We were foolish and nonchalant enough to leave the booking of a berth for our car to the very last minute, in fact the night before. As a result we found ourselves getting up at an unearthly hour and hurtling at breakneck speed towards Woods Hole Harbour at dawn. Decaffeinated and bleary eyed in the dim morning light, we finally breathed a sigh of relief as we made it aboard the Steamship Authority’s only available, early morning ferry to the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
Once we’d made sure that the car was safely parked in the claustrophobic trappings of the underbelly of the vast ferry, we spiraled ourselves slowly upstairs, out on to the breezy deck to watch the warm sun rise over the eastern seaboard of continental America. After an hour, just as we were growing slightly tired of the beauty of the empty sea, bright and shining like a sheet of diamonds the ship’s blaring loudspeaker announced proximity to Vineyard Haven. Armed with a trunk-full of food supplies, enough to feed a small Roman army, we disembarked the ship, via Main Street of Vineyard Haven to embark on an epic adventure of our own- discovering Martha’s Vineyard on a shoestring budget.
Despite being quite a large island, Martha’s Vineyard has a sparse year round population that swells greatly during the summer. It has a reputation for being the summer colony of the affluent. As a result, staying on the island, which is essential for appreciating all that the island has to offer, can become prohibitively expensive. However, with proper research it is possible to plan the perfect, budget-friendly 2-3 day trip to the Vineyard. Here in alphabetical order, are 26 of my budget-friendly tips to have a good time on Martha’s Vineyard with some cash to spare.
A for Aquinnah Cliffs
This is the quintessential photo taking opportunity on the island. The sight of the yellow-brown clay cliffs from the viewing area is simply stunning. The beach below the cliffs is a short walk down. The very distinct Gay Head Lighthouse, on top of the cliffs has recently been moved further inland in an effort to protect it from the erosion that has been eating away at the beautiful cliffs. As everywhere else on the island free parking spots are limited.
B for The Bunch of Grapes Bookshop
This is a darling bookshop tucked into the middle of Main Street in Vineyard Haven. There are a couple of wooden benches outside the shop with pretty window boxes of flowers lending it a charming air. The inside of the store has quite a large and eclectic collection of books with nice book displays particularly in the children’s section. Notable are the bookshelves with books focused on the history and geography of Martha’s Vineyard. Curl up on one of the sofas and learn more about the island here.
C for the Chappy Ferry
The Chappy Ferry is the tiniest little ferry, capable of carrying a handful of passengers and 2-3 cars and plies faithfully between the 500 feet of water separating Edgartown from the tiny offshore island of Chappaquiddick. Once you have made the 5-minute crossing you have an entire small island to explore (preferably by car). We visited the Mytoi Gardens and spent a happy afternoon looking for sea-glass on isolated East Beach (Cape Pogue Wildlife Refuge and Wasque Reservation). The cost of a round-trip for car and driver is $12.
D for The Black Dog Bakery
The Black Dog brand has several flagships in and around the island towns. Apart from the merchandise shops selling clothing and accessories there is also a Black Dog Water Street Bakery in Vineyard Haven selling breakfast items, lunch sandwiches and coffee from early in the morning till the evening. They make a budget-friendly tasty breakfast sandwich called the ’Woofer’, containing two fried eggs, bacon and cheese on homemade bread for $4.25.
E for Edgartown Lighthouse
This a tiny black and white striped lighthouse, situated a little offshore of Edgartown. You have to walk along a short boardwalk and then across a spit of sand to the actual lighthouse. For a fee of $5 you can climb to the top of the light and also the lantern room, for some breathtaking views. Children under 12 can climb to the top of the light for free.
F for Flying Horses Carousel
The seasonal carousel rides at Flying Horses Carousel in Oaks Bluff, incidentally the nation’s oldest platform carousel, are a delight for both children and adults. Part of the fun is picking up a rare brass ring from a ring dispenser as you whirl round and round. Person who pulls a brass ring gets an extra ride! For $2.50 a ride this will ensure smiles (and maybe cries for more when the ride finishes!).
G for the Gingerbread Cottages
The gingerbread cottages are found at the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA), dubbed the ‘campgrounds’. This is a must see for visitors looking to find a unique slice of history and quirkiness combined into one. The oak grove that houses the gingerbread cottages was initially a Methodist summer campground. The cottages over time have metamorphosed from temporary tents into permanent, quaint gingerbread cottages, each individually decorated in bright colours and themes. They are a delight to view and photograph. To learn more about the evolution of the cottages and to also get a feel for what the interior of the cottages would typically look like, pay a visit to the Cottage Museum and shop for an entry fee of $2.
H is for Hostelling International Martha’s Vineyard
This is the place to stay for anyone seeking the budget-friendly deal on Martha’s Vineyard during the months of May to October. If you are traveling solo then a bunk bed in the shared hostel dorm is a wonderful option (a night’s stay in the hostel dorm runs from $35). If you are a family then you might reserve a private room. We stayed in the four Person Private Room with ensuite toilet and washbasin (from $135 per night). There is an option of a two person private room from $79 per night. The Hostel is located on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Main Road, a mile away from West Tisbury. More importantly it is located on a major bus route with frequent bus service. The hostel has an exceptionally large, well-equipped kitchen with free tea and coffee. Hostel breakfast is ample and sustaining (Danielle’s huge homemade pancakes are a highlight). The staff is very amiable and knowledgeable about local events and things to do around the island. There is a large common room with numerous books and board games. Wi-Fi access in the hostel is free.
I would highly recommend a stay at this cozy and comfortable hostel. It is a wonderful opportunity to stay in a friendly hostel, make friends with well-informed, seasoned travelers and get to know about budget-friendly deals on the island. Please check for private room bookings and dorm room vacancies well in advance, especially in the summer season, as this is a very popular place to stay.
I for Island Alpaca
Island Alpaca is an alpaca farm, providing the opportunity to visit alpacas and observe their farm ‘lifestyle’. This is a fun activity for the entire family. The visiting fee is $5 per person during the summer; during other times of year there is a suggested donation.
J for the Mytoi Japanese Gardens
This is a delightful Japanese style garden, harbouring native and non-native plant species in a tranquil environment. Entry into these beautifully styled Japanese gardens is absolutely FREE although to access the gardens you do have to travel to Chappaquiddick Island by the Chappy Ferry. You can easily spend a couple of hours here drinking in the calm atmosphere and admiring the horticultural specimens. Don’t forget to look out for the snapping turtles in the pond.
K for Katama Airfield
Most people will probably fall into two stereotypes i.e. (A) adventurous and (B) unadventurous. If you fall in the former category, then by all means, indulge in the adrenaline-rushing thrill of riding a biplane from Katama Airfield. If by chance you fall in the latter category, then don’t worry. We have you covered too. Watching the airplanes take off and land is a suitably pleasurable activity whilst you partake of the gastronomic delights of the Right Fork Diner next to the airfield and is more budget-friendly.
L for Larsen’s Fish Market
The lobster bisque from Larsen’s in Menemsha fishing village is a great crowd favourite. Stop here for a cup of the bisque (about $5) or the clam chowder ($4.50) before you head to Menemsha Beach. It will be an evening well spent and you will want to make the activity a daily ritual. Prices vary according to availability of fish but are very reasonably priced for the quality and freshness of the ingredients. Buy a cup of soup, bring your own bread and accompaniments and enjoy a budget-friendly meal on the beach.
M for Mad Martha’s Ice Cream
What is a summer holiday without ice cream? Head to one of the Mad Martha’s Ice Cream shops to indulge in their generously portioned, smooth and creamy ices. Portion sizes are huge, so by all means get the largest size and split the treat for a moderately sized and priced dessert.
N for the Net Result
This is an excellent take-out fish market on Water Street in Vineyard Haven to pick up a variety of seafood dishes and has some of the most reasonable prices on the island. This is the place that most locals will recommend to you. I sampled the clam chowder, lobster rolls, fish and chips, but most of all was impressed with the lobster bisque. It’s thick, creamy and highly flavorful and a cup will set you back by about$5. If it’s a pleasant day there are a few wooden benches outside to enjoy your food and watch the world go by in Vineyard Haven.
O for Offshore Ale Company
This is a charming little pub in Oak Bluffs. The floor is strewn decoratively with cracked open peanut shells lending a unique appeal. The Offshore Blueberry ale is light (around $5 for a pint) and very refreshing for a cheeky midday tipple. The restaurant and pub are quite child-friendly and the staff very amiable.
P for Ocean Park
Ocean Park is a charming park located next to the sea in the town of Oak Bluffs with a gazebo in the centre of the park. It is the perfect place to enjoy the afternoon with friends and family, sitting on the grass, enjoying a picnic or a nice book to read. You might also try your hand at flying a kite. The ocean breeze will surely help your endeavour.
Q for Island Queen Ferry
This is an alternative passenger-only ferry (bicycles are allowed) for access to the island and plies between Falmouth in Cape Cod and Oak Bluffs. A round trip adult ticket runs to $20 (since we had brought our own car for easy access around the island this was not an option for us). As a comparison, the Steamship Authority Ferrys that ply from Wood’s Hole Harbour do have the option of transporting vehicles. A one way adult passenger ticket on this ferry costs $8.
R for Restaurants
It can be a little difficult finding really budget-friendly eating options on the island. This is by no means your budget destination. We brought along ingredients to cook meals in the generously sized kitchen at Martha’s Vineyard’s Hostel International. The kitchen has several refrigerators to store your perishable food items. The hostel provided delicious pancakes, bread and coffee for breakfast. We ended up eating soup at Larsen’s, buying lunch at the Net Result in Vineyard Haven; breakfast sandwiches form the Black Dog Bakery ($4.25 for the breakfast ‘Woofer’ sandwich), delectable chocolate-coconut confections at Back Door Donuts ($1.25 for chocolate donuts), Oak Bluffs and picnic sandwiches($8 average for quite large sandwiches) from Alley’s General Store(in picture), West Tisbury. Sharky’s Mexican Cantina in Oak Bluffs (many items under $10), Grace Church’s Friday lobster rolls (huge portion sizes- lobster rolls+chips+drink=$17) and the Right Fork Diner’s ambience (breakfast and lunch options starting at $10) next to the airstrip came highly recommended to us.
S for South Beach
Since Martha’s Vineyard is undoubtedly a summer destination, people flock here for sun and relaxation, preferably on one of the island’s many beaches. South Beach in Edgartown is serene and not too crowded with stretches of pristine sand and water.
T for the Tabernacle
The Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs is the centre of Martha’s Vineyard’s Campground. It is the place of weekly worship and also the venue for a number of cultural activities during the summer. It is the starting place of Campground Walking Tours (Fee is $10 but entry into the Cottage Museum is free) that are held every Tuesday and Thursday in July and August. Every Wednesday at 8 pm there is a ‘Community Sings’ event, which is open and free to the public with singing of hymns, folk songs and patriotic songs. ‘Family Movie Series’ (suggested donations) and ‘Yoga Under the Tent’ are additional cultural events to be enjoyed. Grand Illumination Night usually occurs on the third Wednesday in August. Lanterns illuminate the gingerbread cottages creating a wonderful ambience and there is a community sing-along as well as a band concert in the Tabernacle.
U for Union Chapel Oak Bluffs
This is a beautiful octagonal shaped church with a lofty cupola located in Oak Bluffs. You really can’t miss the building when you are walking around Oak Bluffs. The windows of this chapel have lovely stained glass windows. Aside from being the venue for weekly worship, it hosts local community and art events.
V for Vineyard Haven Main Street
This a busy street packed with tiny shops of interest. You could easily spend a few hours browsing this shopping street. Pop into the Bunch of Grapes Bookshop for a chance to browse books of local interest or just pick up something to read on the beach. There are a number of boutique style shops selling jewellery and artisanal items and a wonderful vintage cinema hall called the Capawock Theatre worthy of visiting.
W for West Tisbury
West Tisbury is a charming residential town situated about a mile down the road from Hostel International in Martha’s Vineyard. There are several things to do here. A lovely farmer’s market is held every Saturday morning (and some Wednesdays) outside the Grange Hall during the summer months. Hop along to sample the fresh local produce, food, flowers and baked treats among other items. The West Tisbury Public Library is a nice place to browse books, for children to play in the children’s library or to enjoy a coffee on the lovely back porch.
Hop over to the Field Gallery next door to view artwork by local artists and unusual sculptures in the garden. West Tisbury is also home to Alley’s General Store. The store is a treasure trove of little vintage inspired curiosities, toys, candy, books and groceries. There is a small farm stand and café attached to the store- the perfect place to pick up a soup or lunch sandwich to eat on a picnic.
X for The Toy Box
If you are in need of a nice children’s gift then look no further than the Toy Box in Vineyard Haven. Located in the Tisbury Marketplace this is a nice shop to browse for current and nostalgic toys and books of yesteryear. There is a lot to see in this tiny shop crammed with a lot of inventory so make sure you have some time to spare.
Y for Yellow sunset on Menemsha Beach
After you have situated yourself with the lobster bisque from ‘Larsons’ and the fried goods from ‘The Bite’, take out your folding deckchair on Menemsha Beach and prepare yourself to watch the most spectacular yellow sunset, tinged with pink. The only thing in between you and the sunset will be an expanse of shining sea. Beware! You may find yourself wanting to do this every night.
Z for zzzzzz or forty winks on the ferry ride home
(okay this may be cheating but ‘Z’ is a really hard letter!).
Disclaimer: Our stay was kindly sponsored by Hostelling International Martha’s Vineyard but as usual all the opinions expressed in this article are my own.