Disembarking from the Martha’s Vineyard ferry, we boarded the Steamship Authority bus with a family whose members were lugging sleeping bags and pillows. In spite of carrying a squishy, oversized load, they looked . . . happy. “Did you stay at the youth hostel?” we asked the woman who looked like Mom. “Nope — we stayed in a cabin at the campground on Vineyard Haven,” she said. “Dare we ask how it was?” we said, noting the group included four teenagers. “Fantastic!” “Best vacation ever!” they responded in unison.
Nice! They booked a cabin for six and spent $350 on lodgings — for the entire weekend. No car, either. “We just took the island bus and got everywhere we wanted to go,” the mom explained. “We had a blast,” one of the girls said, looking up from her iPhone. And it showed; after all, they all were still talking to each other. This family had discovered the secret: You don’t have to spend big money to have a great time on the Vineyard. Yes, the same island paradise that’s beloved by presidents (first Clinton, and now Obama, rumored to be coming back this summer), celebrities, and literary types is doable as an affordable vacation. If we lost you at “campground,” no worries — you can live like a sea captain on a deckhand’s budget and still sleep in an actual bed if you don’t go overboard on the other essentials. Here are some ways to enjoy this island’s gems in style — and still have cash left for a Black Dog T-shirt.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND
This 100-square-mile island is just 7 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. In the interest of cheap, we opted to take the Steamship Authority ferry from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven (it also goes to Oak Bluffs), a bargain at $16 per person round trip, if you go car-less. Bringing a car instantly brings your tab up to $169 (one car, two passengers). The car ferry requires advance reservations (unlike the pedestrian ferry), plus you’ll be navigating tourist-clogged, unfamiliar streets. Then there’s parking. “Parking here is impossible in season,” says part-time resident Gail Daman. “Why put yourself through that?” Indeed.
Do like the happy family did, and rely on the buses operated by the MV Transit Authority (VTA). The buses run to all six island towns, and cost $1 to $5 one way, based on where you’re going. (You can also get a one-day unlimited ride pass for seven bucks, or a three-day pass for $15 per person — worth considering, if you’re moving around a lot.) Buses typically show up every 20 minutes or so. You’ll give up some spontaneity, but if you plan ahead, this works. Another option: renting a bicycle. There are several rental outfits, and some inns offer free bikes for their guests’ use.
WHERE TO EAT
Nothing says “Welcome to the Vineyard” like a lobster roll. The Friday night lobster roll feast at Grace Church is one of the Vineyard’s best “insider” deals. For $17, you get a huge lobster roll (so big, locals buy a couple of extras to keep around the house), chips, and a drink. You can pay upward of $21 for a lobster roll on the island, for a punier specimen. Best part: Grace Church is a short walk from the ferry dock at Vineyard Haven. You have to get there quick, though, since this happens only in season, and on Fridays from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Lines get long.
If you’re willing to go casual, there are several dining bargains. Of course, “bargain” is a relative term — here, it means, you can get dinner for $20 (or slightly less) per person. To us, the best vacation eats are consumed outdoors on a picnic table, and involve something fresh from the sea. On that count, this island delivers. One of the best spots with a view is Faith’s Seafood Shack (508-645-4080, www
.faithsseafoodshack.com) at Gay Head Light in Aquinnah, where $12.95 gets you two over-stuffed fish tacos. They also sell sushi, oysters on the half shell, the ubiquitous lobster roll, and more, all for less than $20. Fish markets, like Larsen’s in Menemsha and The Net Result in Vineyard Haven offer amazing seafood and water views. They serve hot meals with the freshest fish (you can watch the fishing boats as you nosh), perfect for diners who don’t mind tucking into a lobster dinner or fish and chips ($11 at The Net Result) on a picnic table.
Family-friendly Oak Bluffs is a can’t-miss destination for affordable dining. Nancy’s (508-693-0006, www
.nancysrestaurant.com) feels like a party, with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the harbor, and arguably the best fried clams on the island. If you’re in the mood for something non-fishy, Sharky’s Mexican Cantina (508-693-7501, www.sharkyscantina.com, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown) is a fun, inexpensive choice, with 50 menu items under $10. You can’t go wrong with their veggie burrito (so bountiful, it’s actually heavy to lift) and a pomegranate ’rita. Speaking of Edgartown, cheap eats are a bit harder to find here, so head directly to the Wharf Pub (508-627-9966, www.wharfpub.com) for clam chowder, calamari with peanut sauce, or a burger ($10). In Chilmark, grab a slice of pizza at the Chilmark General Store (508-645-3739, www.chilmarkgeneralstore.com)
and eat on the porch, where you might spy a famous face. The best breakfast spot on the island is the circa 1943 Art Cliff Diner (508-693-1224) in Vineyard Haven, with its changing artwork, funky signage, and mismatched plates. “I dream about those pancakes,” says our foodie pal, Gail Daman. We were besotted with the brie and spinach crepes ($9); breakfast is served until
WHAT TO DO
As in life, the best things on Martha’s Vineyard are free, or nearly free. On a sunny Saturday in June, we saw only three other hikers along Harris Loop at Menemsha Hills Reservation (www.thetrustees.org). This beautiful woods-meets-water hike, ending at a boulder-strewn beach on Vineyard Sound, took us about two hours to complete. It costs nothing to wander among the 300-plus famous gingerbread cottages at the old Methodist Camp in Oak Bluffs (there’s also a small museum), and they are beyond adorable. If you’re visiting with kids, plan a visit to the Island Alpaca Farm (508-693-5554, www.islandalpaca
.com), where owner Barbara Ronchetti keeps about 60 of these gentle, poofy-haired mammals. A ride on the Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs will be the highlight of a Vineyard visit for small fry — a big payoff for a $2.50 ride, though you are likely to spring for another go-round or two. Built in 1876, this enchanting carousel has achieved landmark status — plus, there’s the thrill of trying to catch the brass ring. Then there’s Polly Hill Arboretum, Mytoi on Chappaquiddick (reachable by ferry), Katama beach, the list goes on. Sunset-watching at Menemsha Beach is a nightly rite.
Of course, shopping can be a pricey proposition. Carly Simon’s fanciful shop, Midnight Farm, is a blast of eccentricity in this prepster haven — “English dandy meets hookah palace,” is how our companion Paul Kelley described the wares. But nothing beats a bargain, and we found one: Slip down into the basement of Brickman’s in Vineyard Haven and you’ll find outdoor garb by makers like Sperry and Royal Robbins for 50 percent off. We snagged some great kayaking pants and a UV-blocking tee for $36, total.
WHERE TO STAY
Martha’s Vineyard Family Campground (508-693-3772, www.campmv
.com, per night: campsites $53/two people; one-room cabin/sleeps four, $135; two-room cabin/sleeps six, $155) is an excellent option for families and couples who don’t mind going the rustic route. (Advance reservations are a must.) Since you’ll be bringing bedding and gear, we’d spring for the car ferry. The Vineyard’s award-winning hostel (www.hiusa.org/marthas
vineyard, $39 per person in bunk room) is another option; it’s located in Vineyard Haven and reachable by VTA bus. If a bed-and-breakfast is more your style, you’ll find several choices that won’t break the bank; note that many inns require a two-night minimum stay in high season. In Vineyard Haven, the 1720 Inn (www. 1720
house.com, summer rates from $185) is a pleasant old-school inn, very clean and quiet, and just a few blocks from the ferry dock and shopping. Rather be in Edgartown? The 10-room, family-run Ashley Inn (www.ashleyinn.net, rates from $265) is a short walk from the harbor.