The Islands: These are the Islands: Snapshots of a Gentler Age
Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Born of the same glacier, these windswept refuges harbor towns, villages and open spaces that have seemingly defied the ravages of time – like snapshots of a gentler age. Both islands have known full measures of prosperity – and despair. Yet the Yankee spirit and fortitude forged by island life have seen them through.
Martha's Vineyard is an island of 100 square miles, separated from the mainland by a scant seven miles. This is an island of heath and heather, an island of pastoral beauty. It is a friendly, unpretentious place – a place of remote farmhouses, homey B&B's, agricultural fairs, and simple natural pleasures. The island has a sophisticated and cosmopolitan side as well – with luxurious inns, elegant restaurants, boutiques and million-dollar summer retreats.
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.)
One of several islands of Duke’s County, Martha’s Vineyard is the largest (about 100 square miles) and most 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.
Vineyard Haven is the island's commercial hub and main year-round port of entry. Noble, polished Edgartown, once home to courageous captains whose tillers knew ports far and wide, is resplendent in its architecture. The stately Federal-style homes of Water Street in Edgartown bespeak wealth and careful breeding. Their fanlights and widow's walks look down upon the village's upscale shops, boutiques and gourmet restaurants. Oak Bluffs is a resort town, casual and fun. Fans of Victorian architecture may go into a swoon over the gingerbread-rimmed cottages of the Campground.
The Up-Island areas of Martha's Vineyard are pastoral sanctuaries. Menemsha is a hamlet of weather-beaten fishing shacks, antique shops and craft stores set amid low-lying dunes and coves. Sheep farms and long stone fences serve as the foreground for the ocean vistas of Chilmark. From Gay Head, the panoramas are astoundingly different: angular terrain softens to sand, then clay, and then the million-year-old Aquinnah Cliffs appear.
Nantucket Island's 51 square miles arc like a plump boomerang some 26 miles off Cape Cod's coast. Nantucket Sound fills its inner curve; the harbor appears to have been poured into a low spot among heath and heather.
Nantucket offers a delicious blend of contradictions. It is laid back yet elegant. It welcomes tourism but everywhere affirms its whaling history. Walk up cobbled Main Street, lined with fine shops and restaurants, ever mindful of the fact that the shopkeeper ladies of Nantucket's Petticoat Row (now Centre Street) effectively ran 19th century island politics and commerce while their husbands were off for years at a time wresting whales from the seven seas.
By the early part of the 19th century, the island had reached the height of its prosperity and renown as the center of the world’s whaling fishery. All islanders shared in the enormous profits that industry imparted, from a harborfront teeming with whaling-related commerce to a town replete with rooming and boarding houses. These glory days were reflected in the construction of grand homes for captains and merchants as symbols of wealth (much to the dismay of the Quaker traditions that dominated Nantucketers’ beliefs).
But the boom years didn’t last. By the mid-1840s, sperm whales became scarce and kerosene, a less-expensive alternative to whale oil, gained popularity. The demise of the whaling industry together with the “Great Fire” of 1846, which destroyed one-third of the town and the entire waterfront area, left the island impoverished. Though Nantucket lost its bounty and its masses, the character of its romantic and vital era was preserved.
Today’s community is visitor-friendly (one airline even lets dogs ride right in the cabin!), but it has said a firm “no” to stop lights, fast food, and proposals for slick new shopping malls.
But Nantucket isn’t just about the commerce of its main town and its quintessentially quaint streets. It also affirms fun and beauty. Striking blue hydrangeas accent the weathered shingled cottages. Trellises overgrown with roses hide passageways to pretty gardens. Century-old elms shade the cobblestoned Main Street, remarkably unchanged from its early days.
Islanders welcome strangers to more than 80 miles of pristine beaches and invite you to explore the unique surrounding villages and hamlets. Siaconset Village, where climbing roses thrive, is farther at sea than any of our Atlantic coastal resorts. Polpis has the ponds, marshes, moors and vistas that you came for. Surfside and Madaket are popular with surfers and surf casters, while Madaket lays claim to extraordinary sunsets. Wauwinet boasts a wooded area of tall pines, unusual for any island.Back to Cape Cod Travel Guide Stories