At The Harbor View Hotel the "Grande Dame" of Martha's Vineyard Combines Both History & Luxury Then Serves Them Up With a Gorgeous View
Unfortunately, due to destruction by fire for many or deliberate demolition due to a lack of profit for even more, today there are but a handful of these grand structures from a bygone era left. Happily though, one such destination that has stood the tests of both time and economic turmoil is the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown on Massachusetts’ island of Martha’s Vineyard.
The “Grande Dame” of hotels on Martha's Vineyard (which to this day is still a major tourist destination for thousands during the summer season) the Harbor View Hotel’s roots go all the way back to 1891 when the good citizens of Edgartown – the wealthiest town on the Vineyard during the height of the whaling industry – found that they needed a way to reinvent themselves when the whaling industry came to a screeching halt seven years after the end of America’s Civil War. If they could no longer make their fortune from whales, they decided that they would make their fortune from tourists instead and a concerted effort was made to turn the former whaling port into an important summer resort destination. To help facilitate their goal, in 1872 a number of citizens, with the backing of the town, chartered the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad, a 3-foot narrow gauge railroad line that led from the steamboat wharf in Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs) to a terminus located in the Katama section of Edgartown where it brought guests to the Mattakeeset Lodge when the railroad first began carrying passengers in 1874.
In 1890 the blossoming tourist economy in Edgartown gained additional momentum when Dr. Thomas J, Walker, the town’s leading physician and druggist, and Reverend Luther T. Townsend, a summer visitor from Watertown, purchased former pastureland on Starbuck’s Bluff at the end of North Water Street past all of the former whaling captains' homes to a spot overlooking the outer harbor, the harbor lighthouse, and Chappaquiddick Island. Investing in 10 shares each, the men made a $5,000 investment towards building a new hotel under the direction of Boston architect Charles A. Cummings of the firm Cummings and Sears. The resulting wooden structure was faced with 100,000 wooden shingles imported from New Brunswick and stood three-and-a-half stories tall with a hipped roof, roof dormers, a wrap-around veranda that looked out over the harbor, and a two-story ell that extended to the rear of the hotel. Featuring the most modern conveniences of the day, the hotel had a single telephone line running to the livery stable and piped-in gas for lighting.
Completed in time for the 1891 summer season, the hotel opened on July 23, 1891 with an “invitation only” gala event that brought together 400 islanders to mingle with hotel guests for an unforgettable evening of good food and good music. With the parlors brightly decorated and colorful Chinese lanterns hanging from the veranda to illuminate the entire property, it was the perfect night to celebrate Edgartown's newest hotel with eating and dancing that went on until the wee hours.
It wasn't always a party for the Harbor View Hotel though as only two years after its grand opening, in 1893 the economy took a downward spiral as the depression that was starting to impact the nation hit Martha’s Vineyard and the hotel went bankrupt. Bought by a “straw buyer” for $6,600, the hotel was then sold back to Dr. Walker and Rev. Townsend for $1.00 who then hired Frank A. Douglas to be their new manager in 1895. After two years in his position, Douglas bought out the original owners of the hotel and went on to double the hotel’s size by 1905 as he built on an addition to the north of the original building which was of similar scale and detailing with a hipped roof, shed-roof dormers, stacked bay windows, and a surrounding veranda with square support posts. Upon completion of the addition the hotel held up to 150 patrons and even boasted tennis courts.
In 1949 the hotel changed hands again this time becoming a member of the Treadway Inn chain but before another twenty years had passed, the property was on the market yet again and was sold in 1965 to local Edgartown businessman Bob Carroll and state Senator Allan F. Jones of Hyannis. The new owners added on a freestanding 1960s motel-style unit along with fixing up ones that were already there and placing new cottages on the property but after two decades of being in the hospitality business, Carroll sold his interest in the hotel to Robert Welch and Stephen C. Jones, the son of Carroll’s partner Senator Allan Jones, in 1986. As part of the contract it was stipulated that Carroll - who had been front and center during the Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne Chappaquiddick incident on July 18, 1969 - would have a lifetime lease of the penthouse apartment which is a stipulation still in effect today.
Two years later both the Harbor View Hotel and the Kelley House, a sister property located a short walk down Water Street closer to the downtown area which Bob Carroll had purchased after buying the Harbor View, were in bankruptcy and slated for sale once again which ushered in yet another change of ownership. In 1989 both properties were acquired by the Boston-based First Winthrop Corporation at a foreclosure auction for the sum of $13 million after which they immediately launched a restoration project. In December of 2006 the hotel changed owners yet again when it was acquired by Scout Real Estate Capital, a Nantucket-based real estate company that also purchased the Kelley House. The new ownership is made up of a small group of individual owners with strong ties to the island community with several members who are Edgartown home owners themselves; as they live in the same neighborhood and vacation with their families on the island year after year, the new owners have the best interests of the iconic hotel at heart and it certainly shows in the improvements that they've made since acquiring the property.
Along with the newest-new owners came a new multi-million dollar restoration designed to bring the grand old hotel back to its late-Victorian grandeur and elegance as the buildings received new architectural features including a gazebo, porte-cochère, bay windows, roof turrets, (including one from the former Mattakeeset Lodge in the Katama section of Edgartown) and more. With all current renovations and projects completed, today the hotel is a cluster of three beautiful buildings offering 114 guest rooms and suites in either the Main Building, the Governor Mayhew Building, or the Cape Cod Sea Captain Cottages on the hotel grounds. As a historic property that has gone through many changes over the years, few rooms or suites are alike with the choice of accommodations being rather like a bountiful buffet with lots of offerings including a spectacular view from many of them.
As a guest at the Harbor View Hotel, depending on your needs and/or preferences, you can choose from one-bedroom suites located throughout the property which feature either a water view or other lovely views; two-bedroom suites with some featuring a full or partial kitchen; or even a three-bedroom suite located on the second and third floor of the Captain Huxford Cottage that has three full baths, a comfortable living room on the second floor with a plasma TV, a cozy gas fireplace and a wet bar. The Mayhew Building features traditional-style hotel rooms with one king-size or two double beds with pool or garden views along with a private balcony while in the historic Main Building you can choose to stay in beautiful seaside accommodations with a private porch that offer a gorgeous view of the Edgartown Harbor and Chappaquiddick Island beyond. No matter what room option you choose, you're going to love it there!
A unique feature of the Captain's Cottages at Harbor View – each named for a 19th-century Martha’s Vineyard whaling captain – is that not only are they available as guest accommodations but they are also available to own. In July of 2012 the Harbor View Hotel announced the release of a limited collection of 18 fully-serviced suites located in five cottages which offers buyers "all of the rewards of island ownership without the hassles" as they become “Stewards” of Harbor View – a select group of people committed to the legacy of the hotel. Purchase of one of the cottage suites gives full, deeded ownership that allows owners year-round access to their one-, two-, or three-bedroom suite giving owners the opportunity to enjoy vacations in a home that does not require seasonal openings and closings or on-going upkeep hassles. Owners of the cottages also have the optional opportunity to participate in the hotel’s expertly managed rental program, also year-round, when they are not in residence which essentially adds the suite to the hotel room inventory when owners are not in residence. Two things to note when it comes to ownership though: due to a town restriction the units must remain in part as transient hotel rooms so owners may only stay in their suites up to 120 nights per year and the suites are equipped with kitchenettes instead of full kitchens.
No matter what accommodations you choose, all guests can enjoy sitting out on the Main Building’s 300-foot wrap-around porch that features sea foam green high-back rocking chairs with commanding views of Edgartown Harbor, Chappaquiddick Island, and the Edgartown Lighthouse which stands directly across the street near the water where the Harbor View Hotel offers seasonal waterfront activities.
For those who want to get out on the water during their stay at the Harbor View Hotel, arrangements can be made through their Waterfront Concierge with options that include Sunset Harbor Cruises on board Stardust, the hotel's 39-foot all wooden picnic yacht which was built in 1966 by Bunker & Ellis that has been restored to its original condition with many modern enhancements; sailing lessons and excursions on their Vanguard Club 420 14-foot centerboard planning dinghy or J24 keelboat which is an ideal teaching platform for all levels of sailing expertise including the total novice; or for the even more adventurous, you can book a fishing trip or perhaps a leisurely sail out to Nantucket Island or other maritime points on Scout, a fully equipped, smooth riding, fast and sleek, twin-engine center console fishing and adventure boat.
Back inside the Main Building of the hotel, the large lobby with its breezy seaside ambiance is furnished with comfortable rattan and upholstery seating and there are plenty of windows that allow natural light to come streaming through regardless of the season. Sit in front of the fireplace while leisurely reading a book or newspaper or perhaps take a stroll around and look at some of the historic photographs that adorn the walls and tell the story of the hotel's long-ago history.
At the Water Street Restaurant you can enjoy a delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the Victorian-style dining room that continues the theme of one of the hotel's best amenities - spectacular waterfront views from its many windows. Prepared in a contemporary New England-style, Executive Sous Chef Nathan Gould of the Harbor View Hotel prepares delicious dishes using the freshest island produce, meats and poultry from established island farms along with line-caught and day boat seafood from local fishermen.
If you'd prefer a "Small Plates" style menu Henry's Hotel Bar, tucked behind the restaurant and a favorite year-round watering hole for islanders and visitors alike, offers a Tapas-inspired grazing menu designed to offer multiple tastes when you choose from Chef Gould's extensive selection of inspired Vineyard Small Plates. Should you be in the mood for an adult beverage, the Small Plate offerings are complimented by some of New England's best micro-brewed beers and signature cocktails as well as critically acclaimed American and Spanish wines by the glass.
If by now you've gotten the idea that the Harbor View Hotel is someplace special then you're absolutely right! In 2012 the hotel which is a member of the prestigious Historic Hotels of America, debuted on the "Top 50 U.S. Resorts" in Travel + Leisure's "World's Best Awards" issue; was named “Best Overall Place to Stay” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine's "Best of the Vineyard" issue, and was recently honored as being named the Reader's Choice winner of the Gold Award for "Best Resort/Hotel" in Cape Code Magazine's "Best of Martha's Vineyard" 2014 issue. Not too shabby for a place that almost went under - several times!
All of that aside though, one of the best things about the Harbor View Hotel is that it's not a seasonal New England hotel that you can only visit during the more expensive summer season but is open year-round with the exception of the last two weeks of the year when it closes for the holidays. Should you choose to visit Martha's Vineyard during the off- or shoulder-seasons you'll not only be able to explore the beauty of the island without going toe-to-toe and elbow-to-elbow with thousands of other tourists (even those of a Presidential nature!) but you'll save yourself enough cold hard cash to make the trip more than once should you so desire!
As you may have noticed from all of the photos in this post, my own visit to the Harbor View Hotel was during the off-season - early February to be exact - and though there was snow on the ground and a bite in the air, it was absolutely gorgeous. Sure there were places that were closed, things that weren't open, places we couldn't get to but the peace, solitude, and beauty more than made up for the few things that my cousin and I couldn't do while we were there. Besides, practically having the island to ourselves was a definite plus!
While at the Harbor View Hotel for several glorious nights, we stayed in a beautiful and luxurious two-bedroom suite in the Captain Jason Luce Cottage which had been moved to the grounds of the Harbor View Hotel in the 1900s from its original spot at the Katama Hotel. You'd never know the cottage dated back to the 1900s though as it was in pristine condition both outside and in. Like the rest of the cottages, the interior design work was done by Lisa Woodrum of HGTV fame and to say that it was a peaceful, serene, and relaxing environment - even in the throes of winter - would be more than accurate!
As you can see from the photos above, we had a large flat-screen plasma TV over a very cheery gas fireplace that provided the cottage with toasty warmth that was best enjoyed either curled up on the chaise lounge (though to be honest, my cousin high-hoseyed it and I think I only got to sit in it once!) or the equally comfortable couch which folded out into a sofa had we need of more room - which we didn't!
Being that Cousin Amy called dibs on the chaise lounge, I called dibs on the upstairs bedroom but that certainly didn't leave her in substandard quarters at all! She had her own bathroom complete with a marble vanity and a full tub with several different shower heads. Another plasma screen TV was in plain view from her queen-size bed and there was an abundance of natural light from the room's many windows.
Not that we needed it but there was a nice front-loading washer and dryer set in a closet just off of the bedroom and the kitchenette was equipped with a microwave, refrigerator, Keurig coffeemaker, dishes, and any other utensils we may have needed. Personally I thought the water bottles were a nice touch and I still use mine at work!
Heading up the staircase from the living room I was pretty sure that I was going to be in for a treat if the upstairs bedroom looked anything like downstairs did and I wasn't disappointed by what I found at all. Quite the contrary!
As for my room - whoa! There was no choosing poorly here as not only did I get to sleep in a king-size bed with its maritime-themed pillows that added just a touch of color to the crisp white triple-sheeted linens but there were several chairs from which I could enjoy the beautiful view across the complex. There was another plasma TV and a big, roomy closet complete with an in-room safe should one have any valuables they wish to secure before going out.
If that wasn't nice enough let me show you the bathroom with its double-sink vanity and huge walk-in shower that not only looked great but - as I found out later on - was great! The only thing wrong with it was that it was awfully hard to leave once you got in there, turned the water on, and started relaxing - even if there were plenty of fluffy, white towels and a plush robe provided by the hotel waiting for me once I emerged! Honestly, it's a good thing there wasn't a bench in there or I'm pretty sure I would have spent a lot more of time out on the Vineyard in that shower than I did!
Our two-bedroom suite was one of the nicest and roomiest places I have ever stayed at (and I've stayed at a lot it seems!) and apparently I'm not the only one who finds the accommodations exquisite. Later on during our stay, Amy and I were talking to some of the hotel staff who told us that the two-bedroom suite next door to ours was a favorite of actor Adam Sandler who is a regular visitor to the island and that the artist-formerly-known-as-Prince-who-is-once-again-known-as-Prince often stays on the third floor of the cottage next to ours when he's visiting the Vineyard. A few other well-known names were mentioned but in all honesty I didn't really care who stayed there when I wasn't there as the important part was that I was there and had the chance to enjoy all that the hotel had to offer ... well, except maybe for the saline outdoor heated pool, the grilling area, and any of the seasonal waterfront activities but that's okay because I got to experience something even better when I woke up early before dawn and watched the sun rise behind Chappaquiddick Island and the Edgartown Lighthouse. Doing that was way better than any of those other things I couldn't do - way!
For further information about booking your own stay at the "Grande Dame" of Martha's Vineyard whether you want to go with the summer crowds or enjoy a more peaceful visit without the crowds during the fall, spring, or winter months, visit the Harbor View Hotel's website where you'll find numerous Special Offers or you can also book a reservation online at Historic Hotels of America using their "Best Rate Guarantee." Should you want to do it the old-fashioned way, pick up the phone and dial 1-800-225-6005 and talk to a friendly staff member who would be happy to answer any and all of your questions. No matter which contact method you use, you'll be able to enjoy the history and hospitality of the Harbor View Hotel as it blends its legendary past with all of the modern comforts and conveniences that today's distracted wanderers have come to expect.
Heck, if all of that hasn't convinced you that you need to do yourself a favor and spend some time at the Harbor View Hotel then go simply so that you can sit in one of their brightly painted rockers on their beautiful veranda and take in the view that has brought guests back time and time again. Trust me, you'll be glad you did - no matter what time of year you go!
For more photos of the Harbor View Hotel, check out my SmugMug Gallery!