The Guilty Pleasures of a New England Island: Notes from a Labor Day Rendezvous 2008

I have confession to make.


As we headed down the path to the cliff-rimmed sand beach, I saw a white board scrawled with a quote from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. reminding us that every possession implies a duty.  We kicked off our L.L. Bean sandals at the end of the path.  Here we were on this New England island, so beautiful and varied in its 100 square miles that it attracts visitors from around the world.


But why feel guilty about this?  My confession is: I was on Martha’s Vineyard, not Mount Desert Island.


I know that harboring affection for “another” island isn’t exactly like cheating on your husband.  As a resident of Mount Desert, I have every right to spend Labor Day in Menemsha.  So, why did I feel so guilty? 


It was probably because I liked it so much.  The crushed shell driveways, ubiquitous beach plums, and stonewalls marking rolling meadows brought something back from my Massachusetts childhood.  With no projects for my 1890 Mount Desert home to worry about, I lounged carefree, albeit conflicted, on a second-story porch listening to the catbirds in the nearby scrub oak and the harbor buoy bell in the distance.


Mount Desert Island and Martha’s Vineyard actually have a lot in common.  They vie for second and third place as the largest islands on the eastern seaboard.  They are made up of a variety of towns with distinct and different characters.  While Bar Harbor and Oak Bluffs resemble each other in their Victoriana and commercialism, Bass Harbor and Menemsha attract visitors to their fishing villages for harborside photographs and lobster dinners.  White clapboard houses and iconic steepled churches adorn the streets of both Somesville and Edgartown.  And among these towns buses bustle too many summer visitors from here to there (though L.L. Bean makes it free on MDI).  While a fiord divides our island, Martha’s Vineyard has a state forest in the middle of hers.  We tend to think of our island in terms of the two sides, east and west. Similarly, the Martha’s Vineyard towns divide east and west, with the western villages on their “quiet side” known as “up island” not because they are north, but higher in longitude. This is a carryover characterization from the Vineyard’s nautical past, just as “downeast” is for Maine.


Both islands offer great dining as part of the summer recreation.  We bought lobsters from Menemsha Fish Market and ate them on the beach at sunset.  Let me just say that this is so popular (i.e., crowded) that I would be wary of doing it before Labor Day.  We also had wonderful “special night out” meals at Sweet Life Café in Oak Bluffs and the Beach Plum Inn in Menemsha.  The menu at Sweet Life, where we ate in the garden, was deliciously innovative – for example, we had a white gazpacho made with grapes and garnished with steamed clams drizzled in smoked paprika oil. I must admit, though, that at the Beach Plum Inn I opted for a salad starter because I just couldn’t bear to spend $20 for an appetizer of scallops or crab cakes and then $40 for a lamp chop or grilled salmon entrée.  We knew we were paying for the honeymoon-worthy view.  Make special note that the up-island restaurants, such as Beach Plum, are dry, but you may bring your own wine, which appeals to my thrifty side.  On MDI I generally opt for one of Elizabeth’s martinis at Red Sky or a mojito at Havana, but wine nicely sufficed up island on the Vineyard.


The greatest difference between MDI and the Vineyard for me is that I am able to work off all of the calories from my indulgences on Acadia’s 130 miles of hiking trails.  Alas, that is not the case on Martha’s Vineyard, but the biking is good.


Residents on the Vineyard strongly recommended the bike paths to me for safety reasons.  However, the paths around the perimeter of the state forest of scrub pine and oak were unappealing.  We took the bike ferry ($5 per bike for the 100 yards across the inlet to Menemsha Pond) and then biked along the road with only banks of beach plums separating us from Vineyard Sound.  It was Labor Day afternoon so even the lookout at Aquinnah Cliffs (formerly Gay Head) wasn’t crowded and the roads felt safe enough.  It wasn’t the same as Acadia’s network of car-free carriage roads, but this was a really lovely loop back past Menemsha Pond to Menemsha Inn where we were staying.


Massachusetts beaches make me euphoric.  To the white sand and grass-covered dunes, the Vineyard adds dramatic cliffs.  A refreshing plunge in the ocean soon becomes so comfortable that I stay in longer and longer, floating over the waves, remembering how my mom used to have to gesture from the shoreline, “It’s time to come in.”  It was a bummer to have to stop then and equally so Labor Day weekend on Lucy Vincent Beach when we were told by a security guard that we couldn’t continue our walk on the beach because it was private property.  “Even if we walk in the water?”  “Yes.”


It was at this moment that I thought again about the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. quote at the entrance to this beach.  For all of us who love Mount Desert Island – very loyally, if not exclusively – how fortunate we are that in 1901 a group of wealthy individuals began a trust of private land holdings that, combined with land from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was deeded to create a national park in 1935.  That these individuals chose to preserve one of the world’s most beautiful islands for all to share makes Acadia truly a rare wonder.


If you love Martha’s Vineyard, you may want to learn more about Mount Desert Island.  OUR ACADIA offers tips for exploring, eating, and relaxing.




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