When Cape Codders talk about the islands, they aren’t thinking palm trees and steel bands.
They’re talking about Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, two storied islands off the Cape’s southern coast. While they share many allures – great beaches, bicycle-friendly roads and trails, lodgings that run the gamut from luxury hotels to hostels, and restaurants to suit every taste – each island has its own distinctive vibe.
Martha’s Vineyard is a little more laid back, a little more homespun, while Nantucket rocks its reputation as a touch more buttoned-up, a bit more upscale. Here’s a comparison of Martha’s Vineyard vs. Nantucket that should help you decide which one to visit on your next island getaway.
Day-trippers, take note: Martha’s Vineyard is 7 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, while Nantucket is 30 miles out to sea. A trip to the Vineyard from Falmouth by ferry takes 30-45 minutes. The traditional ferry to Nantucket from Hyannis, on the other hand, eats up a full 2.5 hours of your day. But if a day is all you have and your heart is set on Nantucket, your best bet is a high-speed ferry operated by the Steamship Authority or Hy-Line from Hyannis, which will deposit you on the island in an hour.
On Martha’s Vineyard, wander among the famously ornate gingerbread cottages at the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association campground or ride the Flying Horses, the oldest platform carousel in the U.S. Both attractions are National Historic Landmarks and an easy walk from the ferry landing in Oak Bluffs.
Experience the island’s booming oyster farming industry firsthand with tours by Farm. Field. Sea and Cottage City Oysters. Climb the Gay Head Lighthouse perched atop the clay cliffs in Aquinnah. Located on sacred ground for the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, this historic redbrick lighthouse offers 360-degree views.
Did we mention alpacas? At Island Alpaca Company of Martha’s Vineyard, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the farm, watch a video about these extraordinary animals, and, of course, browse the store filled with alpaca products. South Beach (Katama Beach) in Edgartown, a 3-mile barrier beach accessible by car, bus and bicycle, is one of the most popular strands on the Vineyard.
Whaling put Nantucket on the map, and the Whaling Museum is a must-see. Once you get past the jaw-dropping skeleton of a 46-foot male sperm whale hanging from the ceiling, check out the restored 1847 spermaceti candle factory, the Fresnel lens that originally beamed from Sankaty Head Light and the extraordinary scrimshaw collection.
Walk the picture-postcard, cobblestone-paved downtown, admiring the grand homes that once belonged to wealthy whaling captains. One of the best ways to experience the village of Siasconset (’Sconset to the locals) is to take the Sconset Bluff Walk, which winds its way through a small neighborhood of cottages and along a bluff with mansions on one side and gorgeous ocean views on the other. Bordered by grass-covered dunes and beach roses, Surfside Beach on Nantucket’s south coast is one of the most beautiful beaches on the island.
For elegant lodging on Martha’s Vineyard, consider the AAA Four Diamond Rated Charlotte Inn in Edgartown, noted for its lush gardens. Families may prefer the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven or Summercamp in Oak Bluffs, in operation since 1789 and totally revamped in 2015. For a more bare-bones experience, Hostelling International operates a hostel in Vineyard Haven from May to October.
Nantucket is known for its luxury lodgings, which include several AAA Four Diamond Rated properties: White Elephant Hotel, on Nantucket Harbor, close to Children’s Beach and the Brant Point Lighthouse; the Wauwinet, Nantucket’s only Relais & Chateau property; the Nantucket Hotel & Resort, offering suites that sleep up to 15; and Greydon House, a stylish newcomer close to downtown. On the other end of the scale, Star of the Sea youth hostel offers private and dormitory accommodations across from Surfside Beach in a beautiful building that was formerly a lifesaving station.
Eat and Drink
On Martha’s Vineyard, the Black Dog Tavern in Vineyard Haven is a classic, offering an eclectic, changing menu of local seafood, sandwiches, burgers and homemade bakery treats. Nancy’s Restaurant in Oak Bluffs serves fish and seafood a number of ways – baked, fried, blackened, pan-seared – but its most popular item may be the Dirty Banana, the most famous frozen drink on the island. Back Door Donuts in Oak Bluffs doesn’t look like much during the day, but once the sun sets, the baking begins, with people lining up to buy fresh-baked doughnuts and other confections until 1 a.m.
For a romantic evening out on Nantucket, it would be hard to beat the Five Diamond rated TOPPER’S at the Wauwinet, showcasing seasonally inspired New England cuisine with an emphasis on local produce and seafood – the locally harvested Retsyo oysters are cultivated just 300 yards away. The wine list features an impressive 1,500 labels and 25,000 bottles. At the Brotherhood of Thieves, evocative of an 1840s whaling bar, the menu consists largely of hearty sandwiches and burgers, along with a good selection of craft beers on tap. On the eastern side of the island, Millie’s serves five varieties of New Orleans-inspired fish tacos, along with yellowfin tuna poke, creative salads, and a legendary cocktail, the Madaket Mystery.
Only on Martha’s Vineyard
Founded in 1989, the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail includes 30 locations that celebrate the contributions, history and culture of African Americans on the Vineyard. Shearer Cottage, the first African American-owned guest house on the island, was listed in the original Green Book, the basis for the Academy Award-winning movie of the same name.
Only on Nantucket
The harsh whaling industry launched a craft of delicate beauty: Nantucket lightship baskets, beautiful, handmade, one-of-a-kind baskets that are often fashioned into purses. Even if you can’t spring for these iconic (and expensive) treasures, some basket makers, such as Jerry Brown on Old South Wharf, will let you watch them at work in their studios/shops. The Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum has an impressive collection.
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