Don't Just Be One of the Crowd! Plan a Visit to Martha's Vineyard in the Off-Season ~ Part Two

In Part One of this series I touched on the history of Martha’s Vineyard and the town of Vineyard Haven where the Massachusetts Steamship Authority ferries arrive and depart during the off-season. If you didn't bring your car with you and don’t have another way to get around the island, chances are good you’ll spend most of your time in that part of Martha’s Vineyard but if you've got wheels and are mobile or an adventuring spirit, a good watch, and a schedule for the Martha's Vineyard Transportation Authority buses there are a lot of other areas to visit. It’s time to touch on some of those so let’s go west, shall we?

Soon after leaving Vineyard Haven aka Tisbury you’ll come to the town of West Tisbury which, along with Chilmark and Aquinnah, forms the area known as “Up-Island.” The town, which was the last to be incorporated on the island and ranks as the second largest, is considered to be the agricultural heartland of the Vineyard. 

In this part of the island you’ll find the 400-acre natural habitat of Cedar Neck Tree Sanctuary which was said to be the setting of C.S.Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia as he was so inspired by its forests. Preserved by the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, the sanctuary is open from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm daily and has three separate moderate-skill level trails totaling 2.8 miles that ramble through woods, across streams, past ponds, along a beach, and up a bluff where hikers are treated to a panoramic view of Vineyard Sound and the Elizabeth Islands.

If you’re more of a cross-country skier than a hiker and the Vineyard has gotten as much snow as it has the past two years (much to their chagrin as snow is NOT the norm out there!), the Manuel Correllus State Forest has 15 miles of trails that are used for hiking, biking, and horseback riding when there's no white stuff on the ground. The forest was established in 1908 as the Heath Hen Reserve in order to protect the endangered Heath Hen which unfortunately still went extinct in 1932. The forest encompasses over 5,340 acres that lie predominantly in the towns of West Tisbury and Edgartown and is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The Polly Hill Arboretum was developed by legendary horticulturist Polly Hill (1907-2007) in 1958 and includes rare trees and shrubs from around the world set among stone walls, meadows, and fields. The 70-acre public garden is open every day year-round from sunrise to sunset though the Visitor Center is only open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Self-guided tour info is available in the parking lot kiosk with a suggested donation of $5 which helps support their mission of plant research, education, and conservation. If you're there on the second Saturday of the month you can explore the grounds on a staff-led free tour that steps off at 10 am and runs for a little over an hour; meet at the Visitor Center and dress for the weather.

Winter walkers take a tour of the grounds - Image credit Polly Hill Arboretum

Taking it inside for a bit, the Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks in West Tisbury which was founded in 1992 by Andrew Magdanz, his wife Susan Shapiro, and Mark Weiner as a facility for glassblowers to work every day creating exquisite glasswork as they develop their technical skills, gives visitors the chance to watch high quality original glass designs come to life in the working studio. Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, artists create bowls, drink ware, pitchers, vases, sculptures and more almost every day but you might want to call ahead just to make sure artists are working the day you plan on visiting. In addition to the glassblowing studio, there’s a two-floor gallery that is full of very expensive glassworks that have been individually hand blown without the use of finishing molds created with a commitment to superior quality, craftsmanship, and design. The watch word here is "expensive" as these works of art are marvelous but if you're planning on buying something, plan on spending a good chunk of change to do so.

On a more affordable level, at Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury they not only boast an impressive and eclectic array of products that run the gamut from candy to fishing lures to hardware to toys to vegetables with lots and lots of stuff in between but they can also claim the title of “Oldest Operating Retailer on Martha’s Vineyard.” The store got its start way back in 1858 when Nathan Mayhew became a merchant rather than a millionaire following a failed trip to California to make his fame and fortune during the Gold Rush. Following his death the store was taken over by his sons Sanderson and Ulysses who gave the store its first official name when they christened it S.M. Mayhew Co. in 1867. Following the changing of hands and names a few more times over the years, in 1946 longtime store clerk Albion Alley bought the business and named it Albion Alley and Co.; when he turned it over to his three children in 1964, they changed the name to Alley’s General Store and Alley's it has been ever since.

In 1992 the island tradition/community meeting place/historical institution/general store ran into some financial troubles and for the very first time in its 134-year history, closed its doors during the winter. In 1993 the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust paid $300,000 for the whole kit and kaboodle which was soon followed by a million-dollar renovation with $400,000 of the money raised by the community in order to “Save Alley’s.” Today the store with the motto “Dealers in Almost Anything” maintains its reputation as a true general store complete with 150 postal boxes for the residents of West Tisbury and a seasonal produce market behind the store in a restored barn. Alley’s opens at 7:00 am seven days a week closing at 6:00 pm during the winter season (5:00 pm on Sundays) and even if there's nothing you need, stop in and take a walk through the aisles - I bet something jumps out at you that you didn't even know you just had to have!

Continuing up-island past the town of Chilmark which has the highest average property value of any town in entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts, take the 2-mile jaunt northwest to the fishing village of Menemsha which – if you’re a fan of the movie “Jaws” – may look a bit familiar to you. It was there in the empty lot at the end of the harbor inlet between the General Store and the Galley Restaurant where shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) had his work shed and it was from Menemsha Harbor that his boat the Orca set off with Chief Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper on-board in search of the Great White shark who had been carving a trail of blood and terror throughout the fictitious summer retreat of Amity Island.

In the off-season the best reason to visit Menemsha, whose historic harbor serves as the point of departure for local fishermen including those from multi-generational fishing families such as the Larsens, Pooles and Mayhews, is to stop by the beach which is absolutely beautiful and even more so when it's not covered by snow and not sunbathers! It's also the best spot on the island for watching some of New England's most beautiful sunsets should you wish to stick around for the show and watch the sun go down over Vineyard Sound and the Elizabeth Islands.

View to the west at Menemsha Beach
View to the East at Menemsha Beach 
Swordfish Sculpture at Menemsha
Yes, that says "No Nude Bathing!" 
The sun turns the sand golden at Menemsha Beach 

From Menemsha continue out to Aquinnah which is known for its beautiful multi-colored clay cliffs for which the town was named when it was originally incorporated as "Gay Head" in 1870 when the white settlers of the 1600s wrote of them as "gaily colored cliffs." First visited by the English settlers of the island in 1669, the newcomers to the area were taught how to harvest whales from small boats and the shore using harpoons by the Wampanoag people, a subgroup of the larger Native American Wampanoag and Algonquin tribes of the northeastern mainland who had inhabited the island for some 5,000 years before the first Europeans set foot on Martha's Vineyard. Before the 19th-century industry of whaling became the major maritime industry of Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and New Bedford, the area of Aquinnah was one of the earliest sites of whaling.  A bit of trivia - in Herman Melville's epic whaling novel Moby-Dick, the character of Tashtego is a harpooner from Aquinnah.

Though there are currently five bands of Wampanoags in Massachusetts on both Martha's Vineyard and the mainland who were banded together in 1928 under the federal controls of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to become the loosely organized Wampanoag Nation, only the Martha's Vineyard Aquinnah group has been granted federal and state recognition as a Native American tribe. Following years of petitioning the United States Congress, their status as a federally-recognized tribe was approved in 1987 which also came with the return of nearly 500 acres of land including the clay cliffs that feature so prominently in their history. The only community in Massachusetts to have a substantial Native American presence in the 20th century, in 1997 the town of Gay Head voted to change its name to Aquinnah - Wampanoag for "Land Under the Hill" - after tribesman Carl Widdiss began a petition to affect the change in 1991.

Though Aquinnah is the smallest town by area on the Vineyard and the most remote, it is definitely one of the most beautiful with its towering cream-colored clay cliffs with ribbons of blush, rose, dark and light gray that feature prominently in the myths and spirituality of the Wampanoag people. Unfortunately time is not being kind to the cliffs though and they are suffering from erosion; as such, it is forbidden under Massachusetts General Law (Chapter 272, Section 59) to climb the cliffs or touch the clay. They are regularly patrolled by a member of the Wampanoag tribe as well as local law enforcement and fines are strictly imposed on those who think the laws don't apply to them.

At the base of those glorious cliffs is Moshup's Beach, named for a sachem of the tribe who was a giant semi-deity possessed of great strength and power who resided in the Aquinnah Cliffs. Moshup features prominently in the history of the Wampanoag people. "Moshup is believed by our tribe to be responsible for the present shapes of Martha's Vineyard, the Elizabeth Islands, Noman's Land, and Nantucket. He is a benevolent being of gigantic frame and supernatural power. He was sometimes thought of as the devil by those who did not understand him. Moshup's favorite daily food was a broiled whale, which he usually ate whole at a meal. He also threw many whales on the coast for the supper of the Wampanoag."

In those olden times, whales came close to shore for they had not learned to fear pursuit. From near the entrance to his den on the Aquinnah Cliffs, Moshup would wade into the ocean, pick up a whale, fling it against the Cliffs to kill it, and then cook it over the fire that burned continually. The blood from these whales stained the clay banks of the Cliffs dark red. The coals of the largest trees (which Moshup plucked up by the roots), the bones of the whales, shark's teeth, and petrified quahogs that are still found today in the Cliffs are the refuse from Moshup's table. The Aquinnah Cliffs are a sacred place to our tribe. They are imprinted with one hundred million years of history." Though Moshup's Beach was a popular nude beach in the 1960s-70s, in more recent history it was where some of the debris from the wreck of JFK Jr's Piper Saratoga II HP washed ashore after it went down carrying John John, his wife Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren who were en route to Hyannisport for a wedding in July of 1999.

Located at the top of the cliffs is the 51-foot tall brick and sandstone Gay Head Lighthouse which was constructed in 1856 near the site of the very first lighthouse on Martha's Vineyard in 1799. Listed as the 9th most important lighthouse in the country when the new brick lighthouse was built to replace the original wooden tower, it became one of the very first in the United States to receive a First-order Fresnel Lens. When electricity finally came to Gay Head in the early 1950s, the First-order lens was replaced by a high-intensity aero-beacon and the original lens was dismantled then transferred to Edgartown and mounted on top of a one-story brick structure with a glass lantern house enclosure at the Martha's Vineyard Museum.  It is the museum who currently maintains the lighthouse which is open seasonally for tours as well as available for rental for weddings and other special occasions.  As the lighthouse is currently dangerously close to the edge of the eroding cliffs, an effort is underway to move the light back 190 feet before it topples into the ocean. It is hoped that the move will be completed by Memorial Day; for more information, visit the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse website.

In Part Three I'll head back over to the more populated side of the Vineyard where there are more beautiful beaches, more historic lighthouses, and more things to see and do in the towns of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown which also includes Chappaquiddick. For a small island, it's definitely got a lot going on - even in the dead of winter! 


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