Local Guide: Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket
These Summer islands are waiting for you–and are affordable!
By Max Hartshorne
Why Go there?
Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are the jewels of the New England coast, with wonderful beaches, clean streets, friendly people and are both top-notch travel experiences — each island has its own inexpensive hostels so you can experience the community of travel for a very low cost.
These Massachusetts islands are the vacation choice of many of the rich and famous, but their charms are also easily available to the rest of us.
When to go
These are summer islands–the hostels are open from April through October, so any other time of the year is not recommended. But remember you have to take ferries to get to both, so check the schedules and bring your bikes.
How to Get There
Martha’s Vineyard is served by many ferry services, the biggest one being the MV and Nantucket Steamship Authority, (steamshipauthority.com) departing for MV out of Woods Hole, near Falmouth, and both high speed and slower ferries out of Hyannis on Cape Cod serve Nantucket. Hyline Cruises (website) also serves MV from Hyannis and operates an inter-island ferry between the two islands during the summer months.
One secret known mostly to island working commuters is the Patriot Party Boats, that offers a $6 one-way between Falmouth and Oak Bluffs on a small boat starting hourly at 3:30 am. (800-734-0088). The MV Quickwater leaves from the Fishing Pier in Falmouth.
The best part of Nantucket are the beaches…they are everywhere, practically every edge of the small island is a beach, and there are no private ones despite the evident wealth. Nantucket’s Star of the Sea Hostel is literally, a stone’s throw from a beautiful wide-open beach, called Surfside.
There are miles and miles of bike trails on both islands, and Nantucket has an old fashioned downtown with cobblestone streets and perfectly preserved 17th and 18th-century houses. There’s no tacky fast food nor anything else that would be considered “eyesores.” The views of the yachts and other boats on Straight Wharf are lovely.
Martha’s Vineyard, about twice as large, has great waterfront places to hang out, especially Oak Bluffs Harbor and downtown Edgartown.
The Edgartown Town Wharf has a rooftop deck that affords a pleasing view of the lighthouse, Cape Pogue and the harbor.
Many fishing vessels tie up here, and you can also watch the tiny On Time car ferry shuttle back and forth between Edgartown and Chappaquiddick, the island on the other side of the harbor.
The Oak Bluffs harbor side is ringed by tied up fishing, pleasure and sailboats, and has a few eateries with alfresco bars, Fishbones and Coop de Ville and Menemsha Blues, are the places to check out. The middle of the 26-mile long island is full of beautiful country vistas, stone walls, and glimpses of the beautiful blue sea. You’ll feel wonderful driving the roads near Lambert’s Cove toward the west end of the island to the village of Menemsha.
Best Unusual Attractions of Martha’s Vineyard
Menemsha, a small fishing village at the western end of MV, provides the ultimate seafood lovers’ fantasy. Larsen’s Seafood offers cooked lobsters and fresh-shucked Littleneck clams or oysters on the half-shell, and you can enjoy them right out on the wharf, or better, while the sun sets on the nearby beach.
They also have other hot seafood you can bring out to the beach to enjoy. You can take a public bus from West Tisbury to Menemsha and Gay Head, where there are massive red clay cliffs and the island’s only nude beach. Go to the far right end if you want to disrobe.
The libraries in both islands are wonderful, cool oases; Nantucket’s Athenaeum has high ceilings and plenty of computers you can use to check your email. (Get a CLAMS library card; first, these are good on any island or Cape Cod library).
Edgartown’s library is open late some nights and has a round reference room that is cozy and a great place to curl up with a book. Getting time on the Internet terminals in Edgartown is a little tougher, with less space and only four terminals for patrons to sign up for.
Oak Bluffs Library is not open as many hours but has Internet terminals as well. You can also check email in Edgartown at the Mailroom, Triangle Plaza, and $6 for 20 minutes.
The people-watching on both islands are one of the most enjoyable things to do, there is a constant parade of people walking by, and lots of leafy areas with benches to relax and just watch the passing parade. Main Street in each town provides good viewing. The best part of an MV experience is when most of the tourists go back to the mainland and you have a little less crowd all around.
To find out what’s going on, you can pick up a free copy of the weekly Martha’s Vineyard Times, inside all the goings-on are listed as well as a vigorous letter to the editor section with islanders squaring off on all the important issues like the Steamship Authority, the latest golf course development, or the ongoing battle over a smoking ban in Oak Bluffs.
Nantucket’s staid Inquirer and Mirror is another good source, or on Martha’s Vineyard, consult the Vineyard Gazette, equally old and wide as the Mirror. Good websites about the islands are listed at right. The Best Guides you can pick up anywhere have a lot of basic information for the traveler.
Best Lodgings on the Islands
The Islands are the kinds of places where it is best to hope that a relative or an old school chum is going to rent a house. And hopefully, you can get an invite. Otherwise, here are the options for those not connected with folks they can visit.
The Star of the Sea Youth Hostel, on Nantucket, is located a stone’s throw from a gorgeous beach, and is a great place to meet people and enjoy cheap lodgings. Sure, it isn’t fancy, you have to sleep in single-sex dorms, and the bunk beds aren’t the comfiest, but this is Nantucket-and the price here is only $22 per night. Splurge on lobster that you can cook yourself in the communal kitchen.
Located at Surfside, Nantucket
Mail Address: 31 Western Avenue
Nantucket, Massachusetts 02554
In Martha’s Vineyard, there is a bigger hostel that is located smack in the center of the island, in West Tisbury. Edgartown-West Tisbury Road,
Mail Address: Box 3158 West, Tisbury, Massachusetts 02575
EMAIL firstname.lastname@example.org website
The Vineyard hostel is another great place where you get Spartan quarters in return for very low prices and a chance to meet and mingle with international guests, families, and other great travelers. You can make a meal in their spacious kitchen, and share a cab into town to have some beers. Just remember to get back before they lock the place for the night!
If the hostels aren’t your thing, there are some inexpensive lodging options but these are rare. Try the Nantucket Inn at the airport or a smaller B&B in town.
In Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard, one reasonable motel option is the Harbor Landing, with room rates from $120-150 during the season, near the water.
PO Box 1935
Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
Another good low priced hotel right on the water is the MV Surfside Motel, where clean comfortable rooms are about $150 nightly, located right across from the ferry terminal in Oak Bluffs. 508-693-2500. Pets are also welcome. Great website!. This hotel has amazing water views at very low prices.
The Vineyard has Outerland, where national acts perform in a huge hangar-like bar next to the MV Airport.
Call ahead for the shows, or check them in the local MV Times newspaper.
In Edgartown, there is the Boathouse Bar, right on the harbor, for high priced drinks but wonderfully woody, nautical atmo. In Oak Bluffs, nothing is finer than a cold beer at the Lookout Tavern, with a wooden railed porch with a killer ocean view of the passing steamships, yachts and fishing vessels.
On Nantucket, the eateries right next to the main downtown wharf offer fresh lobster, expensive drinks, and harbor views all around.
The Vineyard Playhouse has some top-notch theatrical presentations throughout the season. Visit their website vineyardplayhouse.org for schedules and show information.
Nantucket’s other fun dining spot is the Charlie Noble, which replaced the Atlantic Cafe, which was once the “dean” of island restaurants It’s a friendly place to have a burger and beer at the bar or some local clams or a lobster.
Both islands have movie theaters with first-run films, and the people watching at any hour of the day in Nantucket town or Oak Bluffs is always a hoot.
Best Local Haunts
In Nantucket, the Downyflake Restaurant, on Sparks Ave is the place for breakfast. At the ‘Flake, they make their own heavenly donuts, and give Krispy Kreme a run for the money. Breakfast and lunch here will be relatively cheap.
In Edgartown, the locals come to the Dockside Coffee Shop. It’s a hole in the wall right across from the Navigator, on the water, and it seems like the kind of place, with its counter and small no-frills menu, that fishermen would frequent. Up island, the locals come to the Woodland Variety and Grill, near the Black Dog restaurant on State Road.
But more and more of the locals on MV are from Brazil. Thousands of landscapers, carpenters, waitresses, dishwashers, chambermaids and other workers come to the island and are eagerly snapped up for the many service jobs. Because of this, there are many stores offering Brazilian foods, goods, and wire services.
On Nantucket there are many Jamaicans working in the same way, enough of a population to make a real difference. Both the Jamaicans and the Brazilians add a needed diversity that is sorely lacking in these old New England islands.
A stellar restaurant with a reputation that makes New Yorkers and locals still flock there each night is Lambert’s Cove Inn in West Tisbury. Make a reservation, prepare for stunning food and service. 90 Manaquayak Rd. West Tisbury 800.535.0272
For a fun summer memory in Nantucket, head out west to Madaket to the West End. This beachy cool joint has a second-floor dining room and bar with a magnificent view of the sunset each night. In town, the Proprietor’s Nantucket offers a cool bar with fresh seafood and lots of interesting conversation. 15 India St.
Another great spot that’s super popular is the tasting rooms out at Cisco Brewing. You’ll bask in the glow of the beautiful people as you sample the local ale, wine, or even vodka, all made on Nantucket by Cisco Brewers.
Getting Around: Nantucket Regional Transit Authority
The Nantucket Regional Transit Authority Shuttle provides seasonal shuttle service on Nantucket. The Shuttle makes it even easier to leave your car at home when you visit the island and is a safe and convenient mode of transportation that helps control traffic congestion.
Shuttle service runs from the end of May to the end of September, from 7 A.M. to 11:30 P.M. Dates and times may vary depending on the route. All Shuttle buses are handicap-accessible and equipped with bicycle racks that carry two bikes. Paratransit service is available with 48-hour notice by calling 508-325-7516. For general information and great maps to the bike trails, bus routes and schedules, visit wheelsheelsandpedals.com
Park and Ride areas are available along the routes. Designated Shuttle stops are conveniently located along each route; look for the grey posts with red and maroon stripes. Pass options are available. Elderly and disabled van service is also available, call 508.325.7516.
Both islands are ideal for biking: Lots of flat land, and miles of paved bike paths. In Nantucket, you can rent a bike at Young’s Cycle on Steamship Wharf, or at Wheel Happy in Edgartown on MV, or at one of the many shops in Vineyard Haven near the ferry terminal.
If you do bring your car (call for reservations ahead of time–$55 for car $5.50 for people, one way) and own a four-wheel drive, permits for driving on the marked beach paths of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation properties (Coatue Wildlife Refuge, The Trustee’s of the Reservation’s Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services National Wildlife Refuge at Great Point) are obtained from the NCF at 228-2884 or the Refuge Reception Station in Wauwinet from June to September, 228-0006.
Four-wheel Drive Vehicle Permits for driving on town-owned beaches (Cisco, Dionis, Madaket, Siasconset, Smith’s Point, Surfside) are obtained at the Police Department, 20 South Water Street, 228-1212. On MV, consult the Trustees of Reservations for permits 508-693-7662.
Money and Communications
ATMs are everywhere, and credit cards are also pretty much universally accepted. For Internet and email, visit the library, or on MV, go to the Mailroom at Edgartown, Triangle Plaza, 508-627-7704. On Nantucket, visit Internet Café, 2 Union St., 508-228-6777. Don’t forget your cell phone charger!
Health and Safety
Other than the possibility that those fears about sharks portrayed in the movie “Jaws” come true, these islands are pretty darn safe. Hitchhiking can also be recommended, even women pick you up. There is a generally accepted belief that it is an ok way to get around, so give it a try! There is a small but good hospital on both islands.