A neighbourhood guide to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket
Go beyond the beaches of these charming New England islands and you’ll discover diverse, year-round communities, untouched natural beauty and fascinating history.
There’s a real sense of arrival when you step foot on an island and the destinations of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are no exception. Located in the state of Massachusetts just seven and 28 miles south of Cape Cod, respectively — each of these islands offers a very different and unique experience.
There are, of course, certain things these two destinations have in common: beautiful beaches, idyllic fields, bustling seaside villages and deep connections to nature. Both are also home to year-round communities that swell with summer visitors. However, upon closer inspection, it’s clear it’s not only 13 miles of ocean that separates these islands. Martha’s Vineyard is the larger and more lively of the two, with six towns — each with a different personality. In contrast, Nantucket is centred around just one town, with a more laid-back atmosphere and plenty of picturesque public beaches.
Though many visitors choose just one of these islands to explore, the most rewarding experiences come to those who take their time to discover the nature and neighbourhoods of both.
For a beach escape
Approached from the sea, ‘the Grey Lady’ — as this island is affectionately known — barely seems to rise above the waves of the Nantucket Sound. The low-lying dunes only serve to emphasise that you’re fully apart from the mainland here, and absolutely at the mercy of the elements. There’s nothing more quintessentially Nantucket than an early-morning fog rolling in only to make way for glorious sunshine minutes later.
Familiarise yourself with the island by hiring a 4x4 SUV for the day — there are several companies on the island that offer them — and taking a drive out to the remote Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, which sits on Nantucket’s northeastern tip. Not only does this reservation boast some of the island’s best undeveloped beaches, it’s also home to a wide variety of rare plants, birds and animals, including seals, deer, raptors and red cedar trees. Make sure to visit Great Point Lighthouse, originally built in 1784 when this island served as an important whaling station.
For a deeper understanding of the flora and fauna of the island, head to the Maria Mitchell Aquarium — named after a 19th-century scientist and Nantucket native who was also one of the first female members of the American Philosophical Society. Finally, find a true taste of Nantucket at the Milestone Cranberry Bog. Here you will learn all about the cultivation of cranberries, an agronomy that’s been part of Nantucket’s pastoral heritage for over 150 years. Today only a third of the landscape is used for cranberry farming, with the rest preserved as an open space that’s home to deer, red-tailed hawks and rare plant species.
For history and heritage
With six towns, five lighthouses, dramatic landscapes and lively community, Martha’s Vineyard offers a wide range of cultural experiences for heritage-hungry travellers. Visitors new to the area should start at the Vineyard Artisans Festival, a gathering of island-wide artists, musicians and food vendors that runs twice weekly throughout the summer in the town of West Tisbury. Stock up on beautiful hand-crafted ceramics and colourful island-inspired jewellery from local residents Amy Nevin and Stefanie Wolf.
Dive further into the diverse history of the island on the African-American Heritage Trail — a thought-provoking collection of 31 sites that recognises the contribution of people of African descent to Martha’s Vineyard. Important stops include the William and Sarah Martin Homestead in Edgartown, home to one of the only African-American whaling captains from the island.
Continue your journey at the island’s westernmost tip, Aquinnah, where you’ll find the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, the only federally recognised tribe in the state. Explore the historic town and browse works from local artists, many of whom still work with traditional wampum beads. The Aquinnah Cultural Centre offers tours of the area, or you can take in the the signature sandy beach and sweeping cliffs from the Moshup Trail boardwalk. Visit in the late afternoon, and you’re likely to be treated to one of the island’s famous sunsets. From here, it’s easy to see why humans have been drawn to these lands for millennia.
Plan your trip
Fly from London to Boston, New York or Washington, DC, all of which offer regular flights to both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard during the summer. To travel between the islands, you can book a 20-minute puddle jumper flight, or take one of Hy-Line Cruises’ ferries, which make the journey in just over an hour. Once on solid ground, rent a bike and explore each island’s abundance of bike trails under your own steam.
For more information, visit: www.mvy.com
Published in the USA Cities 2023 guide, distributed with the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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