I passed winding driveways with gentle names like Swans Way and Sweet William path that led to mansion-size homes. Rickety roadside tables were laden with flowers, eggs and vegetables for sale, and hand-written signs indicating how much money to leave for purchases made on the honor system.
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, is best-known as a tony hideaway for celebrities, politicians, and the rich and powerful. That reputation was enhanced when President Obama and his family took their first vacation there since moving into the White House.
They were the latest in a long and varied list of celebrities who have visited, and in some cases built homes, there. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Daniel Webster dropped by in the mid-19th century. Barack Obama joined Ulysses S. Grant and Bill Clinton among sitting presidents who have spent time.
They’re among folks who discovered the appeals of the triangular shaped island. Measuring about 23 by 9 miles, it has been described by as “big enough to hide out on and small enough to do just about everything you want in a few days.”
The history of Martha’s Vineyard encompasses the Wampanoag Native Americans, immigrants from England, African-Americans and an influx of people from Portugal. A small Wampanoag reservation serves as reminder that in the 1600s, nearly 70 villages throughout New England were inhabited by some 40,000 members of that Indian tribe. They were there when a parade of explorers began to arrive, and when the first English settlement was established in the mid-17th century.
It wasn’t long before slavery came to the island, to provide workers on sheep farms that produced wool and woolen cloth for export, and on whaling ships. After slavery was abolished in 1783, a small neighborhood of free African-Americans sprung up in what now is the town of Oak Bluffs.
Rather than the simple shingled houses and occasional grander structures built by early settlers, homes in Oak Bluffs showed a very different face. They are whimsical wooden cottages adorned by turrets and towers, fancy trimmed gables and porches, all painted a variety of pastel shades. That enclave became and remains a vacation destination for African-American doctors, lawyers and other professionals from major East Coast cities.
Each of the other five towns on Martha’s Vineyard also has its own distinct character. Vineyard Haven was one of New England’s busiest ports during the time of wind-powered ships and whaling. Today, it’s home to the largest year-round population on the island, about 2,000 people.
Wandering in Edgartown is akin to a stroll through an early 19th century seaport. Brick sidewalks along narrow tree-shaded streets lead past stately Greek Revival homes that were built by whaling captains. Clinging to its nautical past, Edgartown is a popular yachting center, as a glance at its protected harbor indicates.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum provides an interesting introduction to the island’s history through exhibits ranging from furniture and every day household items to document and paintings. A whaleboat and fishing boat recall early days of those activities. Individual exhibits pay homage to the Wampanoag Indian English, African-American and Portuguese segments of the population.
The other tiny towns are at the rural, western end of the island. There stone fences enclose gently rolling fields where sheet graze, oblivious of spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.
The village of West Tisbury is little more than an intersection overlooked by a church, town hall any general store. The largest homes once were owned by sea captains and some are still occupied by their descendants.
Menemsha is less a town than working harbor. Small, weather beaten boats chug out to sea and return with catches of fish and lobster, which modest restaurants and carryout shops prepare.
Aquinnah on the eastern tip the island is known for a mile-long stretch of multi-colored cliffs overlooking the beach. Nature has fashioned layers of sand, clay and gravel into a kaleidoscopic mixture of reds, whites and grays.
Those seeking an even more isolated setting may hop aboard the “On Time” ferry for the one-minute ride to Chappaquiddick. That tiny dot in Edgartown Harbor became an island in 2007, when a storm breached the land connection. The beach on Chappaquiddick is one of more than a dozen stretches of sand that tempt warm-weather visitors.
The list of other to-do’s extends to outstanding fishing for blues, striped bass (rock fish), bonita and other scrappy fighters; spotting some of more than 300 species of land and water birds that inhabit and visit the island, and pedaling on 44 milesof flat bike trails and roadways.
As hikers, my wife and I had a wide choice of inviting trails from which to choose. We opted for the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, a 5,100-acre tract of grasslands, woods and meadows crisscrossed by eight miles of flat hiking tracks.
Whether experiencing the pleasures of an inviting beach, reliving an intriguing chapter of American history, or simply hanging out at a place to which numerous celebrities head for a bit of R&R, Martha’s Vineyard has variety enough to fill many a traveler’s wish list.
If you go.
While most visitors travel to Martha’s Vineyard during summer, the weather also is inviting during spring and fall, and the fishing is excellent in September and October. There are scheduled flights to the island from Boston, Providence and several nearby cities. Car ferries run from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and a passenger ferry from Rhode Island.
For more information, call the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce at (508) 693-0085 or log onto mvy.com.
Photo: Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce