Martha’s Vineyard, the Off-Season Version
“You live on Martha’s Vineyard year round?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked many times since I moved here from New York some 20 years ago. Sometimes I sense envy behind the question, sometimes pity. Do I live in bucolic bliss? Have I found solace in nature, a simplified, Thoreau-like existence? Or perhaps my inquisitors imagine me in one of those paintings of a lonely lighthouse, furious waves breaching the rocks, while the lighthouse keeper stoically rides the storm. Or perhaps they see a marooned Tom Hanks with only a volleyball face for a friend.
The choice to live year-round on an island seven miles off Cape Cod is an unconventional one. But of course, life here in the off-season has the routines we all juggle: Take the kids to school, walk the dog, shop for dinner. A musician by trade, I’ve managed to carve out a living on Martha’s Vineyard as a bandleader, and my wife runs an after-school dance program.
Years ago, we purchased the Old Martha’s Vineyard Co-op Dairy in Edgartown. “Heck of a wreck,” the ad read; 30-plus years of neglect had left the rambling old farm building and its Ma ’n’ Pa-style additions in disrepair: toppled chimney, leaky roof, caving walls, rotted windows. But we managed to renovate the property to include summer rental cottages and have raised two children here.
People are sometimes surprised to learn that Martha’s Vineyard is approximately four times the size of Manhattan, with six towns and four distinct villages within them. Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and Vineyard Haven are referred to as “down island,” and Chilmark, West Tisbury and Aquinnah are “up island.” The “up” and “down” do not refer to north and south but to the westerly latitude/longitude coordinates. (When whaling ships sailed the globe, heading “up,” in nautical terms, actually took you west.) Down island is more densely populated, and Edgartown, particularly, retains the flavor of the whaling industry, with its sea captains’ homes and bustling mercantile feel. Up island is more bucolic, with spectacular beaches, farms and wooded trails.
Vineyard life follows a seasonal rhythm all its own. In summer, the year-round population of 15,500 swells to 115,000, creating a hectic pace. Only a quick wave was offered as I passed an old friend last August, his gesture conveying a familiar sentiment: Too busy to talk; we’ll catch up in the fall when things settle down. The Steamship Authority’s ferries unload a steady stream of cars brimming with white coolers and colorful beach supplies. Traffic on the two-lane roads slows to a crawl.
Fall is the prize; the thick, hazy air of summer is gone, yet it is still warm enough for a swim well into October. The summer crowds — presidential guests, Hollywood stars and their entourages, seasonal residents and vacationers — have mostly vanished. The pace slows gracefully. Locked gates to private beaches swing open, restaurants like Offshore Ale, Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company and the Wharf Pub fill with locals. Ample time to linger now for a chat.
Winter dulls the landscape as green meadows turn beige and amber, and the ubiquitous twisted scrub oaks, leafless, appear stark and naked, hunched over like weathered old witches clutching broomstick and cane. Edgartown’s overflowing flower boxes are empty, cedar beach houses shuttered.
The ferry is our lifeline to the mainland, to goods, supplies, mail, just about everything. Off-season it runs from 6 a.m. till 8:30 p.m., 9:45 on weekends. But when the winds kick up past 50 miles per hour, the ferries shut down. News of canceled boats quickly disseminates at coffee shops and checkout lines. Bar talk of a pending storm prompts the question: “Think they’ll be canceling boats tomorrow?”
There are few cocktail parties and no beach cookouts in winter, but plenty of potluck dinners with friends and neighbors, many of them teachers, police officers, artists, writers, musicians, restaurant workers and tradespeople fueled by the never-ending cycle of build, renovate, paint and restore. Commercial fishermen still ply the waters for lobster, bay scallops, conch and fin fish. However, their numbers have dwindled because of diminishing fish stocks, regulatory issues and the rising cost of living on the island, which is about 70 percent above the national average, according to a study by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Roughly 20 percent of the year-round population is Brazilian immigrants. Portuguese is, in fact, a second language on the island.
Each year as the season comes to an end I keep a close eye on the weather, watchful for a fair day to haul my boat out of the water. One early December morning, the sun created a crisp, presolstice light; blues were a bit bluer, and what greenery remained seemed greener. It had been such a mild fall that I’d left the boat in the water longer than usual, but winter was approaching, and I knew that hauling even my 20-footer and its 200-pound mooring and chain would only become harder.
From Edgartown I steered my pickup toward Oak Bluffs via Beach Road, empty boat trailer in tow, my golden retriever, Bella, riding shotgun. Beach Road is a narrow, five-mile-long strip across the dunes. State Beach was on my right, the 745-acre tidal pond named Sengekontacket on my left. (The Wampanoag name means “at the bursting forth of the tidal stream.”)
The Beach Road and its two bridges deliver a different view from day to day, hour to hour. In summer, the bridge’s rail is lined with bathers poised for a 15-foot jump into the channel between tidal pond and sea. In the fall, fishermen cast in the moving waters of the channel below for striped bass or bluefish; others rake for clams in the adjacent shallow pond. In the heart of the winter, the half-frozen sea is gray, sluggish waves too heavy to crest, whitecaps crashing against the pilings and jetties.
The first stop that December morning was Mocha Mott’s coffee shop in Oak Bluffs. The former owner, Mott Hinckley, arrived in 1994 and opened this premium coffee shop, determined to operate it 365 days a year. A second shop soon opened in Vineyard Haven. Holiday lights were strung around chalkboard menus offering soups, sandwiches and breakfast items, and the heart pine floor cast a warm glow.
No Starbucks to compete with here. In fact, you won’t find many chain stores; islanders have successfully fought them off. McDonald’s tried to brandish its golden arches back in 1978, but that Goliath was chased away.
While many shops, restaurants and bars are closed for the winter, a few remain open. Other winter breakfast spots are Linda Jean’s in Oak Bluffs (classic eggs, toast and home fries) and the venerable Black Dog Tavern, whose tables face Vineyard Haven Harbor, where one can watch for the ferry.
Night life, too, is an off-season option. In the winter live music, from jazz to blues to singer-songwriter to a weekend dance band play on at the Newes From America pub in Edgartown and, in Oak Bluffs, Park Corner, Offshore Ale Company, and most notably the Ritz Cafe, with live music five nights a week.
Coffee in its holder, I headed up island toward Chilmark, on Edgartown-Airport Road. On the right was the state forest and its wooded bike path. (An extensive bike path now covers most of the island.) At the triangle at the end of the road, I took a left and drove past Alley’s General Store, where you’ll find a bit of everything, from snacks and hardware to novelty items like emergency underpants in a can and rubber-band racecars.
Beyond Alley’s, I took a right on Music Street, then a left onto Middle Road, where I twisted and turned under the gnarled tree canopy that filtered the crisp winter light. There is a farm stand on that road with amazing cheese, bread and yogurt drinks. A tin can acts as cash register; the honor system prevails here.
Three-quarters of the way down Middle Road I slowed to take in a breathtaking view that hasn’t changed since I was a teenager: vivid green rolling hills stretching for miles, past a small pond then down to the south shore. It could be Ireland or Scotland. This 48-acre parcel known as Keith Farm has been preserved through the efforts of Vineyard Open Land Foundation. Other conservation groups are engaged in preservation, perhaps most notably the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, which has acquired more than 3,000 acres.
I continued past the Chilmark Store, closed for the winter, where locals and Hollywood’s best provision their August beach excursions. A mile up the road I backed my trailer down the ramp to Quitsa Pond’s town landing, where I’ve moored my boat for two decades.
After a quick kayak trip to my boat’s mooring, I cranked the engine and was off, cruising through the meandering tidal ponds to Menemsha, where I would top off the boat’s gas tank. Menemsha, still an active fishing hamlet, has a New England coastal feel from days long past. One glance in the right direction and time warps back to the 1940s. Weatherworn cedar-shingle shacks, perched on the exposed strip of Dutcher’s Dock, house the gear and tackle of what remains of Menemsha’s once-bustling fishing fleet. Summer’s wooden sailboats and small yachts flee for warmer climates in the fall; in winter, Menemsha is still home port to a dozen weathered lobster boats and a small fleet of draggers and scallop boats.
I filled my tank at the gas dock, then navigated toward Quitsa Pond’s town landing, my final trip for the season. I hauled my boat with little fuss, and steered the truck back down island on South Road with a boat on my tail and lunch on my mind. Adjacent to Alley’s is a breakfast and lunch spot called 7a; its name is derived from Martha’s Vineyard’s position on the Department of Agriculture’s plant hardiness zone map. The porch here is a social gathering spot, and I often sit down for lunch and end up having company. The Liz Lemon sandwich (named for Tina Fey’s character on “30 Rock”) is a Reubenesque fantasy in which pastrami, turkey, Swiss, coleslaw, Russian dressing and crumbled potato chips somehow fuse seamlessly between slices of toasted rye.
I finished my lunch and headed back down island with the afternoon sun in my rearview mirror. I set my boat in its winter resting place next to an old twisted pear tree in our backyard, its bent branches a reminder of winter winds to come.
I’ve become accustomed to the seasonal pace on Martha’s Vineyard. Though I can’t claim to have achieved bucolic bliss, I have enjoyed solace in nature. When winter storms rage, I am sometimes reminded of that stalwart light keeper, but in my 20 years here I’ve never felt marooned. Like the ebb and flow of the tidal ponds, my final cruise marks the flow from fall to winter. And winter’s low tide anticipates the flood tide of spring, with the promise of summer on its heels.