As I approached the gingerbread cottages at the Oak Bluffs campground on Martha’s Vineyard, fat drops of rain began to plink down from the darkening sky. The bright, painted colors of the tiny houses, reminiscent of the vivid hues of a candy aisle, popped against the gloomy backdrop, punctuating the stormy weather.
Entering the campground, I felt as if I’d stepped back into another time, another place. The bustling activity of Oak Bluff’s town center left far behind, I found myself in a quiet world of whimsy. One where nineteenth-century homes outlined in perfectly painted filigree trim are set within a few feet from one another, looking for all the world like an immaculate dollhouse village conjured from a childhood fantasy.
Now a popular draw for summer visitors, the charming cottages and immaculate gardens were not always part of the campground’s landscape. In 1835, Methodist summer retreats were first organized here. Tents were raised to accommodate the groups of New England Methodists who gathered for a week to ten days to immerse themselves in religious preaching. By 1859, the tents began to give way to the first wooden cottages, whose look, design, and size were inspired by the temporary structures they replaced.
A Tabernacle, constructed of wrought iron, and Grace Chapel were erected in 1879 and 1885 respectively, establishing a permanent religious community. Over the years, however, the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, known as MVCMA, has become progressively interdenominational, rather than strictly Methodist.
Most of the cottages are shuttered during the dormant months of winter, but as summer approaches, this enchanting community springs to life in a flurry of activity. The Association hosts many events which are open to the public: weekly community sings in the Tabernacle, campground walking tours, and family movie nights. For a nominal fee, visitors can even tour one of the gingerbread cottages that’s been converted into a museum to satisfy those curiosity seekers who just have to peek inside.
The crowning event of the season is the Grand Illumination, traditionally held on the third Wednesday of August. Ornate paper Chinese and Japanese lanterns adorn the cottages, strung from the porches like glittering jewelry. More lanterns are suspended from tree branches and staked into the ground. Once dusk settles, residents and visitors gather at the Tabernacle for a community sing and band concert.
As the music comes to a close, the lights are extinguished and the lanterns are lit, bathing the campground in a soft yet festive glow. Further paying homage to the Grand Illumination’s long history, which got its start in 1869, some attendees arrive dressed in Victorian and turn-of-the-century garb.
Walking the paths that snake through the campground, I was scarcely aware that the looming clouds were threatening to send down a torrent of rain. I was too caught up in inspecting the scrolled patterns of woodwork and in peeking into each carefully staged porch. The temptation to sink into one of the rocking chairs, painted to match its home perfectly, was almost more than I could resist. This was a world I didn’t want to leave—a world of summer, a world of relaxation and unique beauty. It’s the kind of place where stress is blown away by the sea breezes and vibrant community atmosphere. I reluctantly left the campground, promising myself I would return again soon, knowing I am not the only one to have been completely captured by the magic of the gingerbread cottages at Oak Bluffs over the years.
Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. mvcma.org/
Have you ever strolled the Martha’s Vineyard Oak Bluffs Campground to see the gingerbread cottages?
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.