Mon June 22, 2020
Riding Martha’s Vineyard has been on my list for a few years now – neither Charlotte nor I had ever been to the island. There are four easily reachable lighthouses there, and this more than anything finally drove us to firmly schedule a day-trip. Though there aren’t that many miles of road on the island to choose from, it was nice to have a route from NER’s Ed Conde with suggested stops and scenic views all ready to go. Our friends, Bob and Cheryl Woodsom agreed to come with us, so we set a time to meet in Woods Hole to try for the Monday 08:35 ferry to Oak Bluffs.
The forecast looked good, promising to be cloudier and less humid than the recent trend, promising a bit more comfort at the slower pace we expected on the island. Char and I were just about to depart from home, when I realized the route hadn’t transferred to my Zumo 595 GPS. Cursing, I schtoomped back into the house, helmet on, to re-do the export from Basecamp. And tried, and tried, and tried. My customized route just would not properly copy over to my GPS, while others copied fine. Finally, I managed to import it to my secondary Zumo 350, and we were able to get on the road 20 minutes behind schedule.
I later narrowed down the GPS issue to using the ferry terminals as Via points back and forth from the mainland. Not sure why, but this caused the route to choke. If someone knows why, please comment!
We made good time down I-495, seeing some patchy fog while crossing the Bourne Bridge. MA 28 got us quickly down through Falmouth and into the bustling village of Woods Hole. Pie in the Sky Bakery is situated right at the head of the main drag, so we immediately spotted the Woodsoms’ bikes and parked in line, hearing our names called out as we doffed our helmets and donned our COVID masks. We’d missed the ferry, so joined our friends across the street where they were enjoying coffee on a stone wall.
Today marked the first day of Massachusetts’ “Phase II, part 2” pandemic re-opening, with restaurants now allowed to open for indoor dining with severe restriction, but Pie in the Sky was still offering to-go service only. I’d already eaten breakfast, but was dying to try the pie here. I hoofed it over for a coffee and nice piece of key lime pie…boy was it delicious!
The ferries from Woods Hole service two different terminals on the Vineyard during the summer – Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven. I’d brought a printout of the current ferry schedule and we decided to take the next ferry to Vineyard Haven, then just beeline directly to Oak Bluffs to pick up the planned route. After a half hour of catching up, we mounted up and rode round the corner to the ferry.
I had read online that bikes were allowed to ride up to the front of the line to board, so I started to bypass some of the cars in line, only to realize that there was a gate booth to pass before getting to the ferry. The worker there told us we needed tickets before boarding and pointed us in the right direction. Bob and I each went inside to purchase round trip tickets. They charge per vehicle AND per person each way, so for our two-up motorcycle, it came to about $110. A bit steeper than I’d imagined, but it was too late to back out now. And hey, if you live in New England, you should go see the Vineyahd at least once, right?
We were directed up the ramp and ended up being among the last vehicles to board the 09:30 ferry, squeezed into one of the rear corners. They asked Char to board separately on foot. There were no tie-down loops or other accouterments offered to help stabilize the bikes, but the water was flat calm today.
We donned masks after removing helmets, and the crew were all masked as well. One of them said we could stay with the bikes as long as we wanted, but that after the turn out of the harbor in 5 minutes, it should be smooth sailing for the ~45 minute crossing of Vineyard Sound.
The big doors close together on a semi-circular track. Once shut it became a bit stuffy there in the hold. At either corner of the vehicle deck, there is a large “window” opening to allow fresh air and limited views of the sound while underway.
Nobska Lighthouse is a pretty sight from the water, though my phone zoom doesn’t do it justice. After 5-10 minutes, we felt comfortable enough with the smooth motion of the ferry to leave the bikes and go aloft for the restrooms and better view.
There are two peninsulas, named East Chop and West Chop, that define Vineyard Sound Harbor – “chop” referring to an entranceway into a body of water. Each has a lighthouse, and the ferry provided closer views of the one on West Chop on our approach.
We headed back down to the vehicle deck when prompted by an announcement and geared up as the ferry was put through docking procedures. The big doors were opened again, providing nice close-up views of the yachts moored in the marina all around us.
Being last on, we were almost last off the ferry. After disembarking and a quick stop to allow Char to hop on, we exited into the brief rush of ferry traffic on the streets of Vineyard Haven. Once past the first intersection, it was pretty clear traffic-wise. We cruised over to the next town of Oak Bluffs, absorbing the scenery of our first Vineyard excursion on a beautiful day.
In just two short miles, we circled by the other ferry terminal in Oak Bluffs and picked up our intended NER route. We headed up Circuit Street, one of the primary commercial streets in town, noting that many of the shops, mostly restaurants, were still closed down. Many had hopeful window signs promising that they would be “opening soon”.
The first stops on our route were to be at the famous “gingerbread cottages” of Oak Bluffs. This is a private neighborhood run by the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, consisting of a central wooded park encircled by a narrow lane with other small alley and footpaths radiating outward, packed tightly with small cottages and bungalows, brightly painted and dripping with every imaginable shape of the ornate woodworking style known as gingerbread.
My GPS messed up almost right away, taking us into a parking lot off Circuit St. Luckily, Bob was monitoring the route on his GPS and got us back on track into the little maze of cottages.
No sooner had we snapped a couple photos and gone around a turn, when an older fellow with grumpy countenance approached in the middle of the street, waving us down. Politely yet firmly, he informed us that motorcycles were not allowed on the property and that “the police will stop you if they see you”.
There were small signs stationed here and there stating no mopeds or motorcycles allowed and that even bicycles must be walked (!), but such vehicle discrimination hadn’t registered for us since there were cars parked here and there along the way and at some of the cottages, plus speed limit signs. We apologized for our ignorance and he pointed us to the quickest way out of the neighborhood.
We thought it strange that an NER route would lead us through restricted space, and figured Ed was either being a rebel or that the ordinance had been only recently enacted. While enjoying the thought of the former option, we figured it was the latter! Wanting to explore further required being on foot, so we found street parking on Lake Ave next to the harbor.
We enjoyed a nice stroll back through the shady lanes of the “campground”, which is probably a better way to enjoy the area anyway. While the temps were in the 70s, the humidity was up so we walked slowly to minimize the melting effect in our MC pants and boots.
The neighborhood is literally centered around an impressive 19th centry outdoor tabernacle building constructed mostly of wrought iron. Religious camp festivals were originally held here around a central preaching area and the current layout of cottages had sprung up gradually around it, mimicking the closely spaced tent sites of attendees.
We returned to the bikes, hydrated, and continued on our way, making a clockwise sweep around the East Chop peninsula. I captured my photo of East Chop Lighthouse without a problem, though the grounds entrance was roped off.
Rounding the corner on East Chop Drive, we were confronted with a Road Closed barrier and picked our way through the nearby neighborhoods, finally rejoining the shoreline a half mile down by Lincoln Park. A resident walking by told us that the road was closed due to erosion.
Heading west across the Beach Road causeway & bridge, back into Tisbury, offered distracting views of Vineyard Sound Harbor once again.
We jogged over to Main St, following it out the West Chop peninsula, commenting how typically familiar these residential areas looked. When there wasn’t an ocean view, we could have been any number of Massachusetts towns. We pulled over in the narrow shoulder to get an easy photo of the West Chop Lighthouse.
Passing by Oak Grove Cemetery, I spotted a small lighthouse structure and had to stop for a quick photo. After later research, I think it is probably a memorial to local sailors, erected in the 19th century.
The route led us on a northerly arc on Lamberts Cove Road around West Tisbury. We then veered off State Road onto North Road, to the small fishing village of Menemsha, a picturesque little harbor and beach where several scenes in Jaws were filmed.
We were thinking about lunch at this point, and Larsen’s Fish Market was open for to-go orders. Their terse menu was a bit hard to decipher however, and one of our party was not big on seafood beyond your typical “fish and chips”, which wasn’t listed. We decided to hold off and try for a sandwich at the Aquinnah store a bit further on. Instead, we strolled masks-on down the length of the marina/parking area to the beach for a look-see.
Menemsha’s small harbor is poised right inside the narrow mouth of Menemsha Creek which opens into a wider stream and large inland tidal pond. To continue west on the island, you must travel south around the pond, through the town of Chilmark and into the historic native Wampanoag settlement of Aquinnah (meaning “end of the island”). Lobsterville Beach takes up the remaining shoreline west of the creek breakwater, and West Basin Road provides a nice cruise alongside it to see Menemsha Basin (harbor) from the other side of the creek.
Parking in the nearly empty lot, we walked out a sandy path to the beach, to take in the views and watch the tidal current ripping through the narrow chop.
Ready for some lunch, we passed the final miles to the western end of Martha’s Vineyard, where Gay Head Lighthouse perches above the beautifully colored clay cliffs. This is quite a beefy lighthouse in circumference, and I later learned that it had contained an impeccable first order Fresnel lens (the very largest size) renowned for its quality. I also learned, too late, that the lens is available for viewing at a museum in Tisbury, and would have liked to have stopped. I have seen one first order Fresnel up close (in California) and they are definitely quite amazing to behold.
There was plenty of parking next to a nice parkland area with several picnic tables that would do nicely for a lunch spot. We went up some stairs and uphill on a wide foot path lined by shacks selling kitsch to tourists. There were people about, but it wasn’t crowded by any means, and most were wearing masks.
The Aquinnah Shop Restaurant sits near the top of the hill, with it’s famous rear deck overlooking the ocean. CLOSED! – to the disappointment of our stomachs!
Apparently, they are also on limited hours during the pandemic. 🙁
Ignoring our gastrointestinal grumblings, we continued to the observation decks, from where we could witness the beauty of the famous ocean cliffs for ourselves. Pictures don’t do it justice, but in the first shot below, you can see tiny people down on the beach, to give some scale.
Figuring we now had to wait for lunch until we were back across the island, we munched snacks back in the parking lot to tide us over. We completed our loop round the west end of the Vineyard on Moshup Road and threaded back through the ponds to Chilmark. We veered right on South Road for our push back east across the island – fairly straight cruising and not much to see along this section except for the airport.
I added a short loop to the route from Edgartown down to Katama County Beach that wasn’t on the NER route. This little eight mile addition was actually quite interesting and scenic, with even a couple curves thrown in on Edgartown Bay Road (!). Apparently, this loop had been dropped from the NER route at one point due to poor pavement, but the roads are currently in perfect condition. Note: Based on our report it has now been re-added to the published route.
Back in Edgartown, which is the oldest European settlement (and largest population town) on the island, we wound our way through the quaint narrow streets, taking enjoyment in picking out the 150 year old historic buildings interspersed with more modern island dwelling styles. Bob wanted to see the “Chappy” ferry that runs the five minute gap over to Chappaquiddick Island, but we missed the turn. Instead we pulled over along North Water Street for a stunning view of our fourth and final lighthouse of the day, Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse.
The original lighthouse here had a long history of cruddy workmanship and questionable living safety for the keepers. After being all but destroyed by the 1938 hurricane, it was replaced with the current tower, which had been used as a rear range light at Crane Beach in Ipswich MA, from where it was transported by barge. There is a footpath across a breakwater out to the light and it is sometimes open to the public to climb, but we settled for the photos from the road.
We could see Chappaquiddick Beach Club with its row of private cabanas just across Edgartown Harbor from this spot. Bob wondered if it was worth going over there, but I somewhat recalled that most of the roads over there are sand/gravel. Instead, he settled for paying homage to a nearby street sign that all Beemer riders can love…
We cruised back through Edgartown, on the lookout for a good place to get a late lunch. No good option presented itself, so we decided to find someplace after completing our loop back in Oak Bluffs. We headed there now, following Seaview Avenue over the long scenic causeway separating Sengekontacket Pond from Nantucket Sound.
This stretch of beach and especially the bridge over the breachway was strongly familiar, and we wondered aloud if it was the spot used in one of the Jaws movies. Having looked it up, I can now confirm that yes indeed this was the bridge in the film where the shark enters the pond to attack the small sailboats. In fact, it is known as “Jaws Bridge”. There were crowds of people lining up to jump off it into the small channel below. Should have stopped for a pic, but, well… HANGRY!
Back in Oak Bluffs around 15:30, cruising past the well-manicured Ocean Park, we completed our slow motion tour of the island at last. We found some street parking by Circuit Ave and were yet again disappointed to see that our next choice of restaurant, MV Chowder Company, was closed!
With an intent hungry gleam in her eye, Cheryl led us on a merry footchase around the square looking for a likely lunch spot. Everything was to-go only, or else closed up. Walking up Circuit Ave, we spotted an open restaurant, Island House Bar & Grill, with some limited outdoor seating right along the sidewalk. Before we knew it, we were seated and had ordered soft drinks before there was a chance to consult Yelp or TripAdvisor (which may have deterred us). This was the first time any of us had sat “in” a restaurant to eat since the pandemic began, so it felt somewhat awkward.
It was a nice little spot, especially with the street not being super busy at this day/time. My lemonade did not arrive cold, despite having ice in it, and the fries were bland, but the fish sandwich was OK. Beggars couldn’t be choosers at this point in the pandemic! Service was attentive.
We reviewed the ferry schedule while eating and decided to head back from Vineyard Haven on the 5pm boat. We had plenty of time to relax a bit, people watch, and cool off in the late afternoon shade of the porch overhang.
After finishing up, we rode back to the ferry terminal, the ferry was just arriving. The gatehouse worker told us to ride past the lines of cars, up to the cones by the ramp. We could now relax a bit more, watching all the traffic coming off the ferry and the crew preparing to turn things around. They allowed us to ride up first and go all the way to the front of the vehicle hold, which meant we’d also be first off the boat. This apparently surprised one of the ferry crew, who said they don’t usually do that. Shhhh….
Back in Woods Hole, we searched unsuccessfully for someplace open where we might find ice cream and reluctantly re-joined the line of ferry traffic heading north on MA 28. Char found us a branch location of Somerset Creamery on route 28A in Bourne, and we made our way there to put a frosty sugary ending onto a great day trip. This local ice cream chain has been on my list of places to try and it did not disappoint.
I enjoyed my Cherry Choc Chip while we sat on some boulders by the lot entrance and reflected on the day. As expected, this was not so much a riding/leaning type of day, but was all about the stops and just being a tourist. I think it is worth experiencing at least once on two wheels (because who wants to travel by cage in a scenic area?), but probably wouldn’t do it the same way next time.
If I visit again, I’d probably want to either take bicycles and explore specific areas a bit more – maybe go for a dip. Or just rent a scooter/moped from one of the shops on the island, which are more than capable of handling the very low speed limits and getting you around the island. Riding a big sport-tourer there is overkill, but either way Martha’s Vineyard is worth the visit.