Rumor has it that our president will be taking a family vacation to Martha's Vineyard toward the end of August. First, I'd like to congratulate him on his choice of location. Well done. Second, I want to thank him for giving me an excuse to finally write about the place I called home for two years--certainly not long enough to be called a local, forever just a wash-ashore, but long enough to let it significantly alter my cultural imagination. And I've been away from it long enough to recognize a gap in my mental images where its landscapes used to be. I envy those year-round residents. They've got a good thing going and they know it, and they hold it close like a secret, very reluctant to share it with "mainlanders." But for two years they permitted me to "play" islander, and I think I made some progress in cracking their code. I witnessed and tried to embody their pace, their patience, their high standard for quality, and what I found had very little to do with Chappy Reds, Lilly Pulitzer patterns, or t-shirts with black dogs on them. No Vineyard Vines ties, really nothing that would suggest any exclusive connections to fame or money. Rather, I found that the code, the secret had more to do with the island mentality that keeps you from honking rudely or yelling at another driver because it's highly probable that the driver will later hold the door for you at the grocery or help you carry a large package to your car at the post office.
We went back to the island for a few days this past May, and I've been wanting to write about it ever since. Granted, most of my suggestions can only be experienced by folks able to blend in with their surroundings, probably not possible for the President of the United States. But the Obamas have been to the island before, and if they can escape the vacationers, if they can find the places where only the locals gather, they might actually be allowed some sense of normalcy. Much of my own warmth for the island comes from the relationships I made with the people who live there, but that's not something I can recreate for the First Family, so here I'll stick to the locations, the places, the establishments, the scenes where wonderful things, quality commerce, significant dialogues, or general epiphanies are likely to occur. At least they did for me.
First on the agenda, ditch the airplane and take the ferry. To my mind, the only way to go to and from the island is on the ferry. It never got old for me. I'd actually look forward to going to my off-island dentist because it would give me a chance to ride the ferry. Forty-five minutes of floating, thinking, reading. The best way to commute. I'm sure it gets old for the folks who have to do it everyday, but for me it's the epitome of island life. Experience your distance from the mainland in real time. Come and go by ferry.
And when you arrive, don't rush off to your motorcade, find a waterfront bench and sit for a bit. Have someone bring you a coffee from Black Dog or Beetlebung, and soak in your surroundings. It's a different perspective when you can separate yourself from the scene. Watch the travelers, note the activity on the docked boats, hear the maritime sounds, smell and feel the briny breeze. Then after 15 or 20 minutes, proceed to your temporary home, and enjoy it. But don't spend much time there. That's not the island experience. Very little "island experience" can penetrate the walls of a carefully decorated, well-secured vacation spot. Get out and experience at least some of the following:
Ocean Park (or "Goose Poop Park," if you ask my niece Dorothy)-- located in Oak Bluffs, this is the perfect place to sit some more. Fly a kite, take a picnic, lay down and read. This is an essential spot. This is where Olivia first perfected her walking skills, it's where we spent a lovely August evening with friends watching fireworks and listening to the Vineyard Haven Band, and it's where we've spent countless hours just enjoying the surroundings. It's also within walking distance to the Gingerbread Houses and our favorite date night destination, Slice of Life (I strongly recommend the Slice Salad).
Also, if you're in Oak Bluffs late at night, go to Back Door Donuts. Go around to the back door of the Gourmet Cafe and Bakery between 9-12PM and score a hot, delicious donut. By far the best I've ever had.
Also in Oak Bluffs, you'll find the Book Den (East), a rare and used book store located in a garage behind a house on New York Avenue. It keeps strange hours, and as President you might be tempted to make special arrangements to assure you get in, but resist. Just go. And if it's closed, accept the circumstances as another indication that you are experiencing one of the many idiosyncracies of real island life. If I could, I'd place you at the Book Den in the dead of winter, where the hours are even stranger, and the majority of the rooms are without heat. You'd keep your mittens, hats, and scarves on while you perused, and you'd see your breath while flipping through the pages of a potential find.
I'll mention a couple of other places to peruse the pages, both in Vineyard Haven.
Bunch of Grapes-- Last summer, a large fire from a neighboring business forced this independent bookstore to spend the last year operating out of a tiny room off the beaten path. But now it's back in its original location on Main Street. Regular island patrons include the likes of Geraldine Brooks, David McCullough, Judy Bloom, or, as was the case during my May visit to the temporary location, Carly Simon. And I understand the Clintons stop in when they can. You need to leave your presidential presence here as well. Everything about this place is appealing, from its architectural details to the carefully selected inventory which, I think, speaks to the well-read island customers who support it so faithfully. And please note the stained glass wagon wheel window, with its red, blue, and yellow pie pieces, still prominently located on the landing of the double set of stairs leading up to my daughter's favorite stacks, the children's section. She can still recall this particular window in great detail.
Riley's Reads- Apply all the charm your mind can muster when I say "tucked away in a corner off main," and you might come close to imagining a portion of the good spewing out of this children's bookstore. Malia and Sasha could certainly find a book or two for their personal libraries in this place. The owner, Zoe Pechter, has done a phenomenal job creating a warm space brimming with excellent displays and the best selection of children's books I have ever come across. I felt I'd found a kindred spirit when I noted all the Charlie and Lola books she had in stock, and then later she introduced me to Mo Willems and his amazing characters; Knufflebunny, the Pigeon, and Piggy and Elephant. Remember Meg Ryan's character's bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner in You've Got Mail? This is it, but in real life.
Even with a number of bookstores to support with a few purchases, make sure you spend some time at the West Tisbury Public Library. Though the Vineyard is fairly small, it supports six public libraries, one in each town. Especially during the cold, dreary winter months we often frequented three different libraries a week, but none as regularly as West Tisbury's. And once I was able to convince them I really was a permanent resident, not just a tourist, they permitted me to have a library card. I will keep it longer than my Black Dog t-shirt. Their periodical section is nice, their biography section is fantastic, but make sure to spend some time in their two-story kids' section. I'm remembering all the treasures Olivia first discovered there. That's also where she first grasped the concept of puzzles. And if you don't know what you're looking for, ask for Nelia. She's phenomenal and so good at remembering kids' names.
Before you leave, let Sasha and Malia have some time in the field and playhouse back behind the library. There's lots of room for the imagination to run wild. Back there, in our imaginary world, we opened a flower shop, ran a successful bank, built any number of restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops, and prepared Thanksgiving dinners. It's also a nice, private place to have a picnic. I didn't even realize this area was back there until our second year of living on the island. If the front porch swing at Alley's General Store is occupied, this is the place to have a snack break.
But don't let that keep you from going to Alley's. It's the island's oldest operating retail business, and it's located just across the street from the library. If you do get a spot in the coveted swing on the front porch, linger there for awhile. Sip their coffee, and try to catch pieces of conversation coming from the locals standing around their cars just out front. They'll pop in and out just to get their mail (there's a post office inside) or grab a coffee, maybe a couple of groceries. And more than likely, they'll run into another local, and that's where you'll hear what's really happening on the island.
You should also bring the family for a Saturday morning stroll through the Farmers' Market at West Tisbury's Grange Hall, just down the street from Alley's. The set up is great, each stand representing a family or business with a fascinating story to tell. And the produce is divine, but what I remember most are the flowers. Buy a bouquet or two, and watch as they remove your flowers from the recycled tomato cans and secure them in newspaper for you to carry home. Also look for Daniel Water's stand. He has some beautiful linoleum-block prints, many inspired by scenes from the island.
Morning Glory Farm will have a stand at the Farmers' Market, but you really need to plan a family trip to their store, located in Edgartown, to know what they're about. They have great produce, but I'm most fond of their baked goods, especially their muffins and quiche. Upon our last visit we discovered that the family who started the farm put together a book: Morning Glory Farm and the family that feeds an island. The book also includes a number of yummy, seasonal recipes. And the photos, by an island photographer, Alison Shaw, are fantastic. Yes, you can buy it on Amazon, but I'd suggest purchasing it at the farm.
Another "sweet" stop off the beaten path is Chilmark Chocolates on State Road. This tiny chocolate shop, located in a converted barn, employs a number of people with disabilities and trains them to create quality chocolate that will leave you wishing you'd bought a few more boxes before your island departure. I have to confess that, on more than one occasion, I bought boxes to give as gifts which never made it to the intended recipients.
Also on State Road, back in West Tisbury, look for a little sign reading "Eileen Blake's Pies and Otherwise." This little roadside gazebo is where I found my favorite pies of all time. In fact, I wasn't a pie eater until I tried Eileen's. I was sorry to find out that Eileen passed away last summer, but I'm hoping her husband and her well-trained staff is still there, making those delicious pies in her home located just off the road behind the gazebo.
While in West Tisbury, take a little hike to Lambert's Cove Beach. To me it beats South Beach, hands down. But honestly that speaks more to my memories there than the actual quality or popularity of either beach. Lambert's Cove Beach is a private beach for residents only. We never needed the coveted car sticker to indicate legal access because we could walk there from our home. For me, this was the location for many a Melville moment, "Meditation and water are wedded forever." And I think I can safely guarantee that your girls are much more likely to find some pretty pieces of sea glass here than on South Beach, particularly if you plan your short hike to the beach early in the morning.
I'm getting long winded, and you're a busy man, so I'll just highlight a few more island treasures.
Art Cliff Diner (Vineyard Haven)-- In my opinion, it's the best place for breakfast on the island. It's small, so you'll probably have to wave your presidential wand to make sure there's room for your family and your necessary entourage. Of course, the wait might allow you some time with the other customers, some handshaking, some photo-ops, easily wrapped up when your tables are ready.
Net Result (Vineyard Haven)-- This is my favorite place to take visitors for fresh seafood. I believe it's supposed to be more like a seafood market, but we would always buy lunch and eat outside. My favorite meal there (as seen below): a fish dog, a cup of clam chowder, and a Nantucket Nectar (Half and Half).
Scottish Bakehouse (on State Rd between Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury)-- Get at least three sesame cookies for every family member. They also have great sandwiches.
Rainy Day (Vineyard Haven)-- So pleasing to the eye. The perfect spot to pick up some gifts. This is where I did most of my gift shopping for the ladies in my life, also where I would frequently splurge on myself.
Mocha Mott's (Vineyard Haven, though I think the Oak Bluffs location was the first)-- Go early in the morning and listen to the scruffy fishermen's conversations. This (along with the post offices) is one of those places where real island politics are being discussed everyday. This is also where I've occasionally spotted Willy Mason, a singer/songwriter who quickly became our favorite, local, island musician. In my opinion, his songs and lyrics flow right along with that "cultural imagination" that could only be cultivated through a lifetime of island dwelling.
One last suggestion. I'd encourage a somber stroll through a few island graveyards, my favorite being the one located just up from and behind downtown Vineyard Haven. I never visited with any kind of notable frequency, but I will always remember one visit just a few weeks before we moved away. My husband and daughter were playing at the nearby school playground, and I'd wandered away to have a few moments alone. We were expecting our second daughter, and I was searching the tombstones for a nice name. I found "Adel" early on, and continued the walk, wondering if future daughter could ever really appreciate that she was named after an unknown deceased, that her name for life was discovered etched on a tombstone marking another's death. I decided the idea was just a little too morbid (we eventually settled on "Martha"). But I was also moved by the sheer volume of islanders around me, family lines that went far back in the island's history. Long before this was a famous vacation spot for the famous, the rich, and the powerful, it was their home. Where they toiled and labored, loved and lost, where they also sat, listened, smelled, felt, watched. So sit with the powerful, visit the obvious, but don't miss this other layer of the island: the real, the worn, the weathered, because it's this deeper, thicker layer that holds the island's essence, and once it's gotten inside of you, you'll want it to stay with you long after your return to the mainland.