Daytrip: Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard

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Offically known as the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Ground, this Victorian neighborhood on the north side of the island was originally built as a religious retreat. Photo by m01229 via flickr CC BY-2.0.

I didn’t make the effort to get to my twentieth college reunion this year, but, as a result, I made a point to reconnect with a few old friends I’d lost touch with. This proved to have a better outcome, really, because we’ve caught up in some great locations and have had more quality time than we would’ve with the awkward socializing we surely would have encountered if we’d met up on the quad. So when one long-lost pal invited me and my family to join her for a beach day on Martha’s Vineyard, it seemed as good an opportunity as any to pack up the kids and a cooler and head to East Chop and Oak Bluffs for the day.

As the crow flies, the Vineyard is closer to Newport than Boston is, but once you’re there, you feel a world away. We went by way of our own boat, though it’s just as easy to take the ferry. Spending the night wasn’t in the cards, so – although it’s a bit of a trek – we buzzed there and back in a day. That still gave us plenty of time to hang at the beach and walk around town.

It also meant that we were able to tie up in Oak Bluffs Harbor free of charge for the day, and walk over to the East Chop Beach Club to meet our friend and her family. (It’s private, but, if you go, there are two public beaches within walking or biking distance from the ferry terminal.) With its wood-paneled walls and shuffleboard decks, the club house is a charming reminder of what a day at the beach in New England should be – uncomplicated and unpretentious.

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Oak Bluffs harbor is bustling, but peaceful. Photo by Ernest McGray, Jr. via flickr CC BY SA-2.0

The beach faces north, exposing it to a seemingly endless view of Vineyard Sound, where boats zig zag across the horizon all day. Off a pier, a water slide and diving board fling daring kids from a dock into the ocean. Add a frozen lemonade from the snack bar to this scene, and you’ve got a perfect summer day.

Eventually ready to leave the beach, but not the island, we walked along the edge of the harbor into the busy town of Oak Bluffs. We took a short detour to walk among the colorful gingerbread cottages – officially called the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association and listed on the National Register of Historic Places – a darling neighborhood of tiny 18th-century houses built around a religious movement “dedicated to the salvation of human souls.” In the center of the houses sits the beautiful, open-air Tabernacle, which is still used for religious services as well community events, including a flea market. No matter how many times you visit, it never fails to delight.

The Flying Horses carousel – which touts the honor of being our nation’s oldest platform carousel – was our next stop. Dating back to 1876 and fully restored in 1986, it’s a bona fide, old time-y experience that even adults can get into. The horses themselves are stationery as they go round – there’s no gear sending them up and down; the ride is that old – and have authentic horse hair tails, and whoever catches a brass ring wins their next ride free. Our three-year-old daughter was smitten, and although we couldn’t convince our eight-year-old son to hop on, he was happy to play in the barn’s small arcade.

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The entrance to the East Chop Beach Club is charming, but no-nonsense. Photo by Meaghan O’Neill.

A long day on the water and playing tourist always requires a bit of sugar to bribe keep our little people from wilting in late afternoon, and a quick stop at Big Dipper Ice Cream and Café yielded homemade ice cream and doughnuts, plus a caffeine kick for us parents – just what we needed to bring everyone back to life.

Slowly (and slightly begrudgingly) we meandered back to the launch dock, from where we were ferried the short distance to our boat. With the golden afternoon sun still illuminating our faces and the shore, we watched diners tucking into their seafood platters under grass umbrellas that swished in the sea breeze at Nancy’s Restaurant & Snack Bar, which offers classic seafood and clam shack fare. Sure, it’s a little kitschy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not appealing and delicious.

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Wandering among Oak Bluff’s gingerbread houses is a delightful pastime that never gets old. Photo by 6SN7 via flickr CC BY-2.0.

Back on the boat, the kids piled up on a bean-bag chair – arms and legs tangled around one another – snuggled under a blanket, and quickly fell asleep. Once under way, my husband and I squinted into the sun, now lowering itself toward the horizon. The choppy water sent spray high over the beam, leaving our sunglasses speckled with with constellations of salty dots. Beyond Vineyard Sound and bouncing across the sea, we each popped open a can of beer, clinking them together in an informal toast – a casual exclamation point to a fantastic day.

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The East Chop Beach Club offers a quintessential New England day at the shore. Photo by 6SN7 via flickr CC BY-2.0.

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The Flying Horses carousel, built in 1876, was full restored in 1986. Photo by 6SN7 via flickr CC BY-2.0.

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The Big Dipper Ice Cream and Café is a perfect spot for an afternoon pick-me-up. Photo by Meaghan O’Neill.

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The author and her family enjoying a day on the beach at East Chop, Martha’s Vineyard.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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