For the last year, we haven’t been able to travel as a family the way we loved to before the pandemic. While we did take a few short road trips to get a change of scenery, we weren’t able to go out and see and do things because of safety concerns for ourselves and children. This Memorial Day weekend, since we were fully vaccinated and could find plenty to do outside, we were finally able to start feeling like we could have a normal family vacation up in Martha’s Vineyard. After a week on the island, we finally stated to feel like things were turning a corner and there is reason for hope with the pandemic ending and regular travel coming back.
Entering the second summer of the pandemic, we knew we needed to get out and go somewhere with our kids, not really for a change of scenery since we only recently moved and it doesn’t feel like the walls have started closing in yet, but more to have something to look forward to and to see some new things. Plus, with limited travel options the past year, we hadn’t been anywhere new with the baby yet, and wanted to start getting him some opportunities to have new experiences. We ended up picking Martha’s Vineyard, a location that had been on our list for a while, mostly because it was the only place we could find any available pet-friendly vacation rental options. Apparently with nowhere international to go this summer, everyone is renting all the places domestically, and the owners aren’t renting them out because they want to stay there. This turned out to be a blessing though as we had an incredible time in the Vineyard and it turned out to be very family friendly.
We don’t always think about it, but we have had some great trips up to New England. Of course I love skiing in Vermont, but in the summer, we had awesome times in Newport, Portsmouth, Mystic, Boston, and Portland when we went over the summers before the boys were born and when they were babies. The New England vibe might be a little salty, but the seafood and drink options are incredible, so we knew we could at least count on eating and drinking well there. It turned out that there were a ton of great things to see and do with kids too.
We drove up to Massachusetts and took the ferry to the island from Woods Hole. We had the option to take a ferry from much closer, but the only car ferry is operated by Steamship Authority out of Woods Hole. We figured with the amount of stuff we needed for three kids and the dog for a week, there was no way we could even come close to making the ferry work. We even ended up getting a roof rack attached for carrying the beach stuff. Our drive from NJ was actually pretty easy, taking about four and a half hours to arrive in town. We stopped for a quick lunch at Shuckers seafood bar, which I picked entirely because of the name, but they ended up having a nice covered waterside patio where the boys looked for sea life while we enjoyed a good selection of local IPA.
I had been hyping up the ferry to the boys the whole week leading up to our trip, excited for the chance to take them outside so we could watch our approach to the island and look at the ships. Unfortunately, we ended up parked next to a wall inches from the driver’s side, and just as we were about to escape the other side, got closed in by a tractor trailer on the passenger side.
I wasn’t expecting much of a beer scene on the island, mostly because the clientelle would prefer wine, or at least I thought, and that it would be too difficult to get supplies to the island. I was completely wrong. Not only did we discover a brewery we loved, Bad Martha, we also found a brewpub in the town the ferry arrived in, Oak Bluffs (though our ferry was actually diverted to the nearby Vineyard Haven so we had to make the 15 minute drive over). After a quick walk around the town to get acclimated, we stopped for what we thought would just be drinks before dinner elsewhere at Offshore Ale Company. As we did the whole time on the island, we sat outside at the cozy patio, and tried out the local brew. After a round of IPA that was worth ordering a second, and the kids starting to show signs of hunger and tireness fatigue, we decided to eat there and found that the seafood was just as good as the beer. I had a bowl of mussels with some massive crusty garlic bread, and of course a few local oysters. The kids absolutely destroyed the burger and fries we got, and the clam chowder my wife got was perfect for the slightly damp and chilly evening.
The next day promised to be the best weather we would have during our week on the island. While I expected that the island would be warm and sunny the whole time, I didn’t realize that the location up north and out in the Atlantic means it doesn’t really warm up until around July 4th rather than Memorial Day. Even though it meant we couldn’t spend the whole week lounging on the beach like I expected, we were able to make a nice morning trip out. It was just warm enough to be able to stay through the early afternoon, but just windy enough that we needed sweatshirts and to keep moving around to stay warm. The water was frigid but it didn’t keep the boys from running in and out while collecting shells. The nice part about the beach there compared to the Jersey shore where we’ve been spending summers is that it stays way less crowded as parking is only on the side of the road along the long and narrow beach rather than in a huge parking lot. We spent our day at South (Katama) Beach along the sound. The island has beaches facing the open ocean, the bay, and the slightly protected sound, making it great for different levels of swimming ability, and offering nice calm water for kids.
While the beach felt a bit warmer than the weather indicated because of the sun, the wind eventually chased us off, and we ended up at Bad Martha’s Farm Brewery outside of Edgartown, where we stayed. During our stay, we realized each town on the island, though never more than about 15 minutes from each other, has a different character. Edgartown, where we stayed, has an old Victorian center with more shops and feels a bit more upscale like a resort. Oak Bluffs has a facinating history of being a popular spot for Black tourism, and celebrates this by taking the pejorative name, “Inkwell”, as the cool local name now. The downtown has a ton of shops and some of the best restaurants on the island, and we found ourselves hanging out there for dinner and dessert more than anywhere else on the Island. The outskirts of Edgartown, where we stayed, are more rural with several working farms and less development.
At Bad Martha’s, we found not one, but three awesome IPAs of varying strength, and a perfect outdoor hangoutt spot that included the boys' favorite, cornhole. While they played, then moved on to coloring, we sampled quite a bit of the menu. My favorite was the Moshup IPA, a lighter session that was perfect for sipping in the sun. I think we ended up getting more sun at the brewery than on the beach since we were so covered up.
In fact, I enjoyed the beer so much that we got a crowler to go and took a drive out to the far end of the island, Menemsha. Now essentially the only spot on the island that still harkens back to the fishing towns that used to dot the island before tourism came in, it’s the perfect place to grab some locally caught seafood and enjoy the sunset on one of the few beaches on the East Coast where it’s possible to see the sun set over the ocean. We grabbed lobster rolls and crab and salmon cakes at Larsen’s Fish Market, then had our own little beach picnic from the trunk of the car while watching the sun descend over the waves. We weren’t alone as there were tons of other families also out there enjoying a sundown dinner and drinks.
One of our favorite parts of staying out on Martha’s Vineyard was the proximity to the water all around. The island feels big when you’re on it, so it’s easy to forget the dependence on boats for getting stuff over from the mainland. There are a few bridges crossing the island, but getting to the far western side, and the most direct route to the eastern side require trips on small ferries. On the west, the island of Chappaquiddick, or Chappy, requires a ride on the small, three car long Chappy Ferry across a short stretch of the sound. The boys loved riding in the car across the water on the ferry made famous by Jaws, even though, thankfully, we didn’t see any marine life.
Out on Chappaquiddick, there’s way more of a rural, small community feel than among the touristy towns on the main part of the island. There are no hotels there, and the only tourist destinations are the beach, a lighhouse with some trails around the nature reserve, and a small but beautiful Japanese Garden. We stopped at the garden and the kids loved seeing the big leafy trees, flowers in bloom since it was spring when we visited, and even the giant turtle in the pond.
I initially thought we would spend the majority of our vacation out on the beach, probably because Jaws, which was filmed around Martha’s Vineyard, and takes place later in the summer, makes it look like that’s the only attraction. However, the weather in early June actually ended up being far better for outdoor activities such as hiking. After exploring the Japense Garden, we went for a longer hike at Felix Neck Bird Sanctuary, a water-side reserve for nesting water birds and other water based wild-life. While we only got a few glimpses of some gulls, ducks, and geese, the boys still loved jumping through the tide pools along the water and searching for crabs and signs of any other animals. It was a soggy walk, but the kids enjoyed it so much they didn’t complain at all on the two mile hike as we went from forest to beach and back.
For even more animal based fun, we stopped in at Island Alpacca, a farm that raises alpaccas for the wool. The docile animals are perfect for kids as they calmly allow petting while they just lay there. We had a hard time pulling the boys away when it was time to move on because they liked the alpaccas so much. We even had to make up names for each one of them as they tried to get their attention so they could pet every single one. Even the baby loved them. He thought they were hilarious and cracked up laughing each time one would amble over or lay down.
We also enjoyed walking around each town and discovering the unique character. In Edgartown, we stopped in at Espresso Love for some awesome cold brew with oat milk, a rarety since it’s been so hard to find the creamy milk substitute in many coffee places near us. While sipping them, we walked around town and the shops including Vineyard favorites that have expanded beyond the island like Black Dog and of course Vineyard Vines where I picked up a shirt and we got matching family hats. We nearly lost one while walking out from town to the Edgartown Lighthouse that guards the harbor, thanks to the strong cross wind on the little spit of land that connects it to the town.
We also explored the harbor and walked along the waterfront through town, stopping to watch the ferry and other boats come and go.
Out past Menemsha, on the far eastern end of the island, the Aquinnah Cliffs and Gay Head Lighthouse were worth the drive out to see and walk around. Though it was actually a bit too foggy to see much of the cliffs while we were there, what we could see was reminiscent of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland and pretty impressive in the multitude of colors that come through in the rock. It’s a a short hike up to the lighthouse and to the viewing platform for the cliffs from the cars, and there’s even a few shops and of course a seafood shack too.
Martha’s Vineyard isn’t great just for walking and hiking as activities for a family either. The island is perfect for bike riding too. There are dozens of miles of dedicated bike paths, bike lanes, and many of the roads have so little traffic, even I, who hasn’t ridden a bike more than a mile since I was a child, felt comfortable. In fact, thanks to a few old bikes in a shed at the rental house we stayed in, I was able to take a 10 mile tour of the island including a quick stop on the beach and past some farms with horses and cows.
One of the farms I rode past, the Farm Institute looked cool enough that we ended up coming back with the kids for a little walk around the pastures and on their trails. We encountered cows, sheep, goats, chickens, and a massive working garden. We didn’t have time to stay for one of their interactive sessions for the kids, but would have loved to see how they work the land and use the produce.
Instead of riding the bikes with kids, or getting up close to the farm animals, we took them back to Oak Bluffs to Flying Horses Carousel, the oldest in the country. They even have the brass rings to try to grab while cicling around the carousel. The kids loved it so much that we ended up riding it three times, getting pretty dizzy in the meantime. It was the perfect old school beach resort family fun.
The part of our trip that felt the most like a return to the pre-pandemic normal wasn’t the travel or even visiting attractions, it was the amount of time we actually spent sitting outside at restaurants. We’ve gone out a few times here and there during the pandemic, but this trip was our first time with multiple meals out in public since the lockdown began. In Oak Bluffs, we had my favorite meal of the whole trip at Lookout Tavern. With their large seating area outside overlooking the water and plenty of heaters which were perfect for the blustery day we were there, it was the perfect spot to sit and enjoy a family meal. We may have over ordered, going with a raw bar sampler of oysters, clams, and shirmp, lobster tacos, lobster bisque, shrimp quesadillas, and fish and chips for the kids, but we ended up finishing just about all of it there. Everyone was so hungry and happy to be sitting outside that we were actually able to enjoy two local brews with dinner as well.
We couldn’t walk through Oak Bluffs at night without a stop for dessert too, and it wasn’t easy with all the great choices in town. We went with ice cream at Mad Martha Ice Cream, grabbing some m&m mix and a pistachio cone for the box, and a loaded peanut butter cup, my favorite flavor, for me.
On one of our other nights, we also came back into town and got in line for the back door at Backdoor Donuts. At 7pm, they open up the back door to sell fresh made, hot donuts right as they are made, rather than waiting for the next morning. It’s a local tradition and we were lucky to get there early enough to not have to wait all that long. Had we arrived even a few minutes later we might have been waiting for the line that already started to wrap around the corner. While the boys went with the honey glazed with sprinkles (they made a great choice), I grabbed a buttercrunch, all of which were made better by the gooey dripping icing.
Unfortunately, after all that eating and exploring, it was time to head home. On the way back, we were actually able to get out of the car on the ferry, and we happened to have the best weather of the trip. We immediately ran to the open front deck and watched our boat leave the island and approach the mainland of Massachussetts as we made our way back to Woods Hole. The boys were just as excited to see the boat and everything around us as I thought they would be on the way there, and it completely made up for being trapped like sardines earlier.
Sitting on the boat as we made our way back, I realized just how far things have come with reopening now. With so much of the population vaccinated, at least in the Northeast, sitting outside on the ferry was probably safer than I had been sitting inside a bus with four dozen strangers with no mask during cold and flu season before the pandemic. While the kids are still at risk until they can be safely vaccinated, things are more in control and manageable for us now. Our great family getaway allowed us to get out and see a ton across the whole island. My boys continued to impress me with how well they did with some pretty exhausting days, tons of fresh air, and hikes for miles across the sand. Through it all, we had an incredible time together as a family, and for a week, life started to feel a bit more normal and less anxious than it had been for over a year.