Lying south of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard is one of the oldest places settled by colonialists in the United States and a year-round refuge for the rich and famous.
What attracts them to this tiny piece of prime real estate? No doubt it’s the combination of attractions and things to do in Martha’s Vineyard: long sweeping beaches of rolling dunes guarded by ornate lighthouses, line upon line of cute gingerbread colonial houses, buzzing fishing communities, swanky marinas, lush farmlands, and restaurants serving the best Atlantic seafood.
Here, then, are some of the best Martha’s Vineyard attractions to seek out on a visit.
Stroll Around the Gingerbread Houses
Stepping out on a summer’s evening among this ornate community of brightly colored cottages is like walking through the pages of a fairy-tale storybook. Now super-exclusive summer rentals, the Gingerbread House community in the port town of Oak Bluffs comes from modest beginnings.
In the 1800s, this part of the island was a favorite place for Methodist meetings. People would come and gather for prayer and, with many of them staying overnight in tents, the area was originally known as the Campground.
Over the years, as the meetings became more regular, people began to erect these cottages, built in a style known as Carpenter’s Gothic, and decorate them in vivid colors with designs becoming more elaborate as time passed.
At its height, the Campground had more than 500 cottages and 300 of them remain today, alongside an associated museum and a tabernacle still used for prayer. You can stroll around at your leisure and photography of the houses is allowed from the sidewalk.
Climb the Steps of Edgartown Lighthouse
Given its status as a whaling community around the turn of the 18th century, the shores of Martha’s Vineyard were dotted with lighthouses, five of which remain today, with the most famous (and most photographed) of all being this one at the entrance to Edgartown Harbor.
The first lighthouse here was erected in 1828, originally on a small, man-made island joined to the mainland, first by a wooden bridge, then by a stone causeway that has now accumulated enough sand to be considered a beach.
That original structure was replaced by the current one in 1939 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
Over the years, the Edgartown Light has come close to demolition as its stewardship was passed between various organizations. In public hands since 2014 when the town acquired it for a dollar, it now has a spiral staircase inside and is open to the public on weekends during the summer.
Enjoy Nature at Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge
Set on neighboring and easily accessible Chappaquiddick Island, Cape Poge was formed millennia ago by offshore currents that created a barrier beach stretching for almost seven miles around the east of the island, from Wasque Point to what is known as “The Gut”, a narrow access point into Cape Poge Bay.
The circular nature of the beach makes for a unique ecosystem: on the one hand, strong currents promote oxygen-rich waters ideal for striped bass, bluefish, and albacore tuna. On the other, tidal waters create extensive salt marshes.
With 516 acres to explore, it’s easy to make a full day out of a trip here. Visit the 1893 Cape Poge Lighthouse, marvel at century-old eastern red cedars, try and spot plovers, terns and oystercatchers, or stroll around some of the best beaches in New England. Licensed guides can offer deeper insight into the reserve and its many inhabitants.
Ride the Flying Horses Carousel
Coney Island’s loss was Martha’s Vineyard’s gain when this ornate carousel, originally built in 1876, was moved here from the New York City resort by F.O. Gordon in 1884.
Set at the bottom of Circuit Avenue, Oak Bluffs’ business and entertainment district, it is now billed as the oldest operating platform carousel in America and is enjoyed by kids and adults alike, who try to grab a brass ring as they pass, with those successful offered a free ride.
To add to the authentic feel, music is provided by a 1923 Wurlitzer organ, while the carousel is now so loved it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. It’s, without doubt, one of the most popular—and unusual—things to do in Martha’s Vineyard.
Visit the Martha’s Vineyard Museum
For such a small island, Martha’s Vineyard certainly has a rich history and a visit to this museum is a great place to take a deeper dive into this tiny part of New England.
The island was originally settled by the Wampanoag, who still maintain a substantial population in the town of Aquinnah. It came to prominence as a prime whaling community in Victorian times when many of today’s opulent residences were originally built.
Its status as a seafaring hotspot is combined with a slight frontier feel and with that come a number of other quirks. The island has its own sign language thanks to hereditary deafness.
The island’s pretty name is somewhat a misnomer given it has no vineyards and no one is absolutely sure who Martha was (the best guess is she was a relative of Bartholomew Gosnold who led the first European expedition to Cape Cod in 1602).
The museum is housed in a refurbished 1985 marine medical facility in Vineyard Haven after it outgrew its former Edgartown campus in 2019. It’s home to nine permanent indoor exhibitions and six outdoor ones, as well as a regular changing series of special exhibits.
The collection includes fascinating photographs of the island over the years, artifacts from local shipwrecks, an 1854 Fresnel Lens, and a number of whaling and fishing vessels.
There is also a library, a floating exhibition called Catboat Vanity—a boat that can be hired by higher-level museum members—and The Thomas Cooke House. This home of one of the island’s first attorneys was built between 1720 and 1740 and has extensive, pleasant gardens.
Marvel at the Aquinnah Cliffs
These epic clay cliffs carved millennia ago by retreating glaciers are one of Martha’s Vineyard’s most visited spots, with hundreds of visitors making the trip daily in high season.
Don’t let that put you off though, because they are a truly magnificent sight with the striated rocks turning from rust to white and back again myriad times as they reach down to the beach. A visit here is one of the most enjoyable things to do in Martha’s Vineyard.
You can walk along paths at sea level, craning your neck to the tops, or walk along the top paths and gaze out to the ocean. If you choose the latter option, be sure to look out for off-limits areas as the cliffs form part of the Native American Wampanoag reservation.
Here, you’ll also find the Aquinnah Cliffs Overlook—a scenic viewpoint offering one of the best hikes in New England—popular for its great sunset views and vistas of the Gay Head Light.
Meditate in the Mytoi Japanese Gardens
Set in the heart of Chappaquiddick, these small gardens encircling a serene pond are an ideal getaway for time to think and reflect and one of the best things to do in Martha’s Vineyard.
Designed in the Japanese style with exotic and native plants, the preserve includes a small pond and island that act as a habitat for frogs, turtles, and goldfish, while there is also an associated salt marsh at Poucha Pond.
Winding paths pass through a variety of landscapes: a birch walk, a stone garden, a dell with bright camellia, and a stone garden.
A rustic shelter offers an ideal space for contemplation, while the Salt Marsh Trail is an easy half-mile walk that culminates at the salt flats, where osprey may be spotted.
Walk an Alpaca
One of Martha’s Vineyard’s most unexpected attractions is surely The Island Alpaca Company. This smallholding, in operation since 2004, is set on 19 acres of land that plays host to a herd of 50 colorful alpacas, a close relative of the llama, originating from South America.
The animals are farmed for their wool and form part of the Island Alpaca Company’s extensive breeding program, and the farm can be visited daily throughout the year. Guests can take part in all manner of activities including talks on breeding, shearing days and learning how to spin yarn.
Those looking for even more interaction and an up-close-and-personal experience can join a daily walk and learn more about these fascinating beasts and where they come from as they lead their own alpaca around the farm.
Alternatively, there’s the chance to join one of the twice-weekly Alpaca Yoga sessions, suitable for everyone from novices to advanced practitioners. Apparently, the alpaca’s gentle humming noises can be quite calming.
Dine at Morning Glory Farm
When James and Deborah Athearn started farming 65 acres of fruit and vegetables in 1975, little could they have known that nearly 50 years later, they would have one of Martha’s Vineyard’s biggest farms of more than 120 acres, employing some 100 employees in high season.
Their farming success is to the gain of the rest of us thanks to their fabulous farmstand that sells produce from the farm and elsewhere, as well as providing one of the Vineyard’s best rustic eateries.
Choose from all manner of pies, quiches, muffins and sandwiches for a quick snack, or sit down and dine on the best mac ‘n’ cheese, meatloaf, pulled pork and a selection of soups in the main dining room.
Take a Walk Around Edgartown
All of Martha’s Vineyard’s six main settlements have their own charm, but history buffs will love Edgartown, which has a number of historic locations managed by the Vineyard Preservation Trust.
The town centers around the Village Green, a common feature of towns and villages in England and Wales. This common open space has been preserved for public use for more than 350 years and today provides a pleasant space for walks and community activities, while the surrounding streets are lined with historic properties.
Built in 1703, the John Coffin House is a handsome example of a turn-of-the-18th-century property, while Vincent House & Gardens dates from 1672.
Built using techniques from medieval England, it remains the oldest surviving house on the island, though it was moved from its original location to the land of another historic property, the 1840s Dr. Daniel Fisher House & Gardens, to form a museum.
One of the most unusual properties in Edgartown is the Old Whaling Church. Built in 1843 in the Greek Revival style fashionable in Europe since the late 1700s, it has a fine colonnaded frontage with large Doric columns and is topped by a Gothic Revival clock tower.
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