Also read about our couple’s experience taking our car to the island for a day here.
Those of you who visit our site often know my passion for day trips. Some may call it a cabin fever, but I call it an ADVENTURE THAT IS ALWAYS NEAR YOU. So it was only natural that we took a day trip to the island of Martha’s Vineyard during our recent stay in Hyannis on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Martha Vineyard is an island seven miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, measuring 100 square miles (260 km). Although well known as a summer colony, it has a year-round population of about 17,000. There are six towns: Tisbury (including village of Vineyard Haven, island’s commercial center), Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, Chilmark (including fishing village of Menemsha) and Aquinnah.
Over our 25 years living in Massachusetts, we have visited Martha’s Vineyard (as a family and on a couple’s retreat) a number of times, but when my seven-year-old daughter Vi reminded me that she has never visited the island, I realized that it was our time to return.
Getting to an island is of course half the adventure! We took a 9am Hy-Line’s Vineyard Lady high-speed ferry from Hyannis on a recent Saturday in August and made it to Oak Bluffs on the island at 10am. 300-passenger boat was packed but not full (reservations are recommended in the summer). We sat on the outside deck to take in the views of Hyannis harbor and when the sun became too much to deal with we retreated to an air-conditioned inside area with comfortable airplane style seating (there are two inside decks, with a full serving bar on a lower deck).
Fresh off the ferry, we first headed to nearby Vineyard Haven to get a hold of our rental car reserved at Hertz on Water street, right by the harbor (we used Martha Vineyard Transit Authority bus – see more details on how to get around the island at the end of the post).
Having filled up on beach picnic supplies in the town’s grocery store, we proceeded straight to Aquinnah Cliffs in the town of Aquinnah, our main destination of the day. The Moshup’s Beach by the Aquinnah Cliffs is arguably the best beach on the island, if not on the entire Cape Cod. It takes about 40 minutes to reach Aquinnah by car from either Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven.
As you approach the Aquinnah Cliffs, you may want to check out Aquinnah Light House on your right. It is still functional and you can climb up to the top (we headed straight to the beach this time.)
We parked in the lot just off Aquinnah Circle (on the right, $20 all day or hourly). From there, a 10-minute walk takes you to Moshup’s Beach just below the cliffs. This area, starting with the walk, has a magical power to take my mind miles away. (The “trade off” for that wonderful feeling is an absence of any vendors and facilities at the beach, so be sure to use one near the parking lot and bring your picnic and water supplies to the beach with you).
The brightly colored clay cliffs are sacred to the Wampanoag Indian tribe (long-time Aquinnah residents) and are a National Historic Landmark. It is forbidden to climb the cliffs or touch the clay.
The ocean water is of particular aqua color here!
We frolicked in the water amidst other families. The water temperature was surprisingly swimmable even despite our attachment to the warmth of Nantucket sound on Hyannis beaches. (Families planning to do long walks along the cliffs may want to know that there are “unofficial” clothing optional areas further away from the beach entrance. When on the island…).
Our next stop was lunch at Aquinnah Shop restaurant (27 Aquinnah Circle) hidden at the end of the souvenir shops alley. The food was good (I had lobster roll), but 180-degree ocean views from the terrace are the reason I come back to this place! (and the island!).
Next to the restaurant, is an observation deck with signs and a monument commemorating the history of Wampanoag Indians on the island.
It was 3 pm when we got back to our car. Our return ferry to Hyannis was scheduled to depart at 6:45pm from Oak Bluffs, so we decided to spend the afternoon in Oak Bluffs and look at iconic Gingerbread Houses. (Fishing village of Menemsha, and the town of Edgartown – with fun harbor and main street – were the other options we considered.)
The tiny houses with unique architecture in the center of Oak Bluffs are part of historic Martha Vineyard Campmeeting Association (MVCMA), once the biggest religious community of its kind dating back to the 1800. MVCMA is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and continues to celebrate its historic and religious roots. The houses are individually owned and are available for weekly rent– see information on the MVCMA website.
The number of these small houses (they were inspired by the tents they replaced) have decreased over the years, but there are some 318 cottages remaining.
The Tabernacle stage in the center of the MVCMA is the largest concert venue on the island. In the summer they host free outdoor entertainment events for the whole family.
The Flying Carousel
We never miss a carousel when we travel with Vi and Flying Carousel, the National Landmark as the oldest running platform carousel in the country – is not to be missed! Constructed in 1876 it was moved to Oak Bluffs from Coney Island, NY in 1884, where it has lived in its red barn ever since (it is now owned and maintained by the preservation trust which makes sure that the horses feature real horsehair manes and tails!). The highlight of every ride is the chance to grab the lucky brass ring.
OAK BLUFFS HARBOR
Oak Bluffs has beautiful open harbor with an Ocean Bandstand in the center of the waterfront lawn.
We walked to the town’s beach just past the Steamship Authority pier. Its just off the boat location is easily accessible by the day trippers and swimmers here enjoy the warm waters of Nantucket sound, but in my opinion, there are many more beautiful beaches on the island that are worth the effort to get there. (Here is a link to island’s beaches).
We spent our last hour of island living chilling at the waterfront Coop de Ville right at the Dockside Pier next to the Hy-Line ferry landing. If that is not an island life I don’t know what is!
To sample the island living for yourself, here is what you need to know:
Getting there. There are several companies operating ferry services from locations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Manhattan, NY – arriving either at Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven on the island. If you are staying in mid or upper Cape Cod, a ferry from Hyannis would be most convenient. We took the Hy-Line’s 9 am High-Speed ferry boat from Hyannis that brought us to the island in exactly one hour. (it is the only commercial option in Hyannis). Check the seasonal schedule and fairs here. (adult $59 round trip, kids 5-12 $29.50). Steamship Authority runs the shortest (and cheapest) route from Falmouth (Woods Hole) on lower Cape Cod on larger ferries (some take cars). Be sure to account for for shuttle time to and from parking lots.
Getting around. Once on the island, there are several ways to get around.
Option 1. You can bring your own car ($87.50 and up depending on the car size, you would have to reserve the space on one of Steamship Authority ferries from Falmouth – the Hy-Line speed ferries from Hyannis do not take cars. Read about our experience taking our car to the island here).
Option 2. Car rental at the pier in the town of your arrival (it is probably best to call ahead.) We used Hertz, located in Vineyard Haven. (There are several rental companies at Oak Bluffs pier as well.)
Option 3. Martha Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) ($1.25 per town, each way, including town of origin) offers several bus routes between the towns. We have used them during this trip between Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven to get to our car rental. Unfortunately, there are no buses that would take you directly to Aquinnah from Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven – you could switch buses, of course, but in my opinion it is too hectic on a day trip. So if you would like to explore Aquinnah, options 1 and 2 would be best.
Option 4. There are tour companies (with large buses and van options) that can take you from your ferry around the island in under three hours.
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