A Changeless Summer Idyll

Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Travel Writer

In the nicest possible way, very little ever changes on Martha’s Vineyard, an island of green cliffs and shingled cottages off the coast of Cape Cod.

For decades, the Vineyard week has followed a delightfully predictable schedule. Wednesday and Saturday mornings bring the farmer’s market at West Tisbury; everyone stocks up on local lettuce, beans and flowers for weekend dinners.

Tuesday nights are for chamber music in a rustic music shed in Chilmark, where top-notch Boston musicians play Bach and Shostakovich for the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society. Concerts are now on Monday nights as well, at the historic Edgartown Whaling Church.

Friday afternoons are for wine and cheese at gallery openings, followed by Shabbat services on the beach.

And August, of course, brings Democratic presidents and their fundraising retinues, along with warm ocean waters and ripe blueberries along the island’s bike trails.

On clear, breezy evenings, crowds in Black Dog sweatshirts gather with bottles of chardonnay to watch the sun set over Menemsha Harbor, as they have for decades. When the orb finally dunks into the watery horizon, everyone claps and toasts.

It’s that kind of reassuring, wholesome continuity — along with a well-preserved rural landscape and clean, uncrowded beaches — that draws successive generations to this quintessential slice of seashore New England. “It looks just the same as it did 30 years ago,” says my father approvingly of the place where he honeymooned in the ’70s, with its winding picket-fence lanes and rolling, stone-wall-dotted fields.

The Vineyard is more refined than Cape Cod — it has no traffic lights, let alone malls — yet more relaxed and accessible than its uber-exclusive neighbor, Nantucket. But while traffic remains sleepy, the island has plenty of summer activity.

Celebrated authors like Sebastian Junger and Joan Nathan pack audiences at the Hebrew Center to discuss their latest books, theater heats up out of doors, and island traditions like Illumination Night (Aug. 17 this year, featuring concerts and lighted lanterns at the gingerbread cottages of Oak Bluffs) make this a memorable month to visit.

And one perpetual element of the Vineyard vacation is finally extinct: the long, tiring schlep via some combination of bus, train, plane and ferry boat.

This year, both Delta and JetBlue began offering direct flights from New York City to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, joining U.S. Airways and providing some competition on what had long been a very high-priced monopoly (if you don’t have your own plane, that is). Midweek summer flights are as low as $108 for the hour-long flight.

Another new and popular option is the fast ferry from New York. Last year, the New England Fast Ferry began weekend service direct from midtown Manhattan to the island; you leave East 35th Street at 3:30 p.m. on a Friday and dock at Oak Bluffs at 10 p.m., and you can bring along your bike and your kids for a nominal price (though not your dog, sadly). Fares start at $220 roundtrip for adults.

The ferry only runs on Fridays and Sundays, with Thursday and Monday trips added during August and Labor Day, making it ideal for weekend or weeklong getaways. It’s still a long trip, but the door-to-door service is far less exhausting than the old days of bus transfers, and the boat — packed with cocktail-swilling New Yorkers in Lilly Pulitzer hues — has a pleasure-cruise feel.

Speaking of cocktails, there’s another bit of novelty: one of the island’s “dry” towns, Vineyard Haven, finally voted to permit alcohol sales. You can now stroll off the ferry and order a beer at the legendary Black Dog Tavern, whose waterfront porch was made for lazy afternoons.

For the first time, all three of the Vineyard’s major “towns” (the other two are Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, a yacht-club favorite) are “wet.” You still have to plan ahead for a wine dinner in Menemsha, though: the rural, less-accessible western towns remain staunchly dry.

Getting wet at the beach is another story. Locals are fretting over high bacteria levels that have shut down popular watering holes from West Tisbury to Oak Bluffs, frustrating beachgoers. As summer hits its peak, most public beaches have re-opened; the most reliable bets this year include Edgartown’s kid-friendly State Beach and the in-town beaches of Tisbury.

So much interesting activity goes on at the island’s only synagogue, the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, that Jews and non-Jews alike show up for concerts, lectures and a popular film series.

Joshua Nelson, whose “kosher gospel” concert is drawing Jewish audiences at resorts around the Northeast this summer, will make his Vineyard appearance at the Hebrew Center on Aug. 16. On the 25th, comic Marty Nadler — who has written for “Happy Days” and “Lavern and Shirley,” among other TV hits — will present “Very Vineyard 2011,” a send-up of Jewish island life.

The true Jewish vacation experience, however, comes during the month of August, when the Hebrew Center offers Friday night Shabbat on the Beach. Bring your own beach chair, dress “casual” — shoes optional — and pray while contemplating the serene sound waters of State Beach in Edgartown, where Hopperesque sailboats glide along the horizon, and dusk falls gently over the tidal marshes.

Oxen graze in a Martha’s Vineyard field, top. Above, gingerbread cottages in Oak Bluffs. Photos by Hilary Larson

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