Martha's Vineyard: From Colonial Port to Island Resort

June 17, 2014

Editor's Note: To give you some ideas for airports to visit when you attend the AOPA Fly-In at Plymouth on July 12, we asked the GA travel experts at Pilot Getaways to share some of their favorite nearby fly-out destinations. This article originally appeared in the Pilot Getaways magazine. Want more? We've secured exclusive AOPA member-only discount pricing for a subscription.

Subscribe to Pilot Getaways at a special AOPA members-only rate.Aerial photos by George A. Kounis.

There is an undeniable appeal to Martha’s Vineyard, its villages hugging neat little harbors, farmland lined with rock-pile fences, and centuries-old lighthouses perched above the Atlantic. It is an appeal that inspires a certain madness in first-time visitors, making them want to uproot their lives and leave all they know for a Victorian cottage with balconies draped in flower vines. Year after year, throngs of tourists and summer residents arrive by ferry and by air, joining a surge of vacationers that includes the nation’s wealthiest and most notable. Despite the constant influx, Martha’s Vineyard works hard to preserve its roots as a colonial settlement and historical whaling port. In the 400 years since it was discovered by westerners, the Vineyard has remained, quite simply, a beautiful place to spend time.

For pilots, Martha’s Vineyard offers even more than the attraction of New England beauty and convenient fly-in facilities. At the southeast corner of the island is one of the gems among East Coast airports: Katama Airpark. Ever since the first airplanes landed here in 1924, Katama Airpark has been one of those truly compelling places to fly. Not only will you find the largest grass airport in the U.S., but the airport is an important part of the 192-acre Katama Plains nature preserve, which is the largest remaining sandplain grassland left on Martha’s Vineyard.

Katama Airpark itself is worth the short flight from the Massachusetts coast, if only to spend the day sunning on the beach and never venturing from the airport property. However, Katama is also only a shuttle ride away from nearby Edgartown, which gives you accessible connections to the rest of the island for more in-depth exploration.

Flying There

Two airports serve Martha’s Vineyard. The large one, Martha’s Vineyard Airport (MVY), has two paved runways up to 5,500 feet long, an ILS approach, and scheduled airline service. The airport is in the center of the island away from towns and beaches, and landing there is similar to landing at other large, full-service airports.

Katama Airpark (1B2) is the second airport, and the one we recommend. The airport is a great getaway in its own right. The description that follows is specific to reaching Katama, but the approach works for both airports. (Look for Katama activities under What to Do.)

It is possible to fly to Martha’s Vineyard without crossing much water. From the southwest, you can minimize your over-water distance by flying along the coast until reaching Wareham, Massachusetts, which is about 11 nm northeast of New Bedford (EWB). From there, you can follow Highway 25 east and then Highway 28 south. Remain west of Highway 28 to stay clear of restricted area R-4101, which is just north of Otis Air National Guard Base (FMH). When you reach Wood’s Hole, you can cross a 3–4-nm channel to Martha’s Vineyard. En route, you can get advisories from Cape Approach on 119.7 or 133.75 MHz.

Staying over land usually only adds a few minutes of flight time, but it’s much safer. Over open water, there is nowhere to land if you have a problem, and if it’s hazy, it’s easy to become disoriented, especially at night. On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. took off on a 169-nm flight from Caldwell, New Jersey, direct to Martha’s Vineyard. Had he stayed over land, he would have flown a total of 197 nm—or an extra 10 1/2 minutes at his Piper Saratoga’s cruising speed. The route he chose took him directly across an area that some local pilots call the “black hole,” a triangle of open water bounded by Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and the Cape Cod mainland. At 9:41 p.m. on a hazy night, he lost situational awareness and crashed into the water 7 1/2 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard. Sadly, he and his two passengers perished.

Katama's grass runways have a firm surface and easily accommodate heavier aircraft like this Bonanza. Photo by Heather Goff/mvlandscapes.com.

Coastal fog is more prevalent in the spring and fall, but it can be a problem at any time of year. Be careful, since it can form quickly. Although there is no weather reporting at Katama Airpark, you can monitor the ATIS on 126.25 MHz at MVY, which is just 4.5 nm northwest. Keep in mind that MVY is inland, while Katama is on the coast, so one airport can be clear while the other is enveloped by fog.

The Class D for MVY covers most of the island, so you’ll probably have to contact MVY tower on 121.4 MHz for a transition. You can then report over Edgartown Harbor (“the harbor”) for Katama Traffic. Traffic from Nantucket Island, 15 nm southeast, may report over Wasque Point (pronounced “way-squee”), which is at the southeastern tip of the island. You may hear aircraft from the west reporting “along the south shore inbound,” which usually means they are skirting the south edge of MVY’s Class D west of Katama.

A minimum altitude of 1,000 feet is requested over the nearby beaches, homes, harbors, and Chappaquiddick (east of the airpark). For noise abatement, make high approaches at low power settings, if possible. On departure, climb at Vy and do not fly over the airport buildings or the housing area northeast of the airpark. On departure from Runway 17, turn right 30 degrees, when safe. Try to run up away from the airport buildings at the north end of the field.

Prevailing winds are out of the southwest, with Runway 21 preferred (left traffic). The three grass runways are laid out in a triangle, so crosswinds are not usually a problem. The surface generally stays firm, even after a rain, and aircraft as large as DC-3s and King Airs have landed here. There is no tower; traffic usually self-announces on CTAF 122.8 MHz, which is monitored during the summer. If you’re going to the restaurant or to town, park on the north ramp near the airport buildings, east of the threshold to Runway 21. If you’re going to the beach, park at the south ramp, south of the thresholds of runways 3 and 6.

Parking fees are $10–$15 per day, and are waived for restaurant patrons. There is a $25 day fee for parking on the south ramp near the beach. AeroShell 100LL fuel is available when the field is attended—officially May 15–Sep 15, but usually beginning earlier and ending later than officially required. Night landings are not permitted. If you need night or IFR services, fly to MVY. A shuttle bus runs from Katama Airpark into Edgartown every 15 minutes during the summer. For runway conditions, fuel availability, and other airport information, contact Katama Airpark, (508) 627-9018, or Classsic Aviators on the field, 508-627-7677.

History

The Wampanoag Indians were the first settlers on the island. They farmed, fished, and hunted using an almanac of their own devising. They called the island Noepe, meaning “Amidst the Waters.” When English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold arrived in 1602, he found grapes growing rampant, and renamed the island Martha’s Vineyard, after his daughter.

In 1641, Thomas Mayhew, a miller from Massachusetts, bought Martha’s Vineyard (now also called the Vineyard) from British noblemen. He settled in Edgartown and appointed himself governor of the island. His son, the missionary Thomas Mayhew Jr., preached Christianity to the island’s Wampanoag Indians, and many accepted the new religion. Relations between the colonists and Indians were mostly peaceful. Unfortunately, diseases brought by the white settlers killed many of the Wampanoag. The Aquinnah tribe of the Wampanoag was able to isolate itself from the colonists at Gay Head (now Aquinnah), the westernmost point of the island, and maintain some control over their land and culture.

The Wampanoag taught the colonists how to hunt whales. Men from the Vineyard provisioned whaling ships from the nearby island of Nantucket and supplied a captain and crew, including the highly esteemed Wampanoag boat steersmen, who had the responsibility of killing the whale.

By 1760, the advent of large whale processing ships allowed whalers to venture farther from shore and pursue their prey around Cape Horn into the Pacific. Edgartown became a major whaling port, as Nantucket’s harbor was too shallow for large whaling ships heavy with whale oil. Petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859. The easier and cheaper source of oil signaled the end for the whaling age. By 1870, the island’s economy had fallen into a decline.

About this time, the popularity of fundamentalist religions in America experienced an upsurge. A group of Methodist converts traveled from Edgartown to the northern wilderness of the island for a weeklong retreat. The meetings attracted people from the mainland, and the informal gatherings soon became annual events. Permanent cottages replaced tents, and the town of Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs) was born.

Martha’s Vineyard began to stand out as a vacation destination after World War II. Service men stationed on the island spread tales of its beauty. With the completion of the interstate highways, travelers from Boston, New York, and other mainland cities were able to access the ferry departure points to the island with ease.

What to Do

Martha’s Vineyard is between the east coast of mainland Massachusetts and Nantucket Island, and is south of Cape Cod. The triangle shaped island measures about 9 by 21 miles. Though you can make a vacation out of exploring any one of the Vineyard’s six towns, you will make the most of your visit with a tour of the entire island. Edgartown is the closest town to Katama Airpark and makes a good home base. Buses provide service between the towns, or you can bike along trails that follow the coast. Locals refer to areas of the island with two nautical terms relating to longitude: “Up-Island” designates the western towns of Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury, while the eastern towns of Vineyard Haven (Tisbury), Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown are “Down-Island.” Some towns and landmarks have multiple names, which can be confusing (we’ve listed the most common name, with the secondary in parentheses).

Katama Airpark is a perfect excuse to escape mainland life for a day at the island’s largest beach, with surfing on the Atlantic Ocean side and a salt pond on the north side. From the south ramp, it is just a 100-yard walk across a footbridge over creek to South Beach (Katama Beach), where you can kick back in the sand just yards away from your airplane. Though lifeguards are on duty, be cautious of the strong undertow.

Spending the day doesn’t mean departing caked with sand and salt: just taxi up to the shower facility beside the north ramp. Afterwards, you can dine at the adjacent, on-field restaurant, The Right Fork Diner. Ramp parking fees $10–$15, (508) 627-5522.

Katama isn’t just a place where pilots enjoy direct access to the beach; the airfield is an important nature preserve. The Katama Plains’ grassland is home to 26 rare or endangered species of plants and animals, so keep an eye out for sights like the regal fritillary butterfly and the Nantucket shadbush.

Open-cockpit biplane rides are a perfect complement to Katama's large grass airfield, and a great way to flight-see around the island. Photo by Tamara Brown.

Classic Aviators at Katama Airpark offers several flight tours in a red 1941 Waco UPF-7 biplane. Tours vary from the 20-minute Chappaquiddick Tour of Edgartown and Chappaquiddick Island to the 60-minute Island Loop Tour, which covers all towns, beaches, and landmarks, $199–$569 for two passengers, 8 a.m.–sunset (May–Oct), reservations accepted, (508) 627-7677.

To tour the island at ground level, start with Edgartown, the closest town to Katama Airpark. The county seat since 1642, the town has historic buildings from wooden farmhouses to Greek Revival mansions. Pick up brochures, buy and mail postcards, or catch a bus to other towns at the Visitors Center, open Memorial Day–Labor Day, 29 Church St., Edgartown.

Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society’ Vineyard Museum details the island’s development from a colonial settlement to a whaling port to a summer resort. Comprising a number of unique buildings, the exhibits contain 300 years of artifacts, documents, and oral histories, adults $7, children 6–14 $4, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon–Sat, 12–5 p.m. Sun (late May–mid Oct), 1–4 p.m. Mon–Sat (mid Oct–late May), 59 School St., Edgartown, (508) 627-4441.

Along Edgartown’s North and South Water streets, whaling captains’ mansions are scattered among white houses with black shutters and gardens of hollyhocks and roses. The homes are privately owned and are not open to the public. Captain Valentine Pease’s home was built in the early 19th century with money made from whaling. When Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, joined Pease’s crew on the whaler Acushnet, the captain’s tyrannical behavior led the writer to jump ship in Peru. Scholars say Melville modeled Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab on Pease. Coincidentally, Melville’s daughter bought and lived in Pease’s house, unaware of its connection to her father, 80 S. Water St., Edgartown. Some houses have a “widow’s walk” on the roof. These platforms with a balustrade were where wives kept watch for their husbands’ ships; one example is on the Captain Jared Fisher house, 86 N. Water St., Edgartown.

Head west on Edgartown/West Tisbury Road to reach the farming town of West Tisbury, with acres of pastureland and wooded hills. If you arrive when a Farmer’s Market is in full swing, you can select fresh produce and handmade wares to assemble a picnic lunch, 9 a.m.–noon Sat (June–Oct), with additional markets 9 a.m.–noon Wed (Jun 19–Aug 28), Old Agricultural Hall (Grange Hall), West Tisbury, (508) 627-4440. Fill any gaps with a stop at Alley’s General Store, where people have been finding just about anything they needed or wanted since 1858, 7 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon–Sat, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun, 1045 State Rd., West Tisbury, (508) 693-0088.

The picturesque Aquinnah Cliffs make a good spot for a picnic. Photo by Heather Goff, mvlandscapes.com.

For a scenic picnic spot, travel southwest on South Road through Chilmark to Moshup Beach, which is a 10-minute walk from the parking area. Set up your blanket and contemplate the impressive beauty of the Aquinnah Cliffs (Gay Head Cliffs). The ribbons of white, rust, blacks, and browns lining these 150-foot-high cliffs each represent a different geologic era in the island’s formation. Eons of erosion have turned these clay cliffs into a picture book of history. Fossils of camels, whales, and sharks have been found embedded in the cliffs, but don’t search for any yourself, as the cliffs are an endangered landmark and no climbing is allowed.

High atop the cliffs is the Gay Head Lighthouse at Aquinnah, an 1856 structure built to replace the wooden original from 1799. Despite being the largest lighthouse on the island, Aquinnah wasn’t able to save the steamer City of Columbus from the treacherous waters of Devil’s Bridge. The ship was lost, along with more than 100 passengers, in 1884. This is also the area where John F. Kennedy Jr.’s Piper Saratoga went down. Admission is adults $5, children under 12 free, open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (Jun–Oct), weekend evenings from 7–9 p.m. (Jun–Jul), 6–8 p.m. (Aug–Sep), off State Rd., Aquinnah, (508) 627-4441.

Head east on North Road to the fishing village of Menemsha, considered by many as the best place on the island to watch a sunset. If you think the town looks a bit familiar, you probably recognize it from the movie Jaws. A few miles farther, north of West Tisbury, is Christiantown’s Mayhew Chapel.

Near the north tip of Martha’s Vineyard is the commercial center of the island, Vineyard Haven (Tisbury). Its active harbor is home to the Steamship Authority that ferries passengers and their cars to the Vineyard year-round. At the Steamship Authority’s bus stop on Water Street is the Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center that can provide maps, brochures, advice, and help with accommodations, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Fri–Sun (Memorial Day–Columbus Day), 8 a.m.–8 p.m. daily (Jun 20–Sep 6). Also in Vineyard Haven is the headquarters of Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, which is open year-round, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon–Fri, 24 Beach St. (around the corner from the Stop & Shop), (508) 693-0085.

The popularity of the 34-acre Camp Meeting Grounds contributed to the transformation of the island into a resort destination. In the town of Oak Bluffs, you can walk among the brightly colored gingerbread cottages that replaced the modest tents of the first Methodist revivals held on the grounds, free. The Cottage Museum provides a glimpse of the interior of these unique structures as well as insight into the campground’s history, adults $2, children under 12 50¢, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon–Sat, 1–4 p.m. Sun (Jun–Oct), 1 Trinity Park, (508) 693-7784. At the center of the campground is the 1879 iron Tabernacle. This open-air auditorium offers church services, community sings, and other cultural events, 80 Trinity Park, (508) 693-0525.

As the Methodist revivals grew in popularity, Oak Bluffs developed to accommodate the influx of visitors. Since it was primarily a summer resort, many of the businesses, like the Flying Horses Carousel, focused on entertainment. Built in 1876, this National Historical Landmark is the oldest operating platform carousel in the country. The horses don’t move up and down, but riders are kept entertained trying to catch a brass ring. If they catch it, they get a free ride; otherwise, $2.50 per ride, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. daily during the summer, 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Sat & Sun in spring and fall, 15 Lake Ave., Oak Bluffs, (508) 693-9481.

Maps of each town’s self-guided walking tour are available online. The African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, offer alternative routes around the island.

Boat rentals are available in any of the six cities. Island Water Sports in Vineyard Haven rents watercraft from kayaks and paddleboards to 23-foot powerboats. Sailors will enjoy the custom-built Lido 14, a classic dinghy perfect for breezy days on the ocean, $585 per week. Powerboats like the 23-foot Scout 235 Sportfish rent for under $600 per day with no extra charge for water skis or fishing rods (saltwater fishing permits available online through Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries), 8 a.m.–5 p.m. mid May–mid Oct, (508) 693-7767 or (508) 693-5884 off-season, Martha’s Vineyard Marina, 100 Lagoon Pond Rd.

Where to Stay

A room at the Winnetu Inn. Photo courtesy Winnetu Inn.

The Winnetu Inn & Resort at South Beach is five minutes from Katama Airpark. Enjoy amenities like the ten tennis courts, a putting green, and a life-sized chess set. The inn will also help plan excursions for you outside of the resort, including golf at Farm Neck Golf Course (72 hours notice). There’s a sundry shop and a restaurant, or you can request grocery delivery and cook for yourself. Choose a room with a veranda facing the ocean or opt for a sunset view over the heated pool. Larger units have washers and dryers; all include kitchenettes. Airport transportation provided based on vehicle availability, rooms $175-$1,730, Apr–Nov, 31 Dunes Rd., Edgartown, (508) 310-1733 or (866) 335-1133.

The Harborside Inn faces Edgartown’s boat docks, near what was once Captain Pease’s home. A complex of seven multi-story converted whaling mansions surrounds an outdoor heated pool, indoor whirlpool and sauna, and flower gardens. The colonial-style inn has 90 rooms, each with a refrigerator. Most oceanside rooms have balconies to observe boats setting out to sea. A two-night minimum stay is required, $210–$450, open Apr–Nov, 3 S. Water St., Edgartown, (508) 627-4321 or (855) 380-6314.

Built in 1798, the Edgartown Inn has hosted VIPs since the early 1800s. Statesman Daniel Webster and Senator John F. Kennedy are among the guests who have stayed here. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “Twice Told Tales” in the second-floor room at the top of the stairs. Originally a private residence, the inn has changed over the centuries to include tiled baths and a wood-paneled dining room. Yet, a genteel old-world feel remains, with 12 antique-decorated rooms—as well as two large rooms in an adjacent garden house—and a front porch with white wicker furniture, perfect for watching the activity on State Street. A full breakfast, including griddlecakes, can be served in the courtyard for a relaxing start to your day, $7–$10. All rooms come with private baths, $75–$295, Apr–Oct, 56 N. Water St. at Maciel Marine, Edgartown, (508) 627-4794.

Where to Eat

The casual airport cafe The Right Fork Diner is convenient for pilots flying in to Katama and for beachgoers alike. With large windows on three sides, as well as outdoor seating on the adjacent deck, the diner has become a favorite for locals and tourists looking to relax while taking in sweeping views of Katama’s grass airstrip and nearby South Beach. Old airplane photos decorate the walls and the shirttails belonging to student pilots of years past hang over the windows (the oldest dates back to 1954). Owner Jamie Langley prides herself in providing diner food made from scratch. The corned beef in the Reuben Panini is cooked and cured on site, and comes with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and homemade Russian dressing on marble rye, $13. Other popular items include the crab cake sandwhich, made with fresh lump crab, $15, and the lobster roll, served with a touch of mayo, as well as the diner’s signature lemon aoili and housemade salt and cracked pepper chips, $19. While the food is good, the friendly, neighborhood-diner atmosphere leaves you feeling even more satisfied. The Right Fork opens its ninth season on May 16, 2014, 7 a.m.–2 p.m. (through Columbus Day), open until sunset Jul–Aug, 12 Mattakesett Way, Edgartown, (508) 627-5522.

The Wharf Pub seafood restaurant has a nautical theme and two bars. The manager, Jeff Voorhees, is a local celebrity; he played Alex Kintner, the little boy who was attacked by the voracious great white in Jaws. Said Jeff, reminiscing about his stint as an actor, “People magazine came out for the movie’s 25th anniversary [in 2000] and tried to coax me into the cold sea for some shots. I told them ‘Fuggetaboutit!’” One standout among the huge appetizer selection is stuffed quahog, the Native American name for the large East Coast hard shell clam, $7. The Alex Kintner fish sandwich is white fish (sorry, no shark on the menu) with American cheese, roasted red pepper, and Creole pepper mayonnaise, $12. The Fried Seafood Platter, with fried scallops, shrimp, and codfish comes with French fries and coleslaw, $28. A lighter dish is the Apple Salad, with granny smith apples, mixed greens, blue cheese crumbles, dried cranberries, candied pecans, red onions, and champagne vinaigrette, $12. Wash it down with the local Washusett Ale, 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. (closed in March), Lower Main St., Edgartown, (508) 627-9966.

After a day at the beach, put on your island best and head over to the fine dining establishment Atria. The wine list alone is enough to evoke praise; Wine Spectator magazine has called it “one of the most outstanding wine lists in the world.” Order a glass at the Brick Cellar Bar’s brass bar and enjoy live music as you melt into a leather club chair. Head upstairs to the main dining room to indulge in dishes made with organic island-grown produce and freshly caught seafood. Begin your meal with the poached island lobster with mascarpone gnocchi and seared foie gras, served with
 grapes, toasted pecans, and curry butter, $21. For your main dish, please your palate by ordering the grilled swordfish with refreshing watercress and preserved lemon, enhanced by crispy capers, shaved red onion, and lemon beurre blanc and served with a side of dill-whipped potatoes, $35. Or savor the Wok-Fired Two-Pound Martha’s Vineyard Lobster, served with spinach and whipped potatoes, $48, 5:30–10 p.m. Wed–Sun (off-season), daily Memorial Day–Labor Day, 137 Main St., Edgartown, (508) 627-5850.

Transportation

Footpath to Lobsterville Beach. Photo by Nicole Friedler/Martha's Vineyard CC.

Public transportation is a common way to get around on Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, due to limited space for vehicles on the ferries, many visitors arrive without a car. The easiest means of transportation might be the public bus system, with stops in town centers. The bus operates year-round but frequency of service varies by season. They run every quarter hour in summer, when school buses are also used as town-to-town shuttles. Get on and off at will with a one-day pass, $7; three- and seven-day passes are also available $18–$25. Otherwise, the fare is $1 per town including the town of origin, don’t forget to carry exact fare, (508) 693-9440.

Navigating the island is easy on foot, but other means of transportation are readily available. You can arrange for rental car delivery through Budget Rent-A-Car, (508) 693-1911, and Hertz, (508) 693-2402. Taxis are plentiful; call Stagecoach Taxi at (508) 627-4566. A trip from Katama to Edgartown typically costs a flat rate of $10 for two passengers.

R.W. Cutler’s Martha’s Vineyard Bike Rentals picks up and delivers rental bikes to the airport or your hotel and also offers guided bike trips. With advance reservations you may get a discount on weekly rentals, $20–$45 per day or $65–$150 per week, 1 Main St., Edgartown, (800) 627-2763.

Martha’s Vineyard has a lure that brings people back year-round. It swings in the summer, when the population of 15,000 swells to 100,000. You’ll get good rates in April and October; as prices fall with the temperature. September is a well-kept secret. The crowds have left and days are sunny, but beware October’s chilly end. Katama Airpark specifically, along with the rest of this breathtaking island, is certainly worth the trip. Old-fashioned inns, weekend farmer’s markets, and cliff-side lighthouses carry you far from the hurried bustle of mainland life. You’ll return from the Vineyard able to drop names like Squibnocket Landing and Beetlebung Corner, and tell of sights like fishermen bringing in a fresh lobster catch against the backdrop of the pounding Atlantic.

Bud Wrightington enjoys a sunset flight between Wood's Hole and Vineyard Haven. Photo by George A. Kounis.