Sophia Banay, 07.24.06, 12:30 AM ET
Once, Martha's Vineyard may have been popular for its classic New England charm--think brick-lined sidewalks and whitewashed churches. Today, with the same tautological certainty you'll find in Nantucket or the Hamptons, the island is renowned simply for being itself: Martha's Vineyard, with its preserved dunes and shingled cottages, status vacation destination, summer playground to Northeastern elites from the Kennedys to the Clintons.
During the summer, the island population swells from around 15,000 to approximately 100,000. The harbor-view streets of Edgartown are packed with dignified older couples in straw hats, the restaurants and cafes are manned by vacationing students who live in group houses, and the country's oldest platform merry-go-round, in Oak Bluffs, is swarmed with families dressed in Lilly Pulitzer or sporting Nantucket reds.
Martha's Vineyard, which measures about 100 square miles and is shaped roughly like a triangle, is relatively easy to navigate by bike or rented car. Ferries arrive in Oak Bluffs (whose famous pink, purple and red gingerbread houses populate many a Vineyard postcard) on the northeast side of the triangle. The best beaches are located at either lower corner, among the dunes and sand grass of Katama on the eastern side and Menemsha to the west.
Sleep In Style
In Martha's Vineyard, like any exclusive vacation community, staying at a hotel is second to staying at a friend's home--or better yet, the old family place. That said, there are several options for overnight accommodation, the poshest of which is the Charlotte Inn in Edgartown, an Edwardian-style Relais & Chateaux property on South Summer Street where rooms start at $350 per night during August. Well-manicured grounds, traditionally furnished rooms and a central location are compelling reasons to stay here, but take note: The Inn doesn't allow pets or children under 14.
A better option for families is Winnetu Oceanside Resort, one of the island's newest vacation properties. It is located in Katama, at the island's southeast bottom corner, three miles from Edgartown.
The Winnetu Inn, which opened in 2000, is the centerpiece of the property, with 11 private acres (altogether the resort is 40 acres). The inn is only 250 yards from South Beach, Katama's 21-mile stretch of beach--although guests, especially with young children, should pack for the day before leaving. That path is longer than it looks.
The 53-suite, Victorian-style inn is clad in gray shingles, and vines are trained up its columns. It faces a wide, green lawn dotted with low-lying, scrubby bushes and a placid little pond. The newly added Island Wellness & Adventure Center, where guests can swim in the 40-by-20-foot heated pool or work out in the 1,200-square-foot studio and enjoy complimentary yoga or Pilates classes, is a good place to blow off steam during rainy weather.
The rest of the resort is comprised of "Mattakesett properties," or an expansive array of townhouses, duplexes and single-family accommodations that are available for rent by the week. The entire resort is surrounded by natural dunes and miles of biking and walking trails.
An island tradition that first-timers should experience is watching the sunset at Menemsha, an old fishing village in the town of Chilmark, at the southwest corner of the island. Although it's a romantic way to wind down before dinner, Chilmark is less developed than the rest of the island, and it's a long drive from Edgartown along twisting island roads. Depending on the time of day, you could easily find yourself stuck behind slow-moving tour buses, so visit at the very edge of the season (late April or late September) for the best chance of having the view to yourself.
The must-dine restaurant of Martha's Vineyard, L'Etoile, moved last January from the Charlotte Inn to a new location on Water Street. Although no one claims the move was amicable, L'Etoile's starry reputation survived intact. Dinner menu specialties include wild striped bass fillet coated with tomato-olive tapenade, or an etuvée of lobster served with roasted corn and cheddar soufflé. For dessert, choose from blackberry buttermilk panna cotta, vanilla bean crème brulée or almond cream and amber plum tart. Service on a recent visit was friendly but slow, perhaps the result of kinks during the first summer season in the new location.
A bicycle tour is the best way to acquaint yourself with the island's geography. One popular route snakes around the southwest leg of the island from West Tisbury through Chilmark to Gayhead, about 25 miles total. Bring a backpack with water and some food. There aren't many places to stop for refreshment, although there are restrooms along the way. You'll pass dunes, cranberry bogs and Menemsha Beach.
Plan to visit during a Red Sox game, and stop by David Ryan's on North Water Street in Edgartown. Order burgers and beers and settle into the lively crowd, all of whom will be decked out in Sox gear and rooting on the home team.
Martha's Vineyard is only five miles off the coast of Cape Cod, and even during the winter season, all necessities are available on-island. Nevertheless, you will likely need sunscreen, a waterproof camera and beach towels (many hotels prohibit you from taking the bath towels to the beach). Also useful are sneakers for biking and binoculars for the ornithologically inclined--or in case you decide to go on a whale watch. A warm sweatshirt is a good idea, even in the summer, as the nights can get breezy and brisk.
Cape Air flies to the Martha's Vineyard Airport in West Tisbury, Mass., from several points in Massachusetts, Florida and the Caribbean. August flights from Boston are about $300 round-trip. US Airways flies from New York and New Jersey.
Ferries make the journey from mainland to island as well, departing from Woods Hole, Falmouth, Hyannis, New Bedford and Nantucket, Mass., as well as Quonset, R.I. The ferry from Woods Hole takes 45 minutes and costs $13 round-trip for adults.
Car rental is available on the island, but book in advance during high season unless you want to be left with little choice.
Rack rates for a basic suite at the Winnetu Inn start at $670 during July and August. Come September, the inn introduces all manner of stay-inducing special rates and packages; a family of four can stay for $375 per night Sunday-Thursday and $475 per night Friday and Saturday.
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