Menemsha harbor, formerly a major whaling station but still a departure point for local fishermen
Menemsha harbor, formerly a major whaling station but still a departure point for local fishermen

Martha’s Vineyard – idyllic playground for the rich and famous

I usually write about the great places that Helga and I visit in Europe. However, in November I had the chance to see Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts while visiting the American side of my family. These are my reflections.

A typical Martha’s Vineyard harbor scene, this one in Vineyard Havejn, a town of about 2,000 but the car ferry terminus from Woods Hole on Cape Cod
A typical Martha’s Vineyard harbor scene, this one in Vineyard Havejn, a town of about 2,000 but the car ferry terminus from Woods Hole on Cape Cod

On May 21, 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold, founder of the Virginia Company of London and leader of the first recorded European expedition to what we now call New England, and his crew of 32, arrived on the shores of an island off the coast of Cape Cod. He observed many vines covering the island and dubbed the place Martha’s Vineyard after his daughter. However, it turned out that the vines were not grape-bearing – so, no vineyards on Martha’s Vineyard.

Most of Martha’s Vineyard is very rural. This row of mailboxes is quintessentially New England
Most of Martha’s Vineyard is very rural. This row of mailboxes is quintessentially New England

There were lots of Indians though (these days they are called “Native Americans”). The Wampanoag, which means “people of the first light”, were the resident tribe and, although the early settlers brushed them aside, there are still about 100 Wampanoag living in Aquinnah, in the southwest corner of the island.

This woodsy trail leads to Lambert Beach, on the north shore. It is late Autumn, but there is still quite a lot of color in the remaining leaves
This woodsy trail leads to Lambert Beach, on the north shore. It is late Autumn, but there is still quite a lot of color in the remaining leaves

The island was settled by the white man in 1642, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that whaling brought great wealth. Although remnants of that industry remain, especially around the small fishing village of Menemsha, whaling was effectively killed off by the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859, which provided much cheaper lamp oil. By 1870, whaling in the Vineyard was finished.

The island was ready for its next act: as a secluded picturesque hideaway for A-List people to crash for their summer break.

Lambert Beach is typical of the large number of very sandy beaches on the island
Lambert Beach is typical of the large number of very sandy beaches on the island

Today, Martha’s Vineyard, which is only about 4% the size of the Algarve, has a permanent population of about 17,500. This balloons to over 200,000 in July and August. The island is very beautiful, in a rural New England sort of way (as the photos accompanying this article, taken in November, show). It is accessible by car ferry from Woods Hole, three miles away on Cape Cod, and, in season, by plane.

A typical house, right on the water, with its dock
A typical house, right on the water, with its dock

In 1976, the 200th anniversary year of America’s secession from Britain, Martha’s Vineyard (together with a few nearby like-minded islands) seriously tried to secede from Massachusetts, to become either a separate state or a new country.

Menemsha is a small fishing village in the town of Chilmark. It was the shooting background for the fictional “Amity Island” of Spielberg’s 1974 film “Jaws”
Menemsha is a small fishing village in the town of Chilmark. It was the shooting background for the fictional “Amity Island” of Spielberg’s 1974 film “Jaws”
East Chop Light is known locally as Telegraph Hill Light. The present 40 ft tall tower was erected in 1878 and, although open to the public, the lighthouse is still active today
East Chop Light is known locally as Telegraph Hill Light. The present 40 ft tall tower was erected in 1878 and, although open to the public, the lighthouse is still active today

Beverly Sills, the opera singer who was a summer resident, was quoted as hoping for full and total independence: “If we do secede, I’m putting in my bid for Minister of Culture.” Art Buchwald hoped for foreign aid as an independent nation: “We’ll split it up, of course, and deposit it in numbered Swiss bank accounts.” Several states, including (believe it or not) Kansas, invited the insurrectionists to join them. Unsurprisingly, the secession effort collapsed in ridicule.

A late season maple brings a tongue of color
A late season maple brings a tongue of color

Politicians and their families, in particular, flock to the Vineyard in the summer for its relaxed seclusion and privacy, not to mention the long stretches of beautiful sand beaches.

This little house is one of about 300 Victorian cottages built in the 1800s in Oak Bluffs as part of a Methodist retreat. In season, they are all occupied and there is a flurry of activity at the “Campground”
This little house is one of about 300 Victorian cottages built in the 1800s in Oak Bluffs as part of a Methodist retreat. In season, they are all occupied and there is a flurry of activity at the “Campground”

Although their main “compound” is in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod, the Kennedy family has had a long (albeit checkered) association with Martha’s Vineyard. Ted Kennedy, then a 37-year-old Senator, achieved notoriety on July 18, 1969, when he drove off Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick (the eastern end of the Vineyard), killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Almost 30 years to the day later, John Kennedy Jr. crashed his plane just off Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999, killing himself, his wife and her sister.

A row of lovely houses on a quiet, secluded street in Oak Bluffs
A row of lovely houses on a quiet, secluded street in Oak Bluffs

On a happier note, Jackie Kennedy Onassis bought the 136-hectare Red Gate Farm, in Aquinnah, in 1979 and, although she died in 1994, the family only sold the property in 2020.

Edgartown Harbor Light marks the entrance to Edgartown and Katama Bay. It was built in 1939, replacing the original 1828 structure. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public in season.
Edgartown Harbor Light marks the entrance to Edgartown and Katama Bay. It was built in 1939, replacing the original 1828 structure. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public in season.
The Gay Head Light was authorized by the US Congress in 1798 and was built shortly thereafter at the tip of Aquinnah on Wampanoag land
The Gay Head Light was authorized by the US Congress in 1798 and was built shortly thereafter at the tip of Aquinnah on Wampanoag land

More recently, Bill and Hilary Clinton vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard for five years during Bill’s Presidency. Barack Obama and his family also used the island as their “Summer White House” for several years, staying with friends.

In 2021, Obama bought a 12-hectare waterfront property (for almost $12 million) near the Edgartown Great Pond.

Edgartown Harbor
Edgartown Harbor

Martha’s Vineyard was in the news recently for a very unusual reason. Ron De Santis, Governor of Florida, shipped two planeloads of Venezuelan immigrants to the island on September 14 unannounced, as a publicity stunt. The strange bit is that the refugees were rounded up in San Antonio, Texas, and flown to Florida in transit to the Vineyard. Of course, local officials took care of the Venezuelans (fortunately the incident was out of season).

This is the Orange Peel Bakery cash register
This is the Orange Peel Bakery cash register

A number of movies have been made in Martha’s Vineyard. The most famous of which, “Jaws”, was filmed almost entirely on the island in 1974. Locations included Sylvia Beach and its adjoining bridge (now called “Jaws Bridge”) connecting Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, Edgartown Main St and Menemsha. “Jaws” was the highest grossing film of all time, until “Star Wars” came along, and it kick-started the fantastic directorial career of Steven Spielberg.

This tiny structure is the Orange Peel Bakery, a native-owned bakery based on the Wampanoag lands of Aquinnah. It is run by Juli Vanderhoop, who bakes every day in a wood-fired stone oven and leaves her delicious edibles in the unstaffed little house. Payment is on the honor system
This tiny structure is the Orange Peel Bakery, a native-owned bakery based on the Wampanoag lands of Aquinnah. It is run by Juli Vanderhoop, who bakes every day in a wood-fired stone oven and leaves her delicious edibles in the unstaffed little house. Payment is on the honor system

If you plan to visit New England, intending to connect with a piece of American history, you should consider spending a few days in Martha’s Vineyard – just not in the summer!

By Larry Hampton

5088 – Sailing is a major activity on Martha’s Vineyard, but in November the sails are all furled
5088 – Sailing is a major activity on Martha’s Vineyard, but in November the sails are all furled