Destination Wedding: Martha's Vineyard

From the time you get off the ferry at Vineyard Haven, you can tell that the air here feels different—a kind of soft freshness, perhaps from the acres of green fields and forests surrounded by seawater. This sense of a special place is just one of the many reasons couples who have spent time on Martha’s Vineyard return here to get married.

From the time you get off the ferry at Vineyard Haven, you can tell that the air here feels different—a kind of soft freshness, perhaps from the acres of green fields and forests surrounded by seawater. This sense of a special place is just one of the many reasons couples who have spent time on Martha’s Vineyard return here to get married.

Ceremonies can happen in stately old churches in Edgartown, or couples can say their vows alfresco in front of a lighthouse overlooking Vineyard Sound. For receptions, quaint country inns are tucked into wooded hills, and deserted stretches of ocean sand provide the groundwork for clambakes. Guest activities can range from antiques shopping to charter-boat fishing, and the wedding party can relax for a few days anywhere from small in-town hotels to spacious private rental homes.

According to couples who have done it (or are planning to), getting married on the island is, well, a piece of wedding cake—if you do two things: Start early, and hire a local wedding planner.

Pam and Brian Morrisroe invited 190 friends and relatives to their October 2003 wedding in Edgartown—and 160 of them were on hand when they exchanged vows. Considering that getting married on an island—and one notorious for its sold-out car ferries and meager commercial air flights from the mainland—could become a logistical nightmare, this was a very successful turnout.

Pam Morrisroe began planning in October 2002 as soon as she became engaged. She hired wedding consultant Julie Hatt of Vineyard Weddings in Edgartown, who lives on the island year-round. “Julie knows everyone—caterers, florists, photographers,” says Morrisroe, “which means that I didn’t need to do all that researching myself.”

Planners recommend picking a date first and then sending friends and family save-the-date packages well before the formal invitations go out. These packages can be simple cards but often include all the transportation information clearly outlined, so no guest gets left behind on the mainland.

Island Charm
Just off the Cape Cod coast of Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is a relatively large—more than 20 miles long and up to eight miles wide—and very diverse island of towns, forests, farmland and miles of winding roads. These roads fill up with traffic during summer months, when the island population swells from about 15,000 in winter to more than 100,000 in high season, which is one reason that the best time for weddings are the two months before and the two months after the July-August tourist crush. The weather also is generally milder then.

When they decide on a Vineyard wedding, some couples already have picked out their favorite places for the rehearsal dinner, wedding ceremony and reception, but most haven’t. “Some people have in mind vaguely something on a beach or with a lighthouse backdrop,” says wedding planner Lynn Buckmaster-Irwin, owner of Weddings on the Vineyard in West Tisbury. “I urge couples to come here early for a weekend to look around and choose options.”

The towns of Vineyard Haven, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs—the so-called “down island” towns on the more populated eastern end of the island—have the most lodging and venue options, as well as a host of walking-around activities.

Edgartown comes alive in the summer with its grand old sea captains’ houses and manicured lawns behind white picket fences. This town is the Vineyard’s answer to Newport or the Hamptons. Its attractions include easy access to churches, small hotels, art galleries and restaurants. Morrisroe walked from her wedding ceremony at the Federated Church to her reception at the Edgartown Yacht Club—with a bagpiper leading the procession down Water Street.

Up island, West Tisbury still has its farm-town charm, displaying both the island’s agricultural past and present, while Chilmark—which includes Menemsha—has a wind-blown, Mediterranean quality and serves as the island’s chief fishing port. Many couples choose these locations if they are looking for more privacy and want to get away from even the small-town bustle of the Vineyard.

Choosing a Venue
There are so many churches, big and small, that Nicole Friedler, owner of Nicole Friedler Photography in Vineyard Haven, has difficulties choosing a favorite. “The Old Whaling Church in Edgartown is phenomenally beautiful,” she says, “and you can get great photos from the balcony at the Federated Church.”

For a smaller wedding party, there is the First Congregational Church in West Tisbury. Here, there’s less room for a photographer to move around, but it’s a beautiful, traditional, New England village church, and as a bonus, the Field art gallery across the road is a great venue for a reception.

The quiet country inns, some with dramatic ocean views from sea cliffs, are strung along the rural northern coast westward to Aquinnah or Gay Head. Favorites for lodging, dinners and ceremonies include the Beach Plum Inn, on a hill overlooking the sea in Menemsha; the Inn at Blueberry Hill, which is set among rocky fields of flowers in Chilmark; and Lambert’s Cove Inn, nestled into the woodlands of West Tisbury. “For people who want privacy, these are great places,” says Buckmaster-Irwin.

In Edgartown, the grand old Harbor View Hotel, with its wide porch and cupola and its view of the Edgartown lighthouse and harbor, books wedding parties practically every weekend in season, and the newly built Mansion House in Vineyard Haven is a popular destination for small wedding parties of 100 guests and under. “It’s an ideal place for people who want their guests to have an in-town location where they can do things on their own,” says Mansion House owner Susan Goldstein. The hotel has its own spa, which can be booked by the wedding party for massages, as well as a steam room, saunas and an indoor pool. There’s also a rooftop patio with a panoramic view of Vineyard Haven Harbor.

Many wedding groups like to rent large private homes for events and lodging. Dee Geiger, chef-owner of Tea Lane Caterers, a full-service catering company based in Chilmark, says she often helps wedding parties find suitable rental properties. “I work regularly with Sandpiper Rentals,” she says, “and one of my favorite properties of theirs is the Mayhew Estate on Clam Point Cove.” It has six bedrooms, an ocean vista and beach access. There are many such properties available through rental agencies, from in-town homes with private gardens to rustic estates.

Still have your mind set on lighthouses? Betsey Mayhew (no relation to the Mayhew Estate), finance director and volunteer coordinator of the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, says that 25-30 weddings are conducted each year at the three lighthouses the society administers—Gay Head at the Aquinnah cliffs, Edgartown on the town’s harbor, and East Chop in a residential section of Oak Bluffs. The lighthouses, which can be reserved by calling the society, are only available for outside vows and intimate indoor ceremonies.

A Word on Vendors
Does your venue affect the vendors you can choose? Not really. There are only four or five each of caterers, florists and bakers on the island, and only a few more photographers who regularly book weddings. All are located within 30 minutes of most Vineyard wedding and reception spots.

“I’m comfortable doing three weddings a weekend, regardless of where they are,” says Sue Weyl, floral manager at Donorama in Edgartown, one of the four retail flower outlets on the Vineyard. “We have done as many as 10, although a couple of those picked up their flowers from our shop.” Tea Lane Caterers does about 25 Vineyard weddings from May through October all over the island.

Photographers love the light on Martha’s Vineyard; it has a special quality they use to create lasting memories. “Some people make photography their priority,” says photographer Amy Vanneman of the Light House in Vineyard Haven. “The food and wine are gone, and all they have are each other and the photos.”

For this reason, she, Friedler and the other on-island photographers are normally booked several months to a year in advance. Most planners place reserving a photographer at No. 2 on their checklist, just after choosing a venue.

Keep Your Guests Happy
After deciding when the wedding will take place, sending out save-the-date packages is a priority. These packages help guests plan how they are going to get to the Vineyard, where and how long they will stay, and what they might do if they have some free time.

Many couples include maps, ferry schedules, brochures on activities such as island tours, long bike rides and ocean fishing, even a history of the island. Once your guests arrive on the island, your thoughtful care package will help them entertain themselves in the days leading up to the wedding. You could also arrange to leave maps in guests’ rooms.

Edgartown and Vineyard Haven have the most options, with many shops, restaurants and a bookstore each. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs have movie theaters, and all three towns have docks with charter fishing and cruises. Vineyard Haven has a stage company, and Oak Bluffs has a small nightclub scene. While Vineyard Haven is limited for beaches, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs both have plenty.

If you just want a place where you and your party can relax for a few days, the country inns of West Tisbury and Menemsha have rural lanes for biking and walking, as well as peace and quiet for guests who want to sleep late or spend long afternoons with a good book.