By Alexandra Hall
Martha’s Vineyard is an island of contradictions. On one hand it’s famed for its beaches, charming villages, and scenic bike- excursion routes, and on the other, it’s famed for fame itself–meaning the celebrities it attracts. “It doesn’t matter who you are here,” says Boston developer Richard L. Friedman, whose Edgartown farm has been lent to Hillary and Bill Clinton. “There’s this tremendous diversity of people and walks of life, and no matter how stressed-out or important you are off the island, here everyone is just folks.”
Learning to savor the cultural mix that exists on the Vineyard is a key part of the relaxation process. This is a place where, in a high season that more than quadruples its year-round population, you can find yourself bumping into everyone from Sharon Stone to Chappaquiddick Island homeowner Meg Ryan at the preppy Vineyard Vines clothing shop in Edgartown. International travelers are welcomed with open arms, but international chains are outlawed. The concerts and lectures at Oak Bluffs Tabernacle find Hollywood directors sharing benches with college kids and toddlers covered in sand and ice cream. And CEOs may well plunk down increasing millions for beachfront estates, but when the 4 A.M. newspaper boat gets delayed, they have to wait for the morning headlines along with everyone else.
“I’ve spent most of my life on the island, and it’s changed a lot. But on the other hand, it hasn’t changed very much at all,” says Mark Snider, who owns Winnetu Oceanside Resort with his wife, Gwenn. “As more new people have come, they’ve had to embrace the idiosyncrasies of the place. So it’s never lost its traditions.”
For instance, the island has yet to shake the Puritanical influence of its 17th-century British settlers; three of its six towns are still dry (no alcohol is sold in stores or restaurants). Relics abound, such as the Greek Revival captain’s houses that line the streets of Edgartown, evidence of the 19th-century whaling industry. But the sea’s dominion can still be felt directly (and deliciously) with the ultrafresh seafood that rules menus everywhere. For thoughtfully modern takes on the bounty, look to Catch at the Terrace at the Charlotte Inn, where Edgartown oysters come into contact with pickled cucumber, pineapple, radish, and wasabi tobiko. Or you can brave the crowds at the Black Dog Tavern for a clambake bucket with quahog chowder and steamed lobsters.
When the Clintons began spending summer vacations here in the 1990s, seemingly all of Hollywood arrived in their wake: David Letterman, Sharon Stone, Michael J. Fox–the list of celebrity touchdowns goes on and on. To be fair, Spike Lee and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg summers on her mother’s former estate in Aquinnah) fell under the spell of the island’s charms pre-Clintons, and Carly Simon, a partner in the bohemian clothing and accessories boutique Midnight Farm in Vineyard Haven, vacationed here as a child and is now a full-time resident.
“The great mix of people on the island is what keeps things relaxed,” Friedman says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a businessman, a politician, or an artist. White, black, or Native American. Everyone’s here, there isn’t just one place to be, or one way to act.” And nor, adds Snider, do those folks come expecting bells and whistles. “When people go to Hawaii, they’re met with a lei,” Snider says. “When most people get to the Vineyard it’s by ferry, and they’re met with luggage racks. It’s not Disneyland.”
Perhaps not, but with its profusion of pristine beaches, conservation land, unfettered sea views, and meticulous gardens at every turn, Martha’s Vineyard is certainly idyllic. The topography is as diverse as the people, and every last inch of it is stunning, particularly Chappaquiddick Island, with its windswept nature preserves. Also dazzling are the Aquinnah Cliffs, where multicolor layers of clay and sand, created by six separate glaciers, meet frothy waves 150 feet below.
Even the most remote spots, however, are never far from a whiff of stylishness. The rugged fishing port of Menemsha is filled with weather-beaten dinghies, lobster traps, and dove-gray shingled shacks, but at its shores, boho-chic families and sun-kissed couples arrive late in the day for another island tradition, toting tables, candles, precooked lobster, oysters, and ice buckets: Champagne glasses raised and bare feet in the sand, they applaud and whoop as the sun melts into the luminescent harbor.
Somehow the scene manages to be earthy and sophisticated, innocent and worldly all at once. “That’s the beauty of the Vineyard,” explains Gwenn Snider of Winnetu Oceanside Resort, who plans public readings by local authors. “It’s the kind of environment that just absorbs people from different walks of life and brings out the best parts of each–even when they have completely divergent perspectives. I think that’s why so many artists and creative people find it an inspiring place to be.”