A day trip to Martha’s Vineyard is one of our many New England summer traditions. Luckily, we did not have to give it up during summer and fall of 2020 (Be sure to follow travel/health advisories for your own state of origin and destination).
For one of our recent day trips we booked our car to go on a ferry with us (about a week ahead, for a mid-week August trip- scroll down for all transportation options to get to the island).
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.
Here is a YouTube video of our MARTHA’S VINEYARD DAY TRIP
Lets’ start with the map of our day:
Getting to the island is of course half the adventure! Sometimes we splurge on a Hy-Line’s high-speed ferry from Hyannis to Oak Bluffs (takes about an hour; you cannot take a car on their vessel).
This time we drove to Falmouth and took 10:45 am Steamship Authority’s car ferry to Vineyard’s Haven (about 45 mins). This year especially we made sure to sit outside and enjoy the fresh air (and the view!)
Once docked in Vineyard Haven, we drove to Oak Bluffs, passed the Gingerbread Houses (more on them below) and the famous Gazebo in the center of town and headed to Edgartown. Along the way we stopped on Joseph Sylvia State Beach to admire the emerald colored water.
UPDATE: we just came back from yet another day trip where we explored Edgartown’s architecture with Vineyard Trust. Scroll to the bottom of the post for more info.
In Edgartown our plan was to first observe the boarding and passage of the Chappy Ferry across the 527-foot channel to the island of Chappaquiddick. On this trip we did not take the ferry but have enjoyed the 3-minute (3-car) ride on several other recent trips! (Check out this post about our October visit to Mytoi Gardens).
On this particular day trip- our main event of the day was a visit to our favorite place in the entire New England- Aquinnah Cliffs. (You can look over the ferry ride and Chappaquiddick from a second story of the viewing platform adjacent to the ferry landing; alternatively, you could enjoy this view with your lunch or dinner from the deck of the Seafood Shanty restaurant).
By that time we were already operating on an ” island” mode (and gorgeous warm weather only helped) and greatly enjoyed ALL of our eclectic experiences on Edgartown’s Main Street, including the 19th century Captain Houses, $30 notebooks at Salte (we were so spirited that my Mom bought me that notebook), the best (and the most expensive) fudge you will ever taste (Murdic’s Fudge), chia pudding and coffee on a terrace of a breakfast all-day place appropriately named Among the Flowers. We were then ready for the next leg of our trip: a 35 minute (mostly wooded) drive to Aquinnah Cliffs on the other side of the island.
We brought our beach picnic supplies from home, so after a brief line to enter the parking lot we proceeded straight to the Moshup’s Beach which we consider one of the most beautiful in the world.
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.)
Aquinnah Circle also houses an observation deck with signs and a monument commemorating the history of Wampanoag Indians on the island. There is a limited hourly parking available at the Aquinnah Circle for the Light House, the shops and the Observation Deck.
For the Moshup Beach, that was our main destination on this day particular day trip, there is another parking lot to the left across the field. A 10-15 minute walk from the parking lot takes you to the beach just below the cliffs. This area, starting with the walk, has a magical power to take your mind many miles away. The “trade off” for this wonderful feeling is an absence of any vendors and facilities at the beach itself (there are portable restrooms by the entrance and a permanent structure near the parking lot). Be sure to 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.
Families planning to do long walks along the cliffs may want to know that there are clothing optional areas further away from the beach entrance. I do still highly recommend venturing further from the main beach crowd to explore the cliffs and the stones.
Mom and I found a couple of warm comfortable stones to relax on right in the water! There were plenty to choose from!
The hardest part of the day is having to leave that beach!
That is why we try to linger in the area a little bit longer – ideally, for the sunset! If you are lucky you can book a dinner table at the terrace of the Aquinnah Shop hidden at the end of the souvenir shops alley. The food is good (if overly expensive for dinner), but watching the summer sun setting into the ocean right next to us is the reason we come back to this place year after year! They are also open for lunch (window service).
Another iconic option for sunset on the island is a picnic on Minemsha Beach, a 15 min drive away on your way back to the ferry.
WALKING TOUR, EDGARTOWN
We enjoyed Edgartown so much on this day trip that we have decided to come back in September and join one of the walking history tours with Vineyard Trust which has 20 properties in their care on the Island. You can review the tour options on their page – we have joined an Architectural Tour to explore the styles and influences of the historical houses on Main Street and nearby Water street. We thoroughly enjoyed the Tour that included 6 historical houses (including an exclusive visit to the Old Whaling Church). I have already put the Literary Tour on my agenda for next summer!
GINGERBREAD HOUSES, OAK BLUFFS
This year, we did not stop to walk around the cottages but if you have never been – you must include them on your day trip. They are an easy walk from the ferry landing in Oak Bluffs and are favorite with kids and adults alike.
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 “normal” summer they host free outdoor entertainment events for the whole family.
The Flying Carousel, Oak Bluffs
We used to never miss a carousel when Vi was younger 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.
You can walk to the town’s beach just past the Steamship Authority pier. It 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).
On a couple of visits to Oak Bluffs, we have also chilled at the waterfront Coop de Ville right at the Dockside Pier next to the Hy-Line ferry landing.
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. 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 (if not taking your car). On our latest trip, we allocated 1hr 15 min for the journey from Hyannis and just about made it.
Getting around. Once on the island, there are several ways to get around.
Option 1. You can bring your own car ($90 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) 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.
Option 5. Cycling is a great way to get around the island but heading all the way to Aquinnah Cliffs from the ferry towns of Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven might be challenging. I suggest you consider cycling from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown, stop on the beach along the way, enjoy the Main street and possibly take the ride on a Chappy Ferry.
Have I got you interested enough in spending a Labor Day weekend on the island? Accommodations on Martha’s Vineyard are not cheap, but worth taking a look at (when you book via my link, I might earn a small commission to help maintain this site-at no cost to you!).
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