Martha’s Vineyard is an Island off of the Cape Cod, Massachusetts coast. It is the third largest island off of the coast of the eastern United States, and the largest true island not connected to the mainland by a bridge or a tunnel. The island is bordered to the West by Vineyard Sound, to the east by Nantucket Sound, and to the South by the Atlantic Ocean.
Martha’s Vineyard actually consists of three islands, the main island that has the island’s six towns, Chappaquiddick island which is part of Edgartown, and the island of Noman’s Land, an uninhabited island that is part of the Town of Chilmark.
The Island was originally settled by Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe, who at one point numbered nearly 3,000 on the island. Martha’s Vineyard was purchased along with the Elizabeth Islands and Nantucket by Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts. His son, also Thomas, started the first settlement in what is now known as Edgartown in 1642.
The island, along with Nantucket and other New England ports, played a big part in 19th century whaling industry. Tourism, which
dates back to the 1800s, has now become the life-blood of the Island’s economy. Every summer the Island’s population swells from around 15,000 to nearly 100,000. Martha’s Vineyard has become one of the Northeast’s most prominent summer vacation destinations.
The Island offers a plethora of activities for the summertime vacationer including beautiful beaches, fabulous food, arts and culture, endless outdoor activities, picturesque scenery, and numerous interesting and unique attractions and events. But be forewarned, visitors to the Island have a habit of falling in love with it and making it a life-long vacation destination.
The Towns of Martha’s Vineyard
There are six towns on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard:
- Aquinnah – The westernmost town on Martha’s Vineyard, Aquinnah was first settled the English in 1669 and was incorporated in 1870 as Gay Head, a name it had until it changed its’ name to Aquinnah in 1998. The name Aquinnah is Wampanoag for “land under the hill”. Aquinnah is well known for the Gay Head Cliffs and the Gay Head Lighthouse.
- Chilmark – Chilmark was first settled by the English in 1660 and incorporated in 1694. The quaint, picturesque, fishing village of Menemsha is located in the northern part of the town.
- Edgartown – Edgartown is the island’s oldest town. It was first settled in 1642 by the Rev. Thomas Mayhew, Jr.. Originally known as “Great Harbor”, the town was incorporated in 1671 as Edgartown. The Island of Chappaquiddick is part of Edgartown.
- Oak Bluffs – The town of Oak Bluffs is a relative newcomer on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. Oak Bluffs was originally part of Edgartown. The seeds of the town grew up around the Methodist revival meeting campground that started in the summer of 1835. When the town split off from Edgartown and was incorporated as its own township in 1880, its’ original name was “Cottage City”, a reference to the Methodist campground “cottages”. The town reincorporated in 1907 as Oak Bluffs and is still famous for the gingerbread cottages and Tabernacle of the Martha’s Vineyard Campground Meeting Association (MVCMA). The Tabernacle is the scene for Grand Illumination Night every August, a tradition that dates back to 1869. Oak Bluffs is a seasonal port for the ferries of the Steamship Authority.
Vineyard Haven / Tisbury – Vineyard Haven was settled in 1660, and originally known as “Holmes Hole”. Even at that time, the name Holmes Hole referred only to the port area. The town was incorporated as Tisbury in 1671. In the 1870s the people of the town voted to change the name Holmes Hole to Vineyard Haven. The name Vineyard Haven, though, still only applied to the settlement around the harbor. So even though most maps and tourists refer to the Town as Vineyard Haven, the town’s official name was and is Tisbury. Vineyard Haven is the only year-round port for the ferries of the Steamship Authority from Woods Hole.
- West Tisbury – West Tisbury was settled in 1669 and incorporated in 1892. It is the agricultural heart of the Island and home to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair every August.
Interesting Martha’s Vineyard Facts
- The movie Jaws was filmed by Steven Speilberg on the Island in 1974
- Oak Bluffs is home to one of the two oldest operating carousels in the United States – the Flying Horses Carousel.
- There are five lighthouses on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.
- There are two fireworks displays on the Island every summer. The first is in Edgartown on the Fourth of July, the second happens every August at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs.
- Grand Illumination Night has been celebrated in Oak Bluffs since 1869.
- The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair has been held since 1862.
- The Martha’s Vineyard Campground Meeting Association was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005.
- The Vineyard Haven Band was formed in 1868 by Civil War veterans from both sides.
- The first Native American graduates of Harvard University were from Martha’s Vineyard.
- Martha’s Vineyard is one of only five place names in the U.S. that contain a possessive apostrophe, and it is one of the ten oldest surviving original English place names in the U.S.
Getting to Martha’s Vineyard
Being an Island, Martha’s Vineyard can only be reached in one of two ways:
- By Ferry – The Steamship Authority runs ferries to Vineyard Haven year round, and to Oak Bluffs in season. These ferries can accommodate both passengers and vehicles. Vehicle reservations are strongly recommended, especially during the summer months. Additional ferries run in season to the Island including:
- The Falmouth / Edgartown Ferry
- The Hyline high-speed ferry from Hyannis to Oak Bluffs
- The Island Queen from Falmouth Harbor to Oak Bluffs
- The SeaStreak/Martha’s Vineyard from New Bedford
- The SeaStreak Fast Ferry from New York City
- The Vineyard Fast Ferry from Quonset Point, Rhode Island and Oak Bluffs
- By Plane – Cape Air runs year round service to the Island from Boston, Hyannis, Nantucket, New Bedford, and White Planes, NY, as well as seasonal service from Providence, RI. Continental Express and US Airways Express also fly to the Island.
Getting Around Martha’s Vineyard
Travelers to Martha’s Vineyard will find it an easy Island to get around. Many will bring over their own cars on one of the Steamship Authority ferries. For those who visit without a car, cars may be rented on Island.
Public transportation abounds on the Martha’s Vineyard. The Island has bus service that is offered year-round by the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA). Cab service is also available and there are always cabs that meet the arrival of the various ferries.
Bicycle rentals are also available for those who like to get exercise for their transportation. Moped / scooter rentals are also available, although they are not too popular with Islanders.
Martha’s Vineyard Weather
The moderating influence of the ocean makes the Island cooler than the mainland in summertime, and warmer than the mainland in the winter. While the Island may see frequent snow in the winter, it is just as likely to get cold rain, and whatever snow does fall typically melts quickly. Hurricanes are an infrequent possibility (once every 10+ years) during hurricane season.
The warmest month is July but it does stay warm well into September making the late summer / early fall a wonderful time for families without school-age children to visit the Island. While it can reach the 90s in the summertime, typical summer temperatures are in the high 70s and low 80s. The coldest month of the year is January.
Photo credits: The map or Martha’s Vineyard is from the Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The picture of the Steamship Authority ferries is by BenFrantzDale. It is from the Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.