I’ve done an earlier post of my visit years ago, but this was too brief and I decided to do a longer piece to do my visit justice.
It made a huge difference that I was there with my friend Corinna, who showed me around the place and discovered parts of it all over again with me. I also got lots of me-time while she hung out with her family who were there to celebrate the 4th of July weekend en masse. So, not only did I get to visit the famous playground of Democrat presidents, affluent liberals and A-list celebrities, I also got to see it decked out in its full patriotic regalia.
Everyone who’s visited knows the few institutions that one must visit here. Mad Martha’s ice-cream parlours are one of these.
As the legend of Mad Martha goes, born in 1880, she married a Harvard graduate stock-broker who eventually left her after he was ruined in the notorious stockmarket crash of 1929. Left spouse-less, penniless and homeless, her bewilderment and extreme circumstances affected her so deeply that some say she developed a ‘mad’ look in her eye that led to friends referring to her as Mad Martha. She eventually met and stayed together with Irving, an illiterate ice-cream maker. He taught her everything she needed to know about the business and the product while relying on her to boost sales through marketing tactics that she learned and applied. After he died, Mad Martha set up an ice-cream parlour on Martha’s Vineyard (not named after her!) which continues to draw crowds because of the original recipes that use butterfat and New England cream, creating the slow-to-melt product that have made her parlours famous. Even though she died in 1950, her ice-cream legacy continues on today. I only got to visit two of her many parlours across the island. And yes, the ice-cream was very very good!
I also loved the original boards advertising various flavours and combinations. I don’t think they’ve been updated in over 50 years and are a part of the charm of this little shop.
And talking about charming shops, one of the retail outlets I was lucky to get to visit before it …
…closed down permanently last December (2016), was ‘Midnight Farm,’ part-owned by silent partner and famous singer Carly Simon (of ‘You’re So Vain’ fame). This unusual and attractive shop in Vineyard Haven carried rustic handcrafted pieces, high-end clothing, reclaimed vintage furniture, quirky jewellery, books and other unique pieces. Walking through it felt like I was in an oversized living room full of nostalgic nooks and curiosities.
The Black Dog, a tavern pub and shop, also in Vineyard Haven, is another established institution on the island that is great for shopping. There are lots of little stories elaborating why its called The Black Dog. My favourite one is that it’s named after the original tavern’s founder’s black, sea-faring labrador who became a constant fixture around the inn, when he wasn’t aboard the owner’s boat. The Black Dog has become a strong brand seen not only on The Vineyard but also now in Nantucket. If you see people wearing T-shirts with a black dog on them, you’ll now know what it’s all about.
One rather rainy day, Corinna and I had a hankering for a bagel breakfast and made our way to ‘The Slice of Life’ cafe in Oak Bluffs. It’s a small, cosy space that is full of lively chatter and obviously popular with locals catching up with friends over coffee or looking for a post-hangover brunch cure.
I’m not kidding when I say that they have an extensive selection of breakfast choices on the menu. It took us ages to choose as we pored over and shared notes on potential choices. Buttermilk blueberry pancakes or Breakfast nachos with scrambled eggs? Ocean park scramble with applewood smoked bacon and garlic potato pancake or Crab cake bagel with fried egg? I finally chose the less adventurous Fireworks bagel, in honour of the 4th of July holiday mood, with fried egg, bacon and Blackforest ham sandwiched between poppy & sesame seed bagel bread, and a cappuccino, both of which filled up the breakfast shaped hole inside me.
The island seafood was something else entirely!
Lunch at the ever-popular ‘Seafood Shanty’ in Edgartown was another offer of tempting choices until I finally settled for a thick clam chowder, the coastal New England must-have specialty, and scallops with sticky bacon. Worth every penny!
Before you think that my visit was all about eating out and shopping, here are some of the sights I enjoyed visiting across the island.
I visited two of the island’s most interesting lighthouses: Gay Head Lighthouse and Edgartown Lighthouse. They’re both so very different – the first located atop a cliff, overlooking the choppy waters of atmospheric Nantucket Sound, hitting the cliff edges under its protective eyes.
And the second was basking in the busy harbour of Edgartown, full of millionaire’s yachts making sure that they didn’t get stranded on a sandbar.
At the base of Edgartown’s lighthouse is a series of stones forming the Children’s memorial where one can have the name of their child of any age, who has passed, to be etched in a stone and placed here at the lighthouse’s base for all eternity. It’s a wonderful thought, one that I’m sure gives hope and feeling to a lot of families who have lost their children. It’s a first that I’ve come across in my many travels.
Next, we come to the Gingerbread houses. They look like this –
….a bit of this….
…and one of them looks like it was dipped in liquid pink antacid (which is what I needed to take after looking at these overly cute-sy houses).
Once I got over the start of an ulcer and kept my lunch down, I learned a bit about the history of the houses which made them a little more appealing. I knew the part about Martha’s Vineyard being a haven for the whaling community in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whaling captains and officers basically built the island up with their wealth and affluence until the demise of the industry with the discovery of oil as an alternative energy source that was more efficient than whale spermaceti oil and blubber. There are 318 houses still standing today, all built over time to house the attendees of the seasonal Methodist Camp that was regularly held on the island. The camp began as a meeting place for Methodists from all over the country and initially people were housed in tents around the camp’s rural acreage. Over time, as the meetings established a regular schedule and attendance, along with a permanent camp building to hold meetings came a few houses to hold regular attendees. They’re called Gingerbread houses after the decorative details of the architectural style which make the houses take on a cookie-cutter look. Garish brights balanced with pastels, picket white fences and hydrangea bushes all add a certain something to the overall look. One of the houses has been converted into a museum where you can get a look at examples of the interiors and how people lived in these miniature, tent-like, make-shift summer cottages.
When I visited Haiti in Nov 2009 I was amazed to find Gingerbread cottages in Port au Prince too, though I wonder how many are still standing after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the region in 2010.
Unsurprisingly, the island has simply amazing seafood available everywhere. The done thing to do here is to buy a pint or a quart of deep fried seafood from a crab shack, park on the beach and watch the sunset, munching on your treasure while sipping a cold beer. But, I’ve gotta say, the seafood is really a deep distraction from a gorgeous sunset.
We stopped at The Bite clam shack to buy boxes full of deep fried clams, oysters and scallops. I don’t think I’ve eaten as much seafood in my entire life as I did on Martha’s vineyard. It’s also when I discovered that I had an allergy to large quantities of rich seafood eaten all together. We’d been eating scallops, clams and oysters, crab cakes and lobster rolls, and by day 3 on Martha’s vineyard the back of my eyes started to itch and my lips started to get a little swollen and itchy too. I just paced myself after downing a histamine tablet and realised for the first time in my life that I had a slight shell-fish allergy. Was it worth it? Absolutely! (she said, her mouth drooling).
I realise that there’s a lot more about my trip to share, which I will do in Part 2 of this post. Look out for it soon!
Visited July 2009