Life and Wine on Martha's Vineyard | Massachusetts / by Silviya N. Topchiyska

A Short History of Martha’s Vineyard

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The islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket were separated from the continental shelf during the last ice age. Today, Martha’s Vineyard is rich in natural preserves, stunning beaches, fertile farmland and a fishing industry that continues to thrive.

The Wampanoag or “People of the first light” were the island’s original settlers. These were the people who welcomed the English colonists and taught them farming techniques.

It was whaling that made Martha’s Vineyard one of the wealthiest places on earth. The island’s historic district of Edgartown stands witness to that past. While the whales are gone, the ships have long been sunk and the last of the old whaling captains are dead, Edgartown still speaks to the spirit of purpose, unity and hard work that continue to this day.

The Natural Island Beauty

If you are not familiar with the natural landscape left after the glaciers receded, then it’s time to spend a day or more on Martha’s Vineyard. Starting from historic Edgartown, with its stunning, south-shore beaches, you will drive west to discover what the phrase “island life” really means.

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On the southern road that passes through the towns of Chilmark and Aquinnah, you will see rolling hills surrounded by green pastures and many small farms. It is these small producers who supply the island with local-sourced milk and produce.

From the western town of Wampanoag town, home of the Aquinnah tribe, you will find the Gay Head Cliffs. The clay rocks are filled million-year-old fossils. Coastal erosion is a growing concern, but you can still find the fossilized remains of great white sharks, whales and many other ancient treasures left by the sea. It is a perfect place to walk, explore, meditate and connect with nature.

From late spring to mid-summer, the colorful hydrangeas are in bloom and can be seen anywhere on the island. This brightens the landscape and adds a layer of color to the already vibrant island lifestyle.

Life on Martha’s Vineyard

With the exception of the automobile and island traffic around Edgartown, island life has not changed all that much over the centuries. Today, one can embark on a sailing tour around the island or take a drive and discover six different lifestyles offered by six different island towns.

Edgartown was established by the early Methodist settlers. Beneath the famous Oak Bluffs, they built more than 1000 cottages that resemble gingerbread houses. The town’s historic district is paved with red brick and the streets are lined with small shops and restaurants. Homes that were once occupied by whaling captains are now boutique hotels.

Apart from its history, Edgartown is known for its stunning beaches and fine dining restaurants. It offers something for nearly every type of visitor.

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Vineyard Haven is home to the island’s main harbor, many fine-dining venues, stunning sunrises and the West Chop Lighthouse. Much of the town history is preserved in the Old Schoolhouse Museum and the Unitarian Church.

Note: If you pick up a local map or overhear the local’s make references to “Tisbury,” that is the town’s real name.

West Tisbury is next door to Vineyard Haven and is best known for Lambert’s Cove Beach which serves as a private beach for town residents. Plan to visit the 19th century grist mill, Cedar Tree Neck Nature Preserve, the Polly Hill Arboretum and Christian Town Memorial.

Chilmark is something of a fairytale fishing village right out of a 19th century novel. Old stone walls--remnants of the early settlers--punctuate the area’s lovely rolling hills. Once a main fishing port, the small harbor is now filled with fishing boats and private yachts.  Nearby restaurants offer wonderful seafood as fresh as that day’s catch.

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Oak Bluffs was originally settled by Methodists, who lived and gathered in tents. Over time, charming cottages replaced the canvas. Today (and perhaps ironically) Oak Bluffs might be considered the island’s “party town” and it is home to a large percentage of Martha’s Vineyard’s mid-size budget restaurants, bars and shops.

During your visit, take time for a leisurely walk through Ocean Park or comb the local beach for seashells.

Aquinnah is home to the remnants of the Wampanoag tribe and the island’s oldest lighthouse. Visitors willing to hike up to the old wooden structure will be rewarded with amazing views. The town’s quiet beaches are another draw and offer a relaxing atmosphere in which to connect with the island’s natural beauty.

Wine On Martha’s Vineyard

When English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold discovered the island in 1602, he named it after his daughter “Martha” and the abundance of grapes he found growing there. Today the island represents the easternmost viticultural area in the United States, but in truth very little wine is actually produced on Martha’s Vineyard.

There are two international events that really define the island’s connection with wine. In May, the four-day MV Wine Fest pairs some of the world’s top wines with food produced by local chefs. It is easily one of the most important wine events in the northeast.

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Each year in October, Edgartown hosts the annual Food & Wine Festival. This very high-end event is similar to the spring festival. It features local chefs prepare delicacies to present alongside a host of fine wines.

Of course, the two events do not completely define the Martha’s Vineyard wine culture. Locally produced cheeses and the island’s vibrant oyster farms offer inspired, year-round opportunities for wine pairings.

The history of Martha’s Vineyard in combination with it’s natural beauty, locally-sourced culinary delights and wine-inspired events offer ample motivation to visit and explore.

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