Lonely Planet Writer

The "Moment" on Martha's Vineyard

Most trips -- at least the good ones -- have a "moment." An experience that either transforms you, or hits you with an kid-like sense of awe of a new place. Even a new look at an old one. When in Burma last year, I biked on a dirt road out of a village you could only get to by boat, and stopped. Farmers called out nearby and women carrying huge stacks of peppers and onions on their heads stopped to chat. I knew it before, but it drove it home for me: "stop travel" is even more rewarding than "slow travel."

I had a moment in Martha's Vineyard too, when I spent a week there researching last month. I previously had the impression, as some outsiders do, that it was a snobby place for the rich -- I wouldn't necessarily be welcomed. I couldn't have been more wrong. And I realized that right when I got there.

Arriving late on the new direct ferry from New York City to Oak Bluffs on Friday nights – nicknamed the “vomit comet” by some seasick passengers (see video below on how to avoid nausea) – I picked up my guesthouse keys from the island’s only brewpub, Oak Bluffs’ Offshore Alehouse, and found myself sipping a tasty pale ale and discussing Larry from “The Three Stooges” with a couple “wash ashore” residents relocated from Rhode Island and North Carolina. One, the bartender Glen (who looks a bit like Larry, to be honest), soon broke into a soliloquy. "People are good at two things at least. Take Kevin Costner." This I didn't expect. "People think he can just act. But I have seen his band. The guy can play guitar really well -- and he can sing too." (Judge for yourself.)

Open bar stools often lead to chit-chat, but not quite as immediate and unguarded as this. And it was only the beginning.

Vera Shorter, an active African American NAACP leader in her eighties who offered me vodka or chocolate cake on arrival of her Vineyard Haven home, first moved to the island in 1976 because her and her husband had problems buying property in New York City. "The story would always change when we showed up and they saw we were black." She found none of that on the island. "It's welcoming to everyone." Her tip to visitors: “Just go up to people and say hi. No one acts funny about it.”

I did this a lot -- talking with yacht club members, fishers, boat makers, farmers in muscle shirts named Rusty, puppeteers. After getting an unexpected invite to the members-only Edgartown Yacht Club, a gussied-up middle-aged woman leaned in to a conversation I was having with another about why Menemsha sunsets are the best on the island. "Just take a cooler of beer," she warned, solid advice considering Menemsha is a dry town. "Otherwise you'll look like a loser."

My expanded view of the Vineyard came from all these experiences, but one incident more than the others.

Back from the beach, two 12-old girls were shuffling their feet in a public park and call each other “goose” and “centipede.” They purposely ignored a nearby boy who sullenly rapped a few 50 Cent verses. It’d be a typical summer night scene on Martha’s Vineyard, but these kids were “year-rounders.” Their families stay on after the crowds of “summer people” and weekenders thin out after Labor Day.

Also they were wearing deerskin.

I was part of an audience of 25 to watch the kids, along with a couple dozen Wampanoag re-enactors, perform “Legends of Moshup” outside their tribal headquarters at the island’s remote east end. That it was nearly empty took nothing away of seeing such an event under starlight on the opposite side of the island from most visitors. It certainly crushed any lingering sense that Martha’s Vineyard was solely a playground for the rich and famous.

And it was a moment.