Martha, Martha, Martha

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Any New England beach snobs out there? Thought so. Then you'll understand my aversion to the Mid-Atlantic coast, with its crammed shores, high-rise hotels, buzzing Jet-Skiers and warm water. And you'll nod in agreement when I say that I will gladly take three modes of transportation just to veg out on Martha's Vineyard. For our tribe, you see, it's the Northeast beaches or nothing.

Yet, our Brahmin mulishness has a downside: dollars and time. Typically, the quickest route from D.C. to the Massachusetts island is, well, there isn't one. Most Washingtonians heading to the Vineyard fly to Boston or Providence, R.I., then switch to a tiny Cessna for the short hop. Those with a free day to kill will take every type of mobile unit short of a yak: plane to train to bus to ferry. Meanwhile, the SUV set will load up their high-end models with picnic baskets and yellow Labs and race up Interstate 95 to make the 10:30 p.m. boat. If Eastern Shoresters are keeping score: Martha's Vineyard 0, Mid-Atlantic 1.

But a weekend trip to the Vineyard just got simpler. In April, Pan Am -- Boston-Maine Airways bought the name -- kicked off nonstop service from Baltimore to Martha's Vineyard. (The airline later added a New York stop, but on Monday will return to its original route.) Barring weather delays, the 19-seat plane will deliver you to the island in less than two hours, just in time for a late-afternoon swim in the Atlantic or happy hour in Edgartown.

And so one recent weekend, feeling that perennial itch to laze about the beach on the Northeast coast, I booked a Friday-night flight to Martha's Vineyard. As I sat in the humming plane, gleefully scanning the highways below for that devil's tail of red car lights, I started planning my holiday. Biking or beachcombing, or both? Quahogs or steamers, or both? Martinis or gin and tonics, or both?

Just hours earlier I had been sweltering in D.C., mopping my brow with my Black Dog T-shirt. Now I was reposed in the moonlit back yard of my Vineyard Haven rental, a boxy Smurf house named Sparrow, drinking cabernet and eating plump red grapes. My sister, Lisa, and her friend Joanne had journeyed down from Boston, and we started swapping transportation horror stories. On the Vineyard, you see, sharing stories about mainland-to-island crossings qualifies as a competitive sport, almost as popular as fishing. I handily lost.

As a summer getaway, Martha's Vineyard stands apart from the New Jersey-to-Virginia beach belt. Yes, its water activities are the same, though to swim up north you need an extra layer of skin. But the similarities end there. The Vineyard has none of the touristy muck that can ruin a good ocean view. The island is pure old school, with its darling saltboxes, seafaring legacies and prim towns that take pains not to upstage the natural setting.

As for sun and sand, long stretches of unvarnished beaches ring the island like a broken daisy chain. The sandy-patch-per-person ratio is quite high, so you'll never have to wedge yourself between a grove of tent-size umbrellas or squeeze beneath a sensory-overloaded boardwalk. But you might have to move over for the plovers, or, in our case, a tawny hare, which dove into the wild rosebushes when it noticed us.

We were tempted to carve out a square of sand and fritter away the weekend watching the waves sweep in and out, in and out. But, at the same time, there were too many sights to see, so we found a happy medium: bike, beach, repeat.

Vineyard Haven, one of six towns on New England's largest island, is stocked with summertime staples, from Black Dog ice buckets to Mad Martha's blueberry ice cream. Our little Sparrow was in a residential area, with such famous neighbors as Mike Wallace and Frank Lautenberg (see, even the former New Jersey senator chooses MV over his own seaside turf), but was only a 15-minute walk to the shops and bus terminal. A public bus shrinks the 9-by-23-mile island to a tourable size, but it doesn't take spontaneous forays to the beach. So we rented bikes.

A network of bike trails ribbons through piney forests and skates along the water's edge, showing off the island's varied ecological zones -- and historical treasures. After some warm-up loops (all right, we got lost), we landed in Oak Bluffs, where we ducked into a real-life version of Candy Land.

In the mid-1800s, Island Methodists flocked to this seaside spot for meetings, where they would camp out in tents. Eventually membership outgrew the lean-tos, and candy-colored cottages were constructed to shelter the masses. Though the followers have since dispersed, the Hansel-and-Gretel houses remain, now owned by private residents who fawn over their homes as if they were pampered pets.

The scenery -- and scene -- changes dramatically from east to west. As we traveled 15 miles to the clam haven of Menemsha, we passed sprawling farms selling warm carrot muffins, then nothing but dense forest. Road signs, such as one for Chowder Kettle Road, informed us that we were nearing our objective.

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