A playground for Hollywood and Washington elites, Martha's Vineyard is to the nouveau riche as neighboring Nantucket is to old-money Yankees and New Yorkers. Just seven miles off the Massachusetts mainland, this 180-square-mile, triangle-shaped island is also more accessible than its sister islanda 45-minute ferry ride from the Cape Cod village of Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven. Of the island's six towns, the centers of visitor activity are Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Haven. Edgartown, a quaint jumble of bars, boutiques, restaurants, and inns in historic sea captains' homes, occupies the island's southeastern corner. Just to the north, Oak Bluffs is the center of nightlife and where you'll find the gaily painted gingerbread houses of the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Associationone of the island's top photo ops. Vineyard Haven, at the northern tip of the island, is the main port of entry, and with its chichi shops and dining, is the most genteel of the towns. To the west, West Tisbury is a community of working farms and rolling hills. Chilmark, in the southwestern corner, is where the richest of the rich spend their summers (you might catch a glimpse of their sprawling summer homesor at least the tennis courts or servants' quartersfrom State Road), and includes the picturesque commercial port of Menemsha. And even farther southwest, the highlight of Aquinnah is its dramatic clay cliffs and prime sunsets; it's also the home of the native Gay Head Wampanoag tribe.
WHEN TO GO
Memorial Day to Labor Day is prime time here, meaning huge crowds and high prices. Waits of 30 minutes or more are common at popular restaurants, while hotels (and the car ferries) book up well in advance. For more availability and lower prices, come in early autumn, when temperatures are still high and the ocean is still warm enough for swimming, or late spring, when gardens burst into color and the beaches are largely deserted (although some seasonal restaurants are open only on the weekends). There's also a lull in June, between Memorial Day and the end of the school year, when it's comparatively easy to get reservations. A festival in mid-June attracts lighthouse aficionados and a wine and food festival lures oenophiles in October.
HOW TO GET THERE
As close as it is to the mainland, getting to the Vineyard can be trying, especially in the summer. That's because driving to the main port of debarkationWoods Holemeans fighting heavy seasonal traffic across the same chokepoint bridges as the legions of tourists headed to Cape Cod. To ease the trip, check out www.smartguide.org, which lists car-free ways to get to and around the island.
The biggest and most frequent ferries, and the only ones that carry cars, are those run by the public Steamship Authority from Woods Hole (508-477-8600; steamshipauthority.com). Its newest vessel, Island Home, serves this route with amenities including ergonomic seats, extra-large bathrooms, and free Wi-Fi. A second, private, ferry, the Island Queen, takes passengers from Falmouth to Oak Bluffs from late May to mid-October (508-548-4800; islandqueen.com), and the Pied Piper goes from Falmouth to Edgartown, with valet parking at the dock (508-548-9400; falmouthferry.com). Hy-Line Cruises connects Hyannis with the Vineyard, and operates a summer-only ferry from Nantucket (508-778-2600; hy-linecruises.com). To avoid the Cape Cod traffic altogether, take the New Bedford-to-Martha's Vineyard Express Ferry from New Bedford, Mass. (866-453-6800; mvexpressferry.com), or the Vineyard Fast Ferry from North Kingstown, R.I.; connections are available to the Providence Airport and Amtrak (401-295-4040; vineyardfastferry.com). Both arrive at Oak Bluffs. Ferry schedules are affected by bad weather, so call ahead.
Martha's Vineyard Airport (508-693-7022; mvyairport.com) is served by Cape Air from Boston, New Bedford, Hyannis, Nantucket, and Providence (800-352-0714; www.flycapeair.com), and US Airways Express from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Hyannis (800-428-4322, usairways.com). Several personal jet services also have begun service to the island: Linear Air flies twin-engine business jets to the Vineyard from Hanscom Field outside Boston and Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y. (877-254-6327; linearair.com), and Tradewind Aviation flies jet and turbo-prop executive aircraft from Teterboro, N.J. and Westchester, N.Y. airports to the island (800-376-7922; tradewindaviation.com).
The Vineyard can become a parking lot in the summer so many visitors leave their cars on the mainland and get around by bike, bus, or foot. The Martha's Vineyard Transit Authority runs buses equipped with bicycle racks among island towns and to and from the airport; it offers one-day ($6), three-day ($15), and seven-day ($25) passes (508-693-9440; vineyardtransit.com). Tickets can be purchased on the bus, at Steamship Authority terminals, or from ticket sellers at the Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven stops. There are well-marked bike routes and bicycle rental shops everywhere. The best are Edgartown Bicycles (212 Main St.; 508-627-9008; edgartownbicycle.com) and Anderson's Bike Rentals in Oak Bluffs (23 Circuit Ave. Extension; 508-693-9346). The Steamship Authority and Island Queen charge only $3 each way to take your own bike to the island, the Pied Piper $5, and the Hy-Line, New Bedford, and North Kingstown ferries $6. Many hotels provide free bikes to their guests on a first-come, first-served basis. Some of the bicycle routes are well inland and not particularly scenic; also keep in mind that, along the coast, you'll run into occasional sand and strong head winds.
The Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce (800-505-4815 or 508-693-0085; mvy.com) is on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, a short walk from the ferry and across the street from the post office. Here you'll also find that rarest of Vineyard amenitiesa public rest room. There are rare deals on accommodations and other island info at Martha's Vineyard Online (mvol.com).