Wednesday, September 4, 2019

In My Footsteps: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

     The northeast corner of the island of Martha’s Vineyard is home to a town that combines the plentiful ocean views with spectacular attractions and history. Here is a little taste of Oak Bluffs.

     The town of Oak Bluffs was originally incorporated in 1880 and known as Cottage City based on the fact that it was mainly a seasonal village in the beginning. As it became more of a year-round place to live the name was changed to Oak Bluffs in 1907. The town covers 7.37-square miles and is stocked full of incredible restaurants, shops, historical sites, beaches, and natural beauty.
     The ferry is the most common way to traverse across Vineyard Sound to the island, although it is also possible to fly. The Steamship Authority runs ferries from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven year round. They also run ferries directly into Oak Bluffs from mid-May through late-October. These ferries take approximately forty-five minutes and are quick and safe.
     The approach to Oak Bluffs is dotted with anchored boats and other vessels passing by as you head in toward an island which feels like Cape Cod yet not. The ferry terminal faces Seaview Avenue and Oak Bluffs Avenue while giving you a feast for the eyes as far as sights go. Directly to the north of the terminal is the Oak Bluffs Fishing Pier. Stretching just over 300-feet out into the ocean this pier was first opened in June 2014 and cost $1 million. It is a tremendous spot to watch the passing boats, take in the sea breezes and salt air, or of course fish.
The Ocean Park bandstand
     Before even stepping on to dry land your eyes are drawn to Ocean Park and its historic bandstand. Surrounded by Victorian homes this green open space is routinely filled with people. One of the homes facing the park, the Tucker House, is famous for having President Ulysses S. Grant there in 1874 to watch fireworks from the roof of the home. The annual summer fireworks held in August draw upwards of 5,000 people in and around the park.
     Whether you travel north or south from the ferry docks there are great recreation opportunities. There are many ways to get around if you don’t bring your own transportation from the Vineyard Transit Authority buses to stopping at Anderson’s Bike Rentals in season on Circuit Avenue Extension.
     To the north you pass around Oak Bluffs Harbor which is filled with boats coming and going. Turn right off Lake Avenue onto East Chop Drive and head out to East Chop Lighthouse situated on Telegraph Hill. The route out to East Chop Light has changed in the last year or so. In April 2018 it was announced that a particularly vulnerable section of the roadway would be closed to vehicle traffic, although still open to pedestrians and bicycles. The 2,000-foot gap in the road between Brewster Avenue and Munroe Avenue are still closed as of September 2019 due to the severely eroding bluffs. A plan is ready to help stabilize the bluff, however the town still needs much of the funding to enact it.
East Chop Lighthouse
     The current East Chop Lighthouse is the third structure at the site having been erected in 1878 and stands forty-feet tall. Ironically the previous East Chop Light, which was built as part of a home, still stands on the corner of East Chop Drive and Sandy Bluff Lane a few hundred yards east, although greatly altered so one would never know it used to be a lighthouse. East Chop Lighthouse has beautiful views of Vineyard Sound and Falmouth in the distance and the entrance way through a turnstile surrounded by white picket fence is sublime.
     When venturing south from the Steamship Authority docks it is a tale of spectacular beaches. It begins only a few hundred yards south with Inkwell Beach. This small stretch of beach bordered by a pair of jetties sitting adjacent from Waban Park has a name that has been up for debate regarding its origins. It is possible that Inkwell Beach got its name from the fact that it was frequented by African-Americans beginning in the late 1800’s. The other possibility is that it was named Inkwell due to the fact that many prominent writers from Oak Bluffs went there as a way to clear their minds.
     Further south along Beach Road, running into Edgartown, is Joseph Sylvia State Beach. Originally known as State Beach the two-mile barrier beach is very popular due to its connection to the movie Jaws. The bridge which connects Oak Bluffs to Edgartown across Sengekontacket Pond is known as the Jaws Bridge due to its appearance in a famous scene in the movie. The beach was renamed after Joseph A. Sylvia in 1968. He was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who was instrumental in the state’s acquisition and protection of the beach.
     The crown jewel of Oak Bluffs sits away from the beaches. The Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association Campground is home to the iconic Gingerbread Cottages. There are just over 300 cottages situated roughly in a circle around the iron Tabernacle which was built in 1879. The unique and colorful cottages draw countless visitors to the grounds which began as a religious ‘camp meeting’ site just after the Civil War. It began with tents and grew to more permanent dwellings in the form of small cottages. Earlier camp meetings were held on Cape Cod, including the first on record at Bound Brook Island in Wellfleet in 1819.
A gingerbread cottage during Grand Illumination Night
     Although any time is a good time to visit the thirty-four acres of wonderful gingerbread cottages perhaps there is no better time than Grand Illumination Night. Held on the third Wednesday evening in August annually this tradition began all the way back in 1869. It was a way to honor the visit of Massachusetts Governor William Claflin and has grown into the highlight of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard. The event is known for all of the gingerbread cottages being creatively decorated with Chinese lanterns that draws thousands of people. Earlier festivities in the evening consist of sing-alongs in the Tabernacle and a ceremonial lighting of the first lantern to kick things off. It is an unforgettable event, although it is likely for the best if you spend the night as trying to catch the last ferry off of the Vineyard is extremely difficult with thousands of onlookers crowded into the MVCMA area.
     There is so much to see and enjoy in Oak Bluffs that it is not possible to take it all in if you are pressed for time. Take the time to see all of the sites mentioned above, but don’t forget other gems like the Flying Horses Carousel, Sweet Life Cafe, and the one-of-a-kind Back Door Donuts.  Oak Bluffs is a vacation within a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.

Have fun and happy traveling!

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing