.
I’ve also been lucky to be invited by my indefatigable friend Doreen Kinsman to have lunch at the Vineyard Yacht Club, near her home. Not at all the snobby place the name might suggest, but quite a low-key, friendly place, where we ate outside at picnic tables, watching the kids on the beach while the ferries glided by. Doreen has already planned her 90th birthday party for June, 2021, and I can’t wait to attend.
While we usually head to beaches close to Oak Bluffs, sometimes we make a day of it and head to the breathtaking Moshup Beach. in Aquinnah, on the other end of the island. It’s a bit of a trek to find a parking spot and schlep our chairs and coolers down to the sand, but it is worth it. One year we had the great fortune to have access to Lucy Vincent Beach, which is reserved for local residents of the town of Chilmark. In this photo below, you can see a large formation in the distance, which was big news when it partially crumbled earlier this year. At State Beach, along the road between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, you can see the “jumping bridge” made famous in the movie Jaws, which was filmed on the island. Keep in mind that the water will be calmer and warmer at beaches on the side of the island facing Cape Cod, as opposed to those on the ocean.
Of course, it should be noted, that many celebrities flock to the Vineyard during the summer. Over the years, my friend has interacted with some and seen many, including Barack Obama (who bought a home there in 2019), Larry David, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Jessye Norman, Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, Greg Kinnear, Peter Simon (the late brother of Carly), SNL’s Molly Shannon, and more. One night we were having dinner at the Outermost Inn, an inn and restaurant in Aquinnah (pricey prix fixe dinner but excellent) and well, there was Bill Murray. (The inn is owned by Hugh Taylor, James Taylor’s brother, and his wife Jeanne.) The much-talked about attorney Alan Dershowitz is known to frequent Chilmark General Store. So you never know who you might run into, but everyone, in general, seems respectful of these folks’ privacy. After all, they probably need a vacation, too.
Remember that unless you fly into the island, the only way to get there is by boat. If you plan to bring a car, understand that you need to reserve way, way ahead to assure getting the date and time you desire. I usually fly into the island on Cape Air from Albany (Albany to Boston, then down), and if I drive, I sometimes leave my vehicle in Woods Hole and take the ferry over as a passenger without a car, since my friend has her car there. Also, prime lodgings on the island fill up early and can be expensive.
There are many things to see and do on the Vineyard that I haven’t mentioned here, but maybe you can discover them for yourself someday. I know am looking forward to the time I can return!