Only have a day or two to plan a Massachusetts island escape? From peeking at rainbow-colored Victorian cottages to sightseeing by bike, here are five of the very best things to do on Martha’s Vineyard.
By Yankee Staff
Jul 27 2022
Oak Bluffs, Martha’s VineyardPhoto Credit : Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism
Often Martha’s Vineyard is mentioned in the same breath as its equally famous neighbor to the east, Nantucket. But while these two Massachusetts islands both have miles of white-sand beaches, historic districts, and boat-filled harbors, they each have their own distinct personality. Martha’s Vineyard stands out for its size — about twice that of Nantucket — and its ease of access, being just a 45-minute ferry from the mainland. But even more notable is Martha’s Vineyard’s diversity. It has six distinct towns, a range of landscape from forest to pasture to shore, and a history shaped by Indigenous and Black island residents.
You could easily spend a week or more exploring this classic summer getaway in the waters off Cape Cod. But if you have just a day or two, here are the five best things to do on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
The down-island town of Oak Bluffs is a product not of the whaling age but the Victorian one. Rooted in an annual Methodist camp meeting first held here in 1835, the town has grown up around its hundreds of gaily painted Victorian gingerbread cottages that radiate out from the open-air, wrought-iron 1879 Tabernacle. Oak Bluffs is also known as the traditional hub of the island’s Black community, and many stops on the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail can be found here. The main thoroughfare is bustling Circuit Avenue, home to the oldest platform carousel in America, the Flying Horses Carousel, along with shops galore, and eateries including longtime favorites The Sweet Life, Mocha Mott’s, and Mad Martha’s Ice Cream. And don’t miss Back Door Donuts, a landmark bakery on Kennebec Avenue whose “back door” is open late into the night during the high season.
Who says island life is all about the beach scene? This 72-acre public garden in West Tisbury is the perfect place to enjoy the greener, lusher side of Martha’s Vineyard. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015, the arboretum is a testament to founder Polly Hill, who at age 50 began reimagining the landscape at her historic family farm as a treasure chest of rare trees and plants from around the world. Highlights include a nationally accredited collection of camellia-like stewartias and the big-leaf ‘Julian Hill’ magnolia, named in honor of Polly’s husband, whose blooms span 18 inches. (Garden lovers who visit Martha’s Vineyard will also want to make time for a trip to Mytoi, a Japanese-style gem on Chappaquiddick.)
Martha’s Vineyard is said to have more lighthouses, in more diverse styles, in close proximity than anywhere else in the country. And for good reason: The island has long been known for treacherous tides, rocky shores, sandy shoals, and the underwater reefs dubbed the Devil’s Bridge, off Aquinnah. At the far western edge is Gay Head Light (c. 1844), the unique red-brick lighthouse that overlooks Aquinnah’s stunning red clay cliffs. On the north side, the entrance to the Vineyard Haven harbor is bracketed by West Chop Lighthouse and East Chop Lighthouse, which also date to the 1800s but have the more typical pristine white exterior (note: West Chop is not open to the public). Moving southeast leads to Edgartown Lighthouse and, beyond that, the most remote of the group, Cape Poge Lighthouse, on Chappaquiddick’s northeast point. And there’s even a sixth lighthouse, in a manner of speaking. The original 1854 Fresnel lens used in Gay Head Light is now at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Vineyard Haven, where it stands sentinel — in spirit, anyway — over Lagoon Pond.
Generations of local fishermen have peddled their briny wares on the docks of this village, which remains seafood central on the Vineyard. From the landmark fish markets Larsen’s and Menemsha to the classic shack Menemsha Galley, you can procure a takeout banquet of steamers, fried clams, lobsters, and more — a bounty that is best enjoyed right on the beach, before one of the grandest sunset views on the East Coast.
Biking is a great way to see Martha’s Vineyard, which offers more than 40 miles of trails and roadways through its scenic towns and along its coast. Bikes are welcome on the ferry (and cheaper than bringing your car), and the island’s MVTA buses are equipped with racks for convenient transitions between biking and public transit. You can also rent some wheels at any of the island’s several bike rental shops, handily clustered near the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal and the seasonal terminals in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. Routes range from easy (a seven-mile, mostly flat loop from Edgartown to South Beach and back) to challenging (the hilly, winding 12-mile one-way ride from West Tisbury to Aquinnah), so there’s something to delight every rider.
Have your own list of the very best things to do on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts? Leave your picks in the comments below!