Tell your friends you're popping over to Martha's Vineyard this weekend, and they won't be envious, just bemused. One pal warned us, "I don't think the Vineyard is open in the winter!"
But the year-round population of this summer playground is around 16,000. Surely the island isn't completely boarded up in the off-season. Undaunted, we set off for a cozy winter escape.
As happens in New England, winter had morphed into spring for a day or two. The snow from the recent storm had vanished. What now? Happily, we discovered that there's plenty happening on Martha's Vineyard in the off-season. You just have to know where to look.
Lesson one: Even in winter, you need to reserve a space on the Steamship Authority ferry if you're bringing a car. Ferries run between Woods Hole and Martha's Vineyard every day of the year, weather-permitting. We blithely assumed we could drive right on, but no — the ferry was sold out. We barely got a stand-by spot on the next ferry, an hour later. That gave us an excuse to roam around Woods Hole and duck into Pie in the Sky Bakery for a scone.
After the 40-minute ferry ride, we arrived at Vineyard Haven and checked our bags at the Mansion House . In truth, we could have come without a car, walked from the ferry dock to this historic hotel, and taken shuttle buses around the island, but our time was short and we didn't want to spend it waiting at bus stops.
Plenty of Vineyard Haven's shops were open for business, including Bunch of Grapes Bookstore and Midnight Farm. But we were keen to window shop at the Vineyard Haven studio of weathervane crafter extraordinaire, Tony Holand of Tuck & Holand Metal Sculptors (www.tuckandholand.com). The amiable Holand maintains waiting lists of two years and more for his custom-made weathervanes of copper, brass, and bronze. Prices start at $15,000, so this typically isn't an impulse purchase. One look at pieces like "Where the Wild Things Play," populated with Maurice Sendak characters, and you'll understand why this renowned metal sculptor has designed and created weathervanes for the likes of Steven Spielberg, the Museum of Fine Arts, the NFL, and scions of business and finance.
A visit to Holand's studio is the kind of thing we'd never make time for in summer — too eager to hit the beach — but in the off-season, it's perfect. Ditto Martha's Vineyard Glassworks in West Tisbury, where you can watch glassblowers demonstrate their art, and Island Alpaca, a great stop for families. You can meet the engaging, fuzzy animals and shop for woolly woven goods in the onsite store.
With 50-plus-degree temperatures beckoning, we couldn't wait to get out on a hiking trail. Holand directed us toward his favorite spot, Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary . The road to the property is winding, bumpy, and narrow, but it's worth the effort. Short and scenic trails traverse the 312-acre sanctuary, through woods, alongside a pond, and onto a boardwalk where a glorious vista unfolds.
Families with little kids played at the shoreline, collecting stones and shells. Dogs on leashes (allowed here) seemed as happy as their owners to be romping on the beach. We followed the Headlands trail, a canopy of bare branches that led to rocky overlooks. It was gorgeous, and we had it all to ourselves.
Ready for lunch, we drove to Edgartown. Accustomed to summer crowds, we were thrilled to do something that's nearly impossible to do in season: park in the wharf lot in the center of town.
It was a short stroll to The Newes From America , the snug pub at the Kelley House. A fire crackled in the fireplace, more for ambience than heat. Everyone seemed to have a mug of microbrew and a plate piled high with fish and chips, a house specialty.
And so it went for the weekend: more hiking (at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary , a Mass Audubon property where trails led to Nantucket Sound and more stunning views), more eating (no shortage of great options there), and relaxing in the hot tub and steam room at the Mansion House. One of the best features at the hotel? The cupola overlooking the harbor, a great place to have a glass of wine and take in panoramic views.
We were too bushed to take advantage of island nightlife, but it does exist in winter, at places like The Wharf, The Atlantic, The Ritz, and Offshore Ale Co. for live music, and Martha's Vineyard Chowder Co. (DJs on weekends) and the Barn Bowl & Bistro (bowling in a renovated barn, with food and a bar).
Realizing that the island is way more hopping in winter than we thought, we made a ferry reservation for our return trip, or "going to America," as locals put it. Far from being a frosty ghost town, off-season Martha's Vineyard was warm, welcoming, and wonderfully low-key. We got around with ease and enjoyed the island's best beauty spots without the crowds. Sure, the trees were bare, but the ocean views were as lovely as ever.
Now we're angling to go back for the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival March 17-20 — if we can score a ferry ticket.