It seems to happen in a heartbeat: One minute, you’re day-tripping to the Vineyard to frolic in the surf with other taut-bodied 20-somethings and day-drink at waterfront bars — the next, you’re lumbering aboard the ferry with car seats and juice boxes. Oh, and you’re accompanied by squirming little humans that make every day an adventure, and tune you into the pure joy of looking at the world — and those familiar vacation spots — with a fresh perspective.
What’s especially great about doing Martha’s Vineyard with kids — besides the fact that there are no airplanes involved — is that it’s a low-key, sand-in-your-sneakers escape, more about farms and fishing than flash. Nobody expects you to dress for dinner here, especially since “dinner” is likely to be a lobster roll (or a grilled cheese sandwich) to go. We love the fact that some things never seem to change here. What fun it is to share them (we’re looking at you, Flying Horses Carousel!) with your kids.
Tip for getting around: Skip the car (the ferry is way cheaper without a vehicle) and rely on the VTA (Vineyard Transit Authority buses; www.vineyardtransit.com). The buses go everywhere you’ll want to go, they show up quickly, and you won’t be adding to traffic congestion on this fragile island. Face coverings are required on VTA buses. Which reminds us: In light of COVID-19, be aware that some practices and policies will be different this year. By now, we’re all used to this, but it bears repeating.
Nostalgic fun: Flying Horses Carousel
America’s oldest platform carousel (circa 1884), located a short stroll from the ferry dock in Oak Bluffs, is a timeless delight. Originally operated on Coney Island, the carousel’s painted horses have real horsehair manes and tails and inset glass eyes. At this writing, the carousel is closed, but they’re hoping to reopen in late July. $3.50 per ride; 508-627-4440; vineyardtrust.org
Get fuzzy: Island Alpaca Farm
Owner Barbara Ronchetti fell hard for alpacas on a visit to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair; now she has a herd of 40-plus Huacaya alpaca at her 19-acre farm in Oak Bluffs. Four babies (“cria”) are due this summer. Ronchetti breeds and sells alpacas — cousins of camels and llamas — and sells a variety of alpaca products at her farm store. More than 1,500 visitors show up each week in a typical season to meet-and-greet these gentle animals. Be warned: It’s a rare kid who doesn’t clamor to bring an alpaca home after a visit to the farm. Masks are required. 508-693-5554; $5; www.islandalpaca.com
Kid-friendly beach: Joseph Sylvia State Beach
Located between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown on Beach Road (the Edgartown section is called Bend-in-the-Road Beach), this 2-mile-long barrier beach separates Sengekontacket Pond from Nantucket Sound. It’s a good bet for families because the shallow water gets deep gradually, and the waves are usually small compared to, says, South Beach. If it is windy and the waves are too large on the Nantucket Sound side, head for calmer waters along the pond side. There’s parking along the road but spots fill up quickly, another reason to consider the bus. www.dukescounty.org
Coolest beach hike: Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary
Located on Obed Daggett Road in West Tisbury, this 400-acre property is an alluring mix of beach, bluffs, and woods. There’s no swimming allowed, but the beachcombing is fine on this slice of Vineyard Sound beach. Think of it as a hike with a surprise reveal: the ocean! 508-693-5207; www.sheriffsmeadow.org
Island lore: Martha’s Vineyard Museum
Last year, this museum moved from Edgartown to the former circa 1895 Marine Hospital, set on a hilltop in Vineyard Haven. At this writing, indoor galleries are closed due to the pandemic, but the museum’s outdoor campus is open for exploring. When you check in at the Bodman Courtyard, ask for their outdoor scavenger hunt kit to ratchet up the fun potential. Check out the museum’s larger pieces in barn-like Doherty Hall; these include the original Chappaquiddick hearse, surfboards, a Hawaiian canoe, and the Mayhew peddler’s cart that was once used for deliveries from Alley’s General Store. Stroll the Rose Styron Garden, and take a look at the 22-foot catboat Vanity, one of only five of its kind remaining. There’s more to see, but this gives you a sense of what’s happening this summer at the island’s marquee museum. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Outdoor campus is free to all; no reservations needed. 508-627-4441; www.mvmuseum.org
Kid-friendly grub: For your consideration
Budget-friendly Sharky’s Cantina (508-693-7501; www.sharkyscantina.com, Edgartown; their Oak Bluffs outpost is currently closed) offers mini-tacos and quesadillas on their kids’ menu; yay, not the usual chicken fingers. We’re fans of their Mexican street corn and grilled veggie burrito. Hanging in Chilmark? Grab some tasty grub at the Chilmark General Store (508-645-3739; www.chilmarkgeneralstore.com) and feel good about supporting island businesses — the store sources much of its produce, meat, cheese, coffee, chocolate, honey, and other items from island farms and producers. The Vineyard’s classic breakfast spot is the venerable (since 1943) Artcliff Diner (508-693-1224; www.artcliffdiner.com) in Vineyard Haven, with its funky signage, mismatched plates, and to-die-for pancakes. Currently, they’re open for take-out only, with a few picnic tables available for guests. The ultimate dinner spot on Martha’s Vineyard is Menemsha Beach at sunset with a BYO picnic. It’s no secret, but it’s definitely sublime. If it’s Friday, pick up your meal to go — say, the lobster rolls at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven — named best lobster rolls on the island by Martha’s Vineyard Magazine for 13 years and counting. This year, it’s a pre-order, take-out only affair. (Call on Thursday between 9 and noon, or order online Wednesday beginning at noon.) 508-693-0332; www.graceepiscopalmv.org. If your fondest memories of MV include the dirty banana cocktail at Nancy’s Restaurant & Snack Bar (508-693-0006; www.nancysrestaurant.com), you may have missed the joys of Nancy’s snack bar. Their picnic tables are a great vantage point for taking in the action on Oak Bluffs harbor. Feels positively festive. And the menu at this family-run-since-1960 joint runs the gamut: You can order, say, whole-belly clams or falafel, while the little ones can opt for a simple grilled cheese sandwich (and get grossed out by your clams).
Where to stay: Family-friendly sleepovers
Hooray for bright, well-located, kid-friendly digs. In Oak Bluffs, Summercamp (508-693-6611; www.summercamphotel.com; from $199) offers cheery rooms — including some with bunk beds — decorated in colorful “camp chic” style. The 95-room hotel is located in Oak Bluffs near the beaches, restaurants, and the carousel. Best feature: the sprawling front porch with harbor views. There’s also a canteen for snacks. Down Vineyard Haven way, there’s an oldie-but-goodie, the Mansion House (508-693-2200; www.mvmansionhouse.com; from $359). Built in 1791 as the Tisbury Inn but rebuilt (after a 2001 fire) in 2003, the 48-room hotel offers suites that work well for families. Some rooms are pet-friendly, in case your brood includes a fur baby. While the gym and indoor pool are currently closed, Ocean Park Beach is within walking distance of this friendly, family-owned inn.
For more information: www.mvy.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org