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Martha's Vineyard vs. Nantucket: What's the Diff?

By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, July 23, 2000

They share the same area code and reputation, but the tony Massachusetts islands really have two distinct personalities. Andrea Sachs uncovered the differences.

Martha's Vineyard

LOCATION/ LAY OF THE LAND

The 9-by-23-mile-long island is seven miles from the mainland (or "America," as islanders refer to it) and has 125 miles of shoreline -- about as big as the District and Arlington County combined. It has six towns: Vineyard Haven (or Tisbury), Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, Chilmark, West Tisbury and Gay Head, now called Aquinnah. In the summer, the population soars to 100,000. The towns have stoplights, gridlock and a smattering of fast-food restaurants. Info: Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, 508-693-0085, www.mvy.com.

ACCESSIBILITY

Ferries leave from half a dozen Massachusetts/Cape Cod ports. In the summer, the Woods Hole boat departs every 15 minutes, takes 45 minutes and costs $5 one way. Planes leave regularly from Washington and other big-city hubs.

ACCOMMODATIONS

Rates for the more than 150 B&Bs, inns and hotels average around $125 a night, with some dipping to $80 and others climbing to more than $300. There's a wide range of accommodations, from single guest rooms to private home rentals. There is a campground for tents and RVs (508-693-3772; $32 per tent site for two, $90 per four-person cabin) and a youth hostel (508-693-2665; $18 a night).

Food/Drink Specialties

Oysters and blue-shell crabs are caught in the local ponds, and Menemsha clams pop up in the chowder and at many of the take-out stands in the fishing village. Chicama Vineyard produces the local wine, and Mad Martha's ice cream place is a sweet retreat.

Shopping Must-Haves

Visitors and residents are an eclectic bunch, from yachties to hippies, but most own at least something from the Black Dog Bakery Cafe, with its white-footed black Labrador gracing T-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, even potholders.

HISTORIC SITES

Trace the Vineyard's varied, colorful past in whaling museums, the nation's oldest carousel, the sherbet-hued gingerbread cottages of the Methodist revivalists, the Indian burial ground and the African American Heritage Trail.

Outdoor Activities

Scads of outdoor distractions: sailing, kayaking, croquet, golf, surf-casting, deep-sea fishing, horseback riding, even "bluffing," or strolling the beach with your sweetheart. Four major wildlife sanctuaries offer thousands of acres of protected woods and dunes and miles of hiking and biking trails. Also, visit the 150-foot-high, rainbow-colored clay cliffs in Gay Head and its lighthouse, with nighttime views of Manhattan.

Beaches

The majority of beaches are private, require a residential or parking permit or are inaccessible due to sharp brambles, steep drops or dog-guarded private lawns. The public ones are often crowded; the renowned nude beach is for residents only.

CULTURAL ACTIVITIES/ FESTIVALS

Two theater companies; four movie theaters; weekly open-air singalongs at the Tabernacle and free classical music concerts. On Illumination Night, Cottage Village is festooned with hundreds of Japanese paper lanterns (the date is kept secret to deter crowds). The Possible Dreams Auction, a community fund-raiser, puts celebrity wares on the auction block, such as a serenade by Carly Simon and a sail with Walter Cronkite.

NIGHTLIFE

Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, the only towns allowed to serve alcohol, draw the late-night masses. The rollicking bars, live-music venues and dance clubs -- often with lines out the door and bouncers controlling the crowds -- evoke Georgetown on a summer evening. The Hot Tin Roof, co-owned by Carly Simon, attracts big-name bands, from Bim Skala Bim to Los Lobos.

CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS

A haven for Hollywood's glitterati and arty types -- dead, alive or fictional. John Belushi is buried here, Jackie O summered here and "Jaws" was filmed here. Resident luminaries include Carly Simon, James Taylor, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Diane Sawyer, Spike Lee, Beverly Sills, Walter Cronkite, Billy Joel and John Updike.

NANTUCKET

LOCATION/ LAY OF THE LAND

The 3-by-15-mile-long island, 30 miles off the coast, is more isolated than the Vineyard. It is also much smaller, with 82 miles of shoreline. There's one main town, but small settlements around the eastern bluffs of 'Sconset. In the high season, population is about 55,000. There are no stoplights or fast-food restaurants, and, unlike the Vineyard's views that stretch from Cape Cod to Manhattan, there is no land in sight. Info: Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, 508-228-1700, www.nantucketchamber.org.

ACCESSIBILITY

Reaching Nantucket takes more planning and patience. Two main ferry lines leave from one port in Hyannis, Mass., about six times a day. Travel time is longer at 2 hours 15 minutes; cost is a pricier $12.50 one way. Flights leave just as often as the Vineyard's, but add 10 minutes of air time.

ACCOMMODATIONS

Rates are slightly higher, hovering around $180 a night, as are the types of accommodations. However, rooms can be harder to come by because there are fewer of them -- less than 100 lodging options. The Wauwinet, featured on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," is renowned for its luxury, including two private beaches (508-228-0145; $390-$990). No camping, but there's a youth hostel (508-228-0433; $18 a night), housed in a former lifesaving building.

Food/Drink Specialties

The islands share the same waters, so much of the seafood is similar: tuna, swordfish, steamers, clam chowder. Indigenous foodstuffs include Nantucket Bay scallops; Cisco beer, the local ale; homemade Portuguese bread at the Nantucket Bake Shop; and any flavor of Nantucket Nectars.

Shopping Must-Haves

The island's preppies carry the Nantucket Lightship Basket -- a woven handbag resembling a small picnic basket with a scrimshaw-engraved top -- from the Golden Basket, and sport Nantucket Reds -- khakis the color of diluted tomato soup -- from Murray's Toggery Shop. Or, look for any gewgaw with the "ACK" logo, the FAA's designation for the island, or with the grinning whale, which graces ties, belts and more.

HISTORIC SITES

Whaling lore is the main attraction: stately 18th-century manors of prosperous whaling captains, maritime museums, a windmill made of sail cloth and a ship's mast. Downtown boasts 800-plus historically preserved sites. In the 1970s, the entire island was declared a historic district.

Outdoor Activities

Nantucket provides the same outdoor options but has fewer outfitters from which to choose. There is one refuge: the 1,117-acre Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Park, accessible by jeep or boat; however, 42 percent of the island is perserved as open space. Five paved biking paths crisscross the island, but there are not as many off-road trails. The barren, wind-swept flats and heathlands make for easier touring than the Vineyard's lush, hilly terrain.

Beaches

Whereas Vineyard beaches are difficult to access, all of Nantucket's are public, less packed and easier to reach on foot or via bike path or four-wheel drive. With its proximity to the Atlantic, the waves are bigger. Surfers flock to Surfside and Cisco beaches.

CULTURAL ACTIVITIES/ FESTIVALS

The arts are more of the home-grown variety, and the summer's sprinkling of festivals captures the island's provincial charm. There are two community playhouses and an art-house cinema. The summer's biggest attractions are the Boston Pops on Jetties Beach and the Nantucket Film Festival.

NIGHTLIFE

Only two clubs offer live music on a grand scale: the Chicken Box and the Muse, which showcases bands before they break into the big time (i.e., Hootie and the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band). Lots of low-key drinking holes, from piano bars to folk music at pubs, rather than boisterous dance clubs and bars.

CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS

Nantucket doesn't have the Vineyard's star-studded roster -- Tim Russert and Mr. (Fred) Rogers are the biggest name residents -- but it does attract literary and media figures, captains of industry and Wall Street gazillionaires, including Wayne Huizenga, owner of Blockbuster and professional sports teams, and Jack Welch, CEO of General Electrics. Plus, America's Juice Guy (Tom Scott of Nantucket Nectars).

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