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Martha's Vineyard by Bike: Serene Explorations


The best way to get to New England's largest island is slowly. Instead of stampeding aboard the massive ferries from Cape Cod for the short jump to Martha's Vineyard, head to New Bedford. There you can board the Schamonchi, a proud family-sized ferry that plies the waters between the Whaling City and the Vineyard. You avoid the hordes that crowd the docks on Cape Cod and the traffic jams that mar either end of your stay. When you arrive, you sense you've reached an island that feels far more than seven miles from the mainland.

This rickety dock gets few visitors.  Jim Johnson, 1999For me, a journey to the Vineyard is an annual ritual that starts as soon as I board the ship, a family-run operation with a cordial crew. The 90-minute voyage cruises past old fortresses, through the necklace string of the Elizabeth Islands, past Woods Hole and across the sound to the Vineyard. As it passes West Chop Light into Vineyard Haven, the ship slows and weaves through yachts hailing from around the globe. It pulls into the dock with a strong surge in reverse, the bow so close to the beach you could almost hand off a picnic basket.

The Schamonchi doesn't take cars, but it does carry bikes, and it's a virtual parade as cyclists walk their bikes down the wooden pier. Other passengers rent theirs across the street at Adventure Rentals or Martha's Bike Rentals.

For me, bicycling is the best way to see the island and to capture its serenity and spirit. Car and moped rentals are available, but you miss too much. Bicyclists can hear the roaring surf, the wind cutting through the trees, and the birds chirping overhead. You can smell the moss and evergreens, and catch glimpses of chipmunks and maybe even a rare osprey. You also get a true sense of the geography and geology of the island, the subtle shifts from town to countryside, from woodland to meadow, from flatland to rolling hillside. You can also eat a hot fudge sundae without guilt.

Day-trippers in good shape can cover much of the island - at least superficially - in a day. That means riding nearly 50 miles before the last ferry trip back at 6:45. Traveling the full distance allows a complete circuit of the island, including a quick swim at the far end – "up island" in Vineyard-speak – at the famed Gay Head cliffs. A 23-mile ride still allows a wonderful loopThe famed Gay Head cliffs:  Jim Johnson, 1999 from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown, once a whaling port and still the most upscale of the island's six townships, with time for listening to the rolling surf at South Beach. The ride then loops back through Oak Bluffs with its Victorian cottages.

If you want to skip Oak Bluffs and Edgartown altogether, you can head straight to Gay Head, a 40-mile round-trip that covers the island's most rural and scenic terrain.

Regardless of cycling skill, the best option is staying overnight, which allows for relaxed exploration. Accommodations range from campgrounds and a youth hostel to bed and breakfasts, motels and top-class hotels. Some are in town; others may arrange to meet you and pick up your luggage, while you ride your bike.

Breaking the trip into two or more days also allows more beach time and can help avoid one cyclist's hazard: On my last trip, 90 minutes from the ferry landing and 80 minutes before the last ferry left, my tire blew. I set personal speed records both for innertube-changing and for pedaling.

Start your ride by heading toward Oak Bluffs, just a few miles northeast of the ferry landing. Oak Bluffs originated as a Methodist Camp Meeting Place, where tents have long since evolved into more than 300 colorful cottages with Victorian gingerbread trim. Take the time to look at the homes and the grand Wesley Hotel and to climb onto one of the original wooden horses on the 1876 Flying Horses Carousel. (You still get a free ride if you grab the brass ring!)

The ride from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown rolls along a winding bike path with Nantucket Sound on the left and lush marshland and Sengekontacket Pond on the right. If the day's especially warm, cross the road at any time for a dip at Joseph A. Sylvia State beach. As you swim, you might see the ferry heading toward Nantucket, another 25 miles distant. If you look across the pond, you can see the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, 350 acres frequented by geese, cormorants, ospreys and other birds and wildlife.

With its narrow roads and one-way streets, Edgartown prohibits cycling in many areas. It's just as well. With both eyes on traffic, you'd likely miss the stately homes and elegant gardens. Edgartown is the most upscale of the Vineyard's six towns. It's the town that whaling built, as profits from that industry were poured into private homes and public buildings through the mid-1800s. If you're a history or architecture buff, plan to spend a couple of hours exploring. Several buildings are owned by the Dukes County Historical Society and open to the public. Edgartown also has the island's highest concentration of specialty shops, restaurants and nightclubs. It's a town made for wandering. By the time I reach town, I've usually worked up a slight appetite. That's a perfect excuse to grab a sandwich and dangle my legs off the dock, look across to Chappaquiddick, and envy the yacht owners. If I'm especially evil, I'll grab a double ice cream cone at Mad Martha's, the best on the island.

From Edgartown, you have several options. You can hop the ferry over to Chappaquiddick, which offers one road for cycling but limitless paths and beachfront for exploring. I often head down the bike path to Katama Beach past the rural Norton Fields Preserve, stopping at the Katama Farm for fresh milk or more ice cream, or resting on the beach at Katama Point. Excellent and secluded hiking lies in either direction.

More often than not, however, I head from Edgartown up island to Gay Head. The route runs inland, much of it along a bike-path through the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. The path strays from the roadway and leads riders through dense pine forest. Mountain bikers can explore further, travelling the abundant fire roads and horse paths.

Alley's General Store.  Jim Johnson, 1999After about eight miles of pedaling almost due west, the town of West Tisbury comes into view. The town looks straight out of central casting, playing the role of New England farm village, complete with country store and Agriculture Hall. Alley's General Store offers provisions (of every sort imaginable) and a comfortable front porch to enjoy them on. At the back of the parking lot, Back Alley's offers sandwiches and killer pastries. Across the street, the Field Gallery offers a wondrous walk through a meadow filled with real and surreal sculptures.

 

The road splits in West Tisbury, and I follow South Road, closest to the shore. As I coast through rolling fields and patches of scrub oak, I look to the left and catch glimpses of the shimmering Atlantic. Farms alternate with gray shingled homes and ancient millponds.

The next intersection is Beetlebung Corner, where the tupelo trees were once used to make corks – or bungs – that would be hammered in by mallets – or beetles. Past this corner the rolling hills grow steeper, the scenery Vermont-like. I find every excuse to stop at the Chilmark Country Store to re-stock water and food. Even better, I make a visit to Chilmark Chocolates to pick up some blueberry clusters and (trust me) crystallized ginger coated in fresh chocolate.

Rockers on the porch of the Chilmark Country Store  Jim Johnson, 1999Even without the chocolate, this is my favorite part of the island. Views explode to the north and south, especially as the road cuts between Menemsha and Squibnocket Ponds. The road first plunges past a lakefront. Then a steady climb offers the reward of views beyond the fishing village of Menemsha to the Elizabeth Islands and Vineyard Sound. South Road soon enters Gay Head, one of two native American townships in Massachusetts. I generally head for the lighthouse overlooking the famed Gay Head cliffs, where the panorama extends nearly 270 degrees. A handful of shops and restaurants welcome visitors – most of whom come by tour bus. I miss the masses by heading downhill to the beach entrance and starting my annual pilgrimage along the base of the cliffs.

Some friends joke that it's the clothing-optional nature of the beach that attracts me. While carrying a wet bathing suit or riding in wet, sandy biking shorts can pose problems for the 20-mile return, nudity isn't the issue. The stark beauty of the ocean water against the multi-colored cliffs is the issue – and the attraction. The cliffs are a veritable rainbow of layers, deposits left behind over millions of years and thrust upward during an Ice Age. The walk passes a series of bends in the cliffs, turning almost 180 degrees, each view offering a different lighting and perspective. A dip in the ocean here cleanses more than road sweat.

The ride back is almost anti-climactic, in part because it follows the Gay Head experience, in part because the scenery is subtler along the northern return route. Stunning vistas are rare, replaced by pleasing views and scents of wild roses and bayberry bushes. If I have time, I stop at a roadside fruit stand or the Scottish Bakehouse to pack a snack for the boat ride home or detour to Chicama Vineyards Winery for a taste and tour. Too soon (unless I have a flat), I find myself back in Vineyard Haven. Maybe I wander the shops, but more often I head straight for the ferry landing, use my helmet as a pillow, and lie in the sand, remembering the sounds and sights of the day.

If You Go:

When to go: In spring or fall you'll miss the crowds. Population grows from 7,000 to 70,000 when school lets out. In summertime, you face crowds but have a better chance at good weather.

Lodging

Overnights don't come cheap on Martha's Vineyard, unless you opt for the campgrounds or youth hostel. Bed and breakfasts, inns, and motels can run in high season from $70 to $150 per room night, with a few upscale hotels going as high as $225. Homes may also be rented by the week, ranging from $500 to $1,200, depending on size and location.

Food

Restaurants abound in Edgartown, Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, but you'll have to plan carefully if you intend to find provisions up-island. Country stores are spread out and restaurants nearly non-existent.

Ferry information

Rates are $8.50 each way per person ($15 for one-day round-trip), plus $2.50 each way for bicycles. Contact Cape Island Express at (508)-997-1688 for the Schamonchi's current schedule.

For more information

Contact the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce at (508) 693-0085.

Reading material

Exploring Martha's Vineyard on Bike and Foot by Lee Sinai. Published by The Harvard Common Press, Boston, for $9.95. – Fourteen rides and 19 hikes plus good background information on history, bike shops and - quite important - restrooms.

Also, The Best Bike Rides in New England by Paul Thomas. Published by The Globe Pequot Press in Chester, Conn., for $12.95. – Includes two comprehensive island tours.

Alley's General Store.  Jim Johnson, 1999After about eight miles of pedaling almost due west, the town of West Tisbury comes into view. The town looks straight out of central casting, playing the role of New England farm village, complete with country store and Agriculture Hall. Alley's General Store offers provisions (of every sort imaginable) and a comfortable front porch to enjoy them on. At the back of the parking lot, Back Alley's offers sandwiches and killer pastries. Across the street, the Field Gallery offers a wondrous walk through a meadow filled with real and surreal sculptures.

The road splits in West Tisbury, and I follow South Road, closest to the shore. As I coast through rolling fields and patches of scrub oak, I look to the left and catch glimpses of the shimmering Atlantic. Farms alternate with gray shingled homes and ancient millponds.

The next intersection is Beetlebung Corner, where the tupelo trees were once used to make corks or bungs that would be hammered in by mallets or beetles. Past this corner the rolling hills grow steeper, the scenery Vermont-like. I find every excuse to stop at the Chilmark Country Store to re-stock water and food. Even better, I make a visit to Chilmark Chocolates to pick up some blueberry clusters and (trust me) crystallized ginger coated in fresh chocolate.

Rockers on the porch of the Chilmark Country Store  Jim Johnson, 1999Even without the chocolate, this is my favorite part of the island. Views explode to the north and south, especially as the road cuts between Menemsha and Squibnocket Ponds. The road first plunges past a lakefront. Then a steady climb offers the reward of views beyond the fishing village of Menemsha to the Elizabeth Islands and Vineyard Sound. South Road soon enters Gay Head, one of two native American townships in Massachusetts. I generally head for the lighthouse overlooking the famed Gay Head cliffs, where the panorama extends nearly 270 degrees. A handful of shops and restaurants welcome visitors most of whom come by tour bus. I miss the masses by heading downhill to the beach entrance and starting my annual pilgrimage along the base of the cliffs.

Some friends joke that it's the clothing-optional nature of the beach that attracts me. While carrying a wet bathing suit or riding in wet, sandy biking shorts can pose problems for the 20-mile return, nudity isn't the issue. The stark beauty of the ocean water against the multi-colored cliffs is the issue and the attraction. The cliffs are a veritable rainbow of layers, deposits left behind over millions of years and thrust upward during an Ice Age. The walk passes a series of bends in the cliffs, turning almost 180 degrees, each view offering a different lighting and perspective. A dip in the ocean here cleanses more than road sweat.

The ride back is almost anti-climactic, in part because it follows the Gay Head experience, in part because the scenery is subtler along the northern return route. Stunning vistas are rare, replaced by pleasing views and scents of wild roses and bayberry bushes. If I have time, I stop at a roadside fruit stand or the Scottish Bakehouse to pack a snack for the boat ride home or detour to Chicama Vineyards Winery for a taste and tour. Too soon (unless I have a flat), I find myself back in Vineyard Haven. Maybe I wander the shops, but more often I head straight for the ferry landing, use my helmet as a pillow, and lie in the sand, remembering the sounds and sights of the day.

If You Go:

When to go: In spring or fall you'll miss the crowds. Population grows from 7,000 to 70,000 when school lets out. In summertime, you face crowds but have a better chance at good weather.

Lodging

Overnights don't come cheap on Martha's Vineyard, unless you opt for the campgrounds or youth hostel. Bed and breakfasts, inns, and motels can run in high season from $70 to $150 per room night, with a few upscale hotels going as high as $225. Homes may also be rented by the week, ranging from $500 to $1,200, depending on size and location.

Food

Restaurants abound in Edgartown, Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, but you'll have to plan carefully if you intend to find provisions up-island. Country stores are spread out and restaurants nearly non-existent.

Ferry information

Rates are $8.50 each way per person ($15 for one-day round-trip), plus $2.50 each way for bicycles. Contact Cape Island Express at (508)-997-1688 for the Schamonchi's current schedule.

For more information

Contact the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce at (508) 693-0085.

Reading material

Exploring Martha's Vineyard on Bike and Foot by Lee Sinai. Published by The Harvard Common Press, Boston, for $9.95. Fourteen rides and 19 hikes plus good background information on history, bike shops and - quite important - restrooms.

Also, The Best Bike Rides in New England by Paul Thomas. Published by The Globe Pequot Press in Chester, Conn., for $12.95. Includes two comprehensive island tours.