Summer Travel 2008: The Islands, Decoded

Martha’s Vineyard

The Taylors, the Gyllenhaals, and Billary aside, writer and erstwhile vineyard local Jason Gay discovers the island hasn’t been totally overrun with glitz and glamour.

More than 10 years ago, while working as a reporter for the Vineyard Gazette, I had the pleasure of "covering" the wedding of Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. Bill Clinton was there, back when he was a likable president. Tom Hanks was there, back when he was a likable movie star. Also in attendance were James Tayl
or, Kirstie Alley, Woody Harrelson, and Jeff Goldblum. I know: Jeff Goldblum?

I heard it was a pretty fun time. But I never saw a slice of cake, a drunken uncle, an awkward toast, or Jeff Goldblum doing the chicken dance. That’s because I was standing at the edge of the Danson-Steenburgen driveway, shivering in the damp autumn cold with a bunch of other media slobs. We weren’t invited; we weren’t even allowed inside.

The next morning, my fellow reporters couldn’t stop mocking my stakeout.

"You mean you stood at the end of the driveway the whole night?" one asked.


"How long?"

"I don’t know," I said. "Four hours. Maybe five."

"You’re an idiot."

Ever since Jimmy Cagney repaired to his homestead on North Road to be a gentleman farmer, Martha’s Vineyard has been a place where celebrities come to be ignored. No one cared—or they pretended not to care, at least—when John Belushi pounded the drums at the Hot Tin Roof nightclub, when Spike Lee strolled Oak Bluffs’ Circuit Avenue in his Air Jordans, or when Jackie O swanned among the Philip Craig mysteries at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven. The isle prided itself, maybe a little too much, on its blasé attitude toward fame; anything else was simply tawdry. When the Gazette devoted a series to Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer’s new $5.3 million house (then an island record) in the mid-’90s, readers complained it was invasive, and an irritated Nichols wrote in to say if the coverage didn’t stop, he’d turn his beachfront home into a Taco Bell.

The subsequent arrival of Bubba and Hillary, star-effers nonpareil, was poised to send the Vineyard into an intractable fame spiral. It’s true the senior generation of celebrities (Mike Wallace, the late Beverly Sills) has lately been joined by glitzier visitors (Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal), and as the island’s profile rises, old-timers are decrying the Vineyard’s "Hamptonization." Hummers sometimes stink up the parking lot of the Chilmark Store. That $5.3 million Nichols spent on his house now seems paltry; in 2006, a European couple paid $25 million for an Edgartown oceanfront spread.

But don’t let the whiners fool you. Despite all the recent celebrity haze, tabloid BS, and pricey lifestyle accoutrements (pools, tennis courts, private chefs), the Vineyard hasn’t really changed. Sure, there are differences: The new ferries are fancier and WiFi-enabled; the drab old Tisbury Inn burned down and has been replaced by the Mansion House, a glossy Victorian-style number; the so-bad-it-was-great Atlantic Connection is now a lame-o video arcade. The Hot Tin Roof is defunct, and Art Buchwald, the resident jester who raised millions for local charities, passed away last year.

What remains is what distinguished the Vineyard from other islands 10 and 25 and 50 years ago: an unrelenting beauty complemented by the laid-back nature of its residents. The finest beaches—including Lucy Vincent, Gay Head, and Lambert’s Cove—are still unspoiled. The fish shacks in Menemsha are relics of another era, and people still salute the sunsets on that town’s beach with nightly applause. The dress code, best expressed through the racks at Murray’s or local chain Island Outfitters, stays rumpled, cotton, and sockless. Social snobbery exists, but the Vineyard isn’t a place you go to get ahead in the world. If you want that kind of crap, take your whale belt to Nantucket.

In the end, it’s consistency, not celebrity, that makes the Vineyard great. True, so-called hot spots open all the time (I hear Edgartown’s spaetzle-serving restaurant Détente is a favorite of Dunkin’ Donuts mouthpiece Rachael Ray, and that at nearby Atria, the patio is packed nightly), yet it’s comforting to know that every summer, the finest fried clams in the universe can still be found at rickety Menemsha clam shack the Bite. And that the best place to lazily watch a day pass is the porch bench at Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury. And that the coolest spot to stay is still a rambling countryside farm called the Captain Flanders House. And for a drink amid friendly locals, it’s always the Ritz Café on Circuit Avenue.

Just remember to take pleasure in knowing you could have experienced all these things long before Bill Clinton showed up on the Vineyard. Jeff Goldblum, too.


Go on to the next page to see our Martha’s Vineyard Cheat Sheet, and discover the best places to stay, eat, and play…