MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASS., AUG. 18 -- It's magnificently gray here -- from the weathered shingles on the houses to the waves that come crashing ashore after rolling unhindered across the Atlantic. The kind of gray that takes nothing away from the spirit. Comforting shades that absorb excesses and balance deficits.

The air is different. Thick with the sea and all its scents. Brisk with Yankee derring-do and rank with seeming contradictions.

There are no limos, but plenty of celebrities. No deadlines, but loads of big-name journalists. Academic geniuses reading romance novels on porch swings. More policy makers than one could easily find on any August day in Washington. And yet, when they leave this island to cross the five miles of water separating it from the mainland, they say they're "going to America."

This is where Bill Clinton and his family arrive Thursday for 11 days of vacation.

The last time he was here, as far as anyone can recollect, was for the wedding of Lani Guinier, the lawyer whose nomination to a Justice Department job Clinton so badly bungled. That was another August, in 1986. An intimate affair in the garden of the cottage long owned by Guinier's mother in the town of Oak Bluffs. Guinier is here now, biking and beaching with her family, teaching her 9-year-old son to swim.

"There is an intimacy here," Guinier says. "People trust each other. There is on some level a sense of mistrust of Washington and national politics -- that {these elements} would become part of their August vacation. That's not my view; that's the view of others expressed to me."

And what of her? Of the irony of the president choosing to come here during her time for R&R, seeming to follow her much like the controversy over her failed nomination has followed him?

"I think the island is big enough for both of us," Guinier says calmly of the 120 square miles of grit deposited off the coast of Cape Cod by a glacier eons ago.

It's a place where famous people come to be anonymous. Where they can choose to stay home alone and cocoon or socialize informally with each other. Where they can work undisturbed or go to the supermarket without being mobbed. Vineyarders by and large are too cool to care about who the world thinks you are. The many middle-class summer homeowners have their own measures of character.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't have privacy," says William Styron, author of "Sophie's Choice" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Confessions of Nat Turner." "I don't allow any more intrusion to my life than I desire."

Styron, who has been coming to the Vineyard for 30 years, lives in a house with a private beach that's well hidden by hedges from the masses of day-trippers.

"When I first came here it certainly was not nearly as well known as it is now," he says. "It was very off the beaten track. Very few people of a certain sort even knew it existed. It's only in the last 10 to 15 years it's become well known."

Few of those with great wealth flaunt it, and those who do are ostracized. For example, there is Ernie "Come on down!" Boch, a millionaire car salesman, who complained to the Boston Globe last week that he's never even met his neighbor Walter Cronkite, let alone been invited over for cocktails. Boch built a $10 million house here 10 years ago that has 214 windows, 85 skylights, 3 kitchens and a shower stall with 24 carat gold-plated fittings. Earlier this month, a planning board blocked his plan to build a valet parking lot in the island town of Vineyard Haven.

People drive around here in jalopies.

"There's a smattering of Jags and Mercedes-Benzes, but it's not exactly chic to show off your bucks," says Craig Whitaker, a New York architect who owns a small Greek Revival house in Vineyard Haven that once belonged to a sea captain. "You'll find that you're driving around town and a beat-up car pulls up to the light and there's Mike Wallace."

More than a few Vineyarders are complaining about the motorcades that will travel the island's narrow streets and winding roads. And they grouse about the growing rumor that Clinton is searching for a permanent summer home here. But they don't mean it, said one prominent writer who asked not to be named.

"I think Vineyard people are delighted the president is coming, but they just can't say it," the writer said. "Part of being an islander is being blase about non-islanders in any way, shape or form."

Witness Edgartown, which would be fully booked this week, Bill Clinton or no. For this has been a good season. A sign that the economy is coming back, the real estate brokers say.

The streets are bustling with foot traffic in and out of small shops selling everything from fudge to tackle. It's an old whaling village. Up a ways from the wharf is the house built by Valentine Pease, captain of the Acushnet, aboard which Herman Melville sailed in 1841 while gathering background for "Moby-Dick." The epic novel's main character was a thinly veiled version of Capt. Pease.

To get to the estate of former defense secretary and World Bank president Robert McNamara, where Clinton is staying, you take the road out of town toward Gay Head. Past the stables and meadows where horses are grazing, past the cornfields. Past the woman with a golden retriever puppy sticking its nose out of her backpack as she dares to ride her bike over rolling hills with little visibility and lots of Secret Service traffic. Past the waste-water treatment plant that you smell before you reach. Past the classic wooden runabout up on blocks. Past the new developments whose discreet entrances you don't spy until you're on top of them. Past acres of scrub oaks that are stunted by salt breezes.

There. Down a long dirt road.

But you won't know it unless you know it. The seaside complex of 15 or so houses is in a section called Oyster-Watcha Midlands. Thirteen people -- including Washington Post Co. Chairman Katharine Graham -- bought the tract of 460 acres 30 years ago for $2.3 million. McNamara's house is a simple one: two stories of gray cedar shingles surrounded by sassafras and bayberry. It's called Sandpiper Point. Built on a moor, it's said to command stunning views of the ocean.

Not far up the road is the airport, beside which Vineyard native Carly Simon built a nightclub called the Hot Tin Roof. Farther still is Gay Head, a mile-long cliff of multi-colored clay and a town that is the tribal seat of the Wampanoags, some of the few remaining native Americans on the island. It was they who taught the European colonists how to whale, how to plant corn, where to find clay for their bricks.

"I think it's pretty cool, although he's picking a really bad time to come," Darren Wright, 32, said of Clinton's visit. He and his mother -- Beverly Wright, president of the Wampanoag Tribal Council -- own two of the shops at the scenic lookout at Gay Head.

"A lot of people are going to be really interested to see him. I mean, I've never seen a president. But it's funny that he's coming here, of all places. He likes to think of himself as a middle-class president, and here he is coming to Martha's Vineyard -- one of the most exclusive places in the world. ... The Secret Service are going to have a hard time, because people here on this island don't give {expletive} about a 30-car caravan. If an old fisherman wants to get to his boat, nobody is going to stop him."

The most apparent fuss is in the T-shirt shops in Oak Bluffs, which has historically been a summer home to many African Americans. Tonight was Illumination Night, when elaborately carved and painted gingerbread houses were decorated with lanterns. Friday night will be fireworks. And every night, parents are entreated to take their children to ride the Flying Horses, billed as the oldest operating carousel in the country.

One of the biggest sellers on the main street -- Circuit Avenue -- is a T-shirt that carries an imaginary memo "From the Desk of President Bill Clinton." It's headed "Vacation Plans '93." Crossed out are Camp David and Wyoming. Checked is Martha's Vineyard. Among the "Things to Do":

The {Tisbury} Fair

Flying Horses

The {Gay Head} Cliffs

Buy Dead Dog Tee for Al (XL) {A backlash to the omnipresent Black Dog T-shirts, sold by the restaurant and bakery of the same name. The Dead Dog T-shirt designer was sued by the Black Dog and a judge recently ruled the Dead Dog to be an obvious parody. This is a big deal here.}

Cocktails w/Ernie??? {Boch, the car salesman, remember?}

Catch a Bluefish, Split Rock

Lucy Vincent {private nude} Beach (Pick up Sunblock & a Pass)

"We're restocking them every hour," Janet York, 21, said of how fast the shirts were selling at Ocean T Shirts & Gifts.

Just then, her friend Tamara Jeffrey, 19, came rushing in to say that her family had rented their house to one of the television networks for a week for $6,000, about 400 percent more than the average going price.

"I'll sleep on the beach, I don't care," said Jeffrey.

Deals such as that are common as the Secret Service, White House staff and press corps attempt to squeeze last-minute accommodations out of this already saturated vacation market. Meanwhile, the president's people are pretty mum on his plans. He's supposedly booked time at the Farm Neck Golf Club every day -- perhaps to play with fellow golfer and transition chairman Vernon Jordan, who rents a place in Chilmark every year. And photographers are betting on Kennedyesque photo ops of Clinton jogging along the rugged shore. There are plenty of good eats here. And a panoply of people, for which the president also has a healthy appetite.

Perhaps he'll want to hang out with Spike Lee, who recently built a house here. Or Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley. Dan Aykroyd or Christopher Reeve?

Jacqueline Onassis and Katharine Graham are both expected to entertain. And girls who are the same age as Chelsea have published letters in the local paper inviting her to join them crabbing and swimming, and to warn her about ticks.

The Martha's Vineyard NAACP has asked Clinton to its Freedom Fund dinner, presenting him an opportunity to mend fences. Or, Sheldon Hackney, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is around if the president misses Washington business. Or, perhaps he could find Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw, who've been seen on the tennis courts. Also sighted, from academe, are Harvard's Alan Dershowitz and Henry Louis Gates, and Cornell West from Princeton.

Perhaps the president will simply learn to do nothing.

"There is something about the Vineyard apparently that impresses outsiders with the fact that all of us are here to live a relatively undisturbed existence, and they tend to respect that," Cronkite said in a book of island vignettes titled "On the Vineyard II."

He can shed his shoes. For, as John Updike wrote, "There are few places left, even summer places, where one can go barefoot. Too many laws, too much broken glass. ... But the presiding spirits of Martha's Vineyard, willfully and not without considerable overhead, do preserve this lowly element of our Edenic heritage: treading the earth."

Hell, he wants to really get loose, he can go naked. For, as Richard Lourie wrote of the Vineyard's Lucy Vincent Beach: "Sometimes the tense barrier of self-consciousness melts away in the heat and safety of the beach and you are just simply there, like a piece of driftwood on which a hat has been tossed."