One of the great things about living on Cape Cod is that it’s an easy ferry ride to two of the country’s most idyllic island escapes: Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. If it has been awhile since you have savored the slower pleasures of island life, plan a day trip to get reacquainted. (Not to mention, it’s good to know where to send guests who have overstayed their welcome!) Ready to play tourist in somebody else’s backyard for a change? Here’s how to make the most of it.
One perfect day on Martha’s Vineyard
Located just seven miles off the coast of the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard is so close that you can get there in as little as 35 minutes, depending on which ferry you take. This 110-square-mile triangle is a little bit funky, a little bit “family,’’ and a little bit farm-y, which makes it endearing to the 115,000 folks who call it “home’’ in summertime. (The year-round population is about 15,500, by comparison.) The western end, known as up-island, is more rural and wild than the eastern, down-island end, which includes Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown. The island has six towns, and nearly one-third of the landscape is conservation land.
Forget trying to see it all; that would be a tour de frantic. You want to relax, enjoy, and soak up the easygoing island vibe. We’re going to suggest something radical: Leave the car at the ferry lot, and rely on the white-and-purple Vineyard Transit Authority bus (www.vineyardtransit.com) to get around. Buses show up every 20 minutes or so, they go everywhere, and they’re cheap (a day pass is seven bucks.) This tour takes you from the ferry to Edgartown, to the beach, and back to Oak Bluffs, a fun overview featuring the best of down-island.
8 a.m. Departing from Falmouth Harbor, the Island Queen (508-548-4800; www.islandqueen.com; adult round-trip $20) will get you to Oak Bluffs in about 35 minutes. The Steamship Authority (508-477-8600; www.steamshipauthority.com; $16-$157) takes cars and walk-on passengers from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs in about 45 minutes, while the Hy-Line ferries (800-492-8082; www.hylinecruises.com; $72 adult round-trip for high-speed ferry; $45 for traditional ferry; kids 12 and under ride free on the latter) travel from Hyannis to Oak Bluffs in less than an hour if you book their high-speed ferry, and about an hour and 40 minutes if you go the traditional route.
Morning: Whether you arrive at Vineyard Haven or Oak Bluffs, catch the VTA bus #13. This scenic route goes past State Beach, along the island’s eastern shore, and over the famous “Jaws” bridge to Edgartown. Admire Edgartown’s fetching Main Street, and pay your respects to the Old Whaling Church. Built by sea captains in 1843, it is one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in New England. Meander into a few shops, like Edgartown Books (a maze of nooks and crannies filled with great books), climb Edgartown Lighthouse, and wander along Dock Street.
Noon: Among Edgartown’s restaurants, the Seafood Shanty (31 Dock St., 508-627-8622; www.theseafoodshanty.com) is a reliable favorite. (Bragging rights: Their lobster quesadilla was featured on the Food Network.) For dessert, grab a s’mores cone at the Scoop Shack (22 Dock S.t, 508-627-7829.)
1:30 p.m.: Hop on the number 8 bus for a quick ride to South Beach (locally known as Katama Beach.) Lucky you; no angling for a parking place! Big waves, rolling dunes, and a three-mile stretch of sand make this Atlantic-facing barrier beach one of the best anywhere.
When you’ve had enough sun…
3:30 p.m.: Back in Edgartown (via the number 8 bus), take the number 13 bus to Oak Bluffs. Let your tourist flag fly as you stroll Circuit Avenue, home to shops, ice cream parlors, and America’s oldest working carousel, the Flying Horses (above). Built in 1876, this carousel has achieved landmark status, and it is beyond cute. Just a short walk away is the colorful colony of gingerbread cottages — more than 300 in all — that make up the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (below), built in the 1800s. No two are alike, and nobody minds if you snap lots of photos.
6 p.m.: Now you’re ready for a drink or a bite. Settle in at a table overlooking the harbor at Nancy’s (29 Lake Ave., 508-693-0006; www.nancysrestaurant.com) and soak up the scene. The place has a happy/party feel, and the fried clams are the best on the island.
You could call it a day right here, but don’t.
7:30 p.m.: Wander over to the ferry dock, full of fried clams and good vibes. But if you’ve still got some juice left, take the (dare we say it?) number 13 bus to Vineyard Haven, home to some of the island’s best shopping. Check out the fanciful goods at Midnight Farm (co-owned by Carly Simon), and the bargain basement in Brickman’s, an actual basement. And there’s the Black Dog General Store, featuring those iconic T-shirts in every color.
Of course, there’s much more to see, like the Aquinnah cliffs, Menemsha hills, Island Alpacas, and Chappaquiddick. So, c’mon back — now that you know the drill!
One perfect day on Nantucket
So you don’t have a friend with a seaside mansion on Nantucket, nor the budget to shell out big bucks for a resort room? No problem: This gorgeous island, with its preserved village of sea captains’ homes and bumpy cobblestone streets, is a day-tripper’s dream, especially for Cape Codders. The island is relatively small, a mere 14 miles long and 3.5 miles wide, but includes some 800 pre-Civil War-era homes, many now housing fine restaurants, inns, museums, and one-of-a-kind boutiques. There are more than 80 miles of beaches on the island and acres of preserved and protected lands. You could wing it: Wander the village, pop into a shop or two, take your chances on a restaurant. But we won’t let you do that. To get the most out of Nantucket (and the cost of your ferry ticket), you need a plan.
8:15 a.m.: Board the Steamship Authority’s high-speed ferry in Hyannis (508-477-8600, www.steamshipauthority.com, adults $69 roundtrip, ages 5-12 $35). It’s a quick one-hour-or-so ride to the island. (They also offer $50 same-day round-trip tickets Monday-Thursday, $25 for ages 5-12.)
9:30 a.m.: Snag a table at the counter or on the outdoor courtyard at Black Eyed Susan’s (10 India St., 508-325-0308, www.black-eyedsusans.com); it’s one of the best places on the island for breakfast. If your palate leans toward savory dishes, go for the Portuguese scramble with linguica or the house-made corned beef hash benedict. For something sweeter, try their fluffy buttermilk pancakes. After breakfast, burn off some calories with a short walk through the village and along the harbor to the Whaling Museum.
11:15 a.m.: Join the museum’s guided downtown walking tour to learn the history of the island 508-228-1894, 13 Broad St., www.nha.org, adults $10, ages 6-17 $4). Another option: The Nantucket Preservation Trust offers online maps for four different self-guided walking tours (55 Main St., 508-228-1387, www.nantucketpreservation.org).
12:30 p.m.:Rent scooters from Nantucket Bike Shop (4 Broad St., 508-228-1999, www.nantucketbikeshop.com, full day $85 single/$105 double, half day $75/$95); pick up sandwiches to go at Something Natural (50 Cliff Road, 508-228-0504, www.somethingnatural.com) and ride to Sconset, a tiny 17th-century fishing village. After a quick look around town, head to the pristine and beautiful Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge (end of Wauwinet Road, 508-228-5646, www.thetrustees.org, free to pedestrians). The refuge, tucked between Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, with a beautiful coastline and 16 miles of trails, is a great place to enjoy a picnic on the beach. The historic Great Point Lighthouse is located on the northwest tip of the refuge, but it’s a tough hike through soft sand dunes to get there. Driving out to the lighthouse in an overland vehicle is your best bet, so if the lighthouse is a must-see, skip the scooters and rent a four-wheel-drive jeep from Young’s Bicycle Shop (6 Broad St., 508-228-1151, www.youngsbicycleshop.com, $279.95 a day including town and Great Point overland beach permits).
4 p.m.: Stop in at the small but impressive Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum (158 Polpis Road, 508-228-1885, www.nantucketshipwreck.org, adults $6, ages 5-17 $4) and learn why the waters surrounding Nantucket were once called a “graveyard in the Atlantic.”
5 p.m.: Return your scooters (or jeep) and browse the shops and galleries, before catching the 6:15 p.m. ferry back to Hyannis. Two favorites: Island Weaves (20 Old South Wharf, 508-221-8343, www.islandweaves.com) has beautiful handmade woven rugs, throws, and scarves, and G.S. Hill (40 Straight Wharf, 508-228-1353, www.gshill.com) sells original artwork, jewelry, and Nantucket Lightship baskets.
Or, better yet, stick around a while longer for cocktails and dinner. We crave the splurge-worthy wok-fried lobster at The Pearl (12 Federal St., 508-228-9701, www.thepearlnantucket.com) but a burger with a cold pint of Whale’s Tale at the Brotherhood of Thieves (23 Broad St., 508-228-2551, www.brotherhoodofthieves.com) is pretty good, too. The Steamship Authority’s last high-speed ferry back to Hyannis leaves at 8:45 p.m.