Friday, October 9, 2020

The Vineyard: Coastal Beacons, Colorful Cliffs, and Gingerbread (Part 1)

Noepe: Land Amid the Waters

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
09 Oct 2020 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - MVY (West Tisbury, MA) 2.5 2165.3

Dense cold air, utterly still, sustained tendrils of ground fog that stretched, hovering, over the grass parallel to the runway. The Warrior climbed hungrily into cool air over a Technicolor landscape harboring pockets of mist and shadow that extended beyond the horizon. It was the time of year for wide temperature swings as the sun transited from east to west and soon, the condensed moisture wrung from the air by cold would be reabsorbed. By then, I would be far away.

I was bound for Martha's Vineyard, the storied isle off the Massachusetts coast south of Cape Cod. It seemed a perfect destination to fulfill the promise of a beautiful vacation day.

After minimal interaction with Rochester Approach at the recently renamed Fredrick Douglass International Airport, I was cleared as filed for the Vineyard. I chose to fly on an IFR flight plan via airways that morning just to stay conversant with flying in the system. To my surprise, I was not issued any significant route changes as I approached the eastern seaboard.

At 7,000 feet, I slipped into the fast lane and was carried eastbound by an atmosphere that added 30+ knots to my groundspeed.

Though I was filed IFR, low clouds below were the closest I came to instrument meteorological conditions. That is to say, I did not come very close at all.

With tailwinds gradually increasing along the route, I reached reached a maximum ground speed of 161 knots between the Putnam and Providence VORs.

I went feet wet over Narragansett Bay on the border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. 

Owing to a southeast heading that morning, I stared into the sun for most of the flight. Over the Atlantic, the sea glowed intensely with reflected sunlight, searing to any gaze cast in that direction.

Mt Hope Bay

Round Hill Town Beach

Just before crossing over the ocean proper, Providence Approach passed me to Boston Approach who subsequently provided vectors for a visual to runway 6 at the Martha's Vineyard Airport.

Over Buzzard's Bay about to fly over Naushon and Pasque Islands

Never too far from land, I crossed over the Elizabeth Islands. Several of the Elizabeth Islands are owned by the Forbes family, including the two that I overflew on descent to the Vineyard. 

Fun fact: Pasque Island is mostly covered in poison ivy. (Note to self: in the event of engine failure, aim for Naushon. There's no need to compound your problems.)

Martha's Vineyard is a big island (~ 96 square miles), the third largest off the East Coast behind Long Island and Mount Desert Island. Unlike Mount Desert Island, it is quite flat and lacking in the mountainous topography from which the island in Maine takes its name. Set within a dense forest, the location of the airport was apparent from many miles out as a lopsided plus sign cleared of vegetation.

Aquinnah, the westernmost portion of Martha's Vineyard, is nearly separated from the rest of the island by Menemsha (gesundheit!) and Squibnocket ("place where the red ground nut grows") Ponds. I would become more familiar with the fishing port of Menemsha later that day.

Making landfall on Martha's Vineyard with Cape Cod visible to the north

From above, it was clear that Martha's Vineyard had not yet embraced autumn's colorful palette.

The south side of Martha's Vineyard is composed of multiple ponds and coves capped by a narrow strand that protects them from open ocean.

A less than subtle crosswind made me work a bit for a decent landing. As I cleared the runway, Vineyard Tower directed me to the south end of the ramp where transient overnight parking is denoted by blue ropes at the tiedowns. There is also a restaurant ramp farther north for $100 hamburger seekers visiting the Plane View restaurant.

Total flight time was two hours and 14 minutes with an average ground speed of 146 knots; not too shabby for a 42 year old Piper Warrior and her somewhat older pilot. Martha's Vineyard was my 207th unique airport visited. Otherwise, there is very little to say about the flight to Martha's Vineyard. It was beautiful, smooth, expedient, and without any flaw that I could discern.

Wrangler's Revenge

I was marshaled to parking by a woman from the airport who tied the Warrior down before I could finish my post-flight cockpit duties. She waited patiently in a nearby shuttlebus for me to finish, then drove me to the airport's general aviation terminal.

All airport buildings including the control tower presented a weathered shaker-sided aesthetic that I mentally catalogued as "Vineyard Gray". I placed my fuel order with the airport staff, then made my way to the commercial terminal to pick up a rental car.

Massachusetts had some particular rules about two week quarantines depending on a traveler's point of origin. Fortunately, New York was one of the few exempted states. Nobody asked where I flew in from, but if they had, I was covered.

"How would you like a free upgrade to a Jeep Wrangler Gladiator?" asked the friendly young woman at the Hertz rental counter. I can only assume that she was smiling at me as she said it; masks make expressions very difficult to read.

Are you f'ing kidding me? I thought, recalling the dreadful Jeep Wrangler "upgrade" we received in Bar Harbor earlier this year. But I also realized that the Wrangler would be larger and more comfortable than the compact car I reserved out of deference to my budget. 

"Sure," I responded, making an effort to suppress how I really felt about it. I smiled as I said it, but she would have had no way of knowing that. Stunts like this are probably why Hertz declared bankruptcy, grumbled my inner curmudgeon.

Long story short, the Gladiator was much more enjoyable to drive than the Wrangler in Bar Harbor. The steering was not sloppy, the engine quiet, and the transmission smooth. I decided that the previous Jeep was probably just a poor example of the breed.


I had four goals for my time on Martha's Vineyard: to enjoy fresh seafood, to see the island's four lighthouses (there is a fifth on Chappaquiddick that I did not plan to visit), to hike, and to explore the famous Gingerbread Houses of Oak Bluffs. To that end, I pointed the Gladiator west toward Aquinnah (Wampanoag for "end of the island"), formerly known as Gay Head (named for the gaily-colored clay cliffs of the region).

Locations I visited on Martha's Vineyard. Click here for an interactive version of this map.

Along the way, I passed a sign for "Lobsterville" and thought that it sounded like either a delicious or absolutely terrifying place to visit. I imagined lobsters crawling around town, waving their claws for emphasis in political debates, mowing the lawns of their little lobster homes, cheering for the crickets (baby lobsters) at lobster Little League. 

Other than mentally, I did not venture down that road.

The brick lighthouse in Aquinnah was constructed in 1856 to replace the original wooden tower built at the site in 1799. Of the many lighthouses that I have visited over the years, this is one of the most unique looking.

The lighthouse presides over a particularly nasty section of ocean. Beneath the waves lurks the Devil's Bridge, a rocky obstruction extending to the southwest from Gay Head.

Once slated for destruction in the 1980s at the hands of the US government, the lighthouse was saved by a civilian organization that took responsibility for its upkeep (along with the East Chop and Edgartown lights). In 2015, the lighthouse was moved 129 feet inland from the edge of the constantly eroding clay bluffs with the prior location of the tower depicted by a stone circle.

The lighthouse was automated in 1956 and the redundant lighthouse keeper's dwelling razed. Now the tower stands alone.

During the summer season, the lighthouse can be toured. By all accounts, the view from the observation deck is impressive. Unfortunately, the lighthouse was closed during my out of season visit. With that said, it was a fine trade-off for the smaller crowds and cooler weather that I enjoyed.

Although the tower itself is not particularly tall, it stands on the highest point of Gay Head and has a commanding view of the surrounding area. It can be seen from all around Aquinnah. 

From the overlook, the colorful clay bluffs for which Gay Head was named are visible. As much as I appreciated the view from above, I set off down the Aquinnah South Head Trail to the beach to get a different perspective on the cliffs.

Looking southward, the Atlantic Ocean continued to dazzle where its surface scattered the sun's rays. A shadow in the distance marked the presence of an island south of Martha's Vineyard: Nomans Land.

With blustery winds and mid-50s temperatures, the beach was not exactly crowded.

I set my sights on the fantastically colored clay cliffs and walked along the tide line where the sand was firmer.

Eventually, I encountered signs indicating an end to the public beach. But footprints in the sand continued northward and so did I.

In texture, the clay cliffs resembled Chimney Bluffs near Sodus. Quite unlike the monochromatic Bluffs in New York, the diversity of color here was stunningly beautiful.

Many of the formations had signs in front of them admonishing against removal of any clay. That seemed like a legitimate request.

I thoroughly enjoyed the hike along the beach, right up until I looked at my watch. The Jeep was in a parking spot with a one hour time limit that I was in danger of exceeding. I hurried back to the car and, though five minutes late, managed to avoid being ticketed.

Easy For You To Say

From Aquinnah, I drove to Menemsha (Mahna Mahna?) for lunch at the Menemsha Fish Market. This no frills eatery is located right on the wharf where fishing boats deliver the day's catch.

I ordered a hot buttered lobster roll and a cup of New England clam chowder for less than I paid for the average lobster roll in Maine earlier this year. 

The fish market also displayed a sign warning people not to stand in the adjacent road. It seemed like good advice, especially when I departed and had to dodge people standing in the road outside of the competing Larsen's Fish Market. Clearly, Larsen's did not care enough to post such a useful and informative sign.

As for the t-shirt, Menemsha was the setting for Amity Island in Stephen Spielberg's Jaws. I never saw the movie, being of an age that made it too scary when first run and too hokey by the time I was older.

Owing to the pandemic, there was no indoor seating available. Instead, patrons of the Menemsha Fish Market sat on the wharf next to the fishing boats. Rustic setting aside -- or quite possibly because of it -- my lunch was absolutely delicious. Having flown for lobster more times this year than any other (3x), I was quite pleased with myself.

My lunch experience was augmented by an outstanding view of the Menemsha Basin. Surrounded by fishing boats, I momentarily recalled my visit to the fishing village of Mallaig in Scotland.

After lunch, I explored the wharf before going in search of the next coastal beacon.

As a sign of the times, the swordfish harpooner sculpture was masked. COVID-19 infiltrates even remote fishing villages, living up to its reputation by putting the "pan" in pandemic.

East Chop Lighthouse

East Chop Lighthouse stands on Telegraph Hill in Oak Bluffs on the northeast end of the island. Built in 1878 of cast iron, it is the third lighthouse to occupy the site since 1869. Earlier wooden lighthouses had an unfortunate habit of burning down.

The short, cylindrical structure reminded me of the red pierhead lighthouse in South Haven, MI and I experienced a momentary pang of nostalgia.

"It's Fun To Stay at the M-V-C-M-A"

I parked at Oak Bluffs Harbor to explore the town's most well-known landmark; not Flying Horses, the oldest operational carousel in the United States, though that probably counts as a close second.

Instead, I visited the gingerbread houses of Oak Bluffs; the kind built of wood in the 1800s.

In 1835, representatives of the Edgarville Methodist Church secured land in what is now Oak Bluffs for holding a religious camp meeting. The Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association became an annual event and evolved from a temporary summer tent community to a series of permanent cottages arranged in a circle around the central tabernacle.

The ornate woodwork and vibrant color schemes of the mid-1800s era cottages were intended to evoke the appearance of the original tents. Built in a style known as Carpenter's Gothic, their fairy tale facades and candy coloring were reminiscent of the witch's house from Hansel and Gretel, thus leading to the "gingerbread houses" nickname. 

By the late 1800s, the enclave grew to 500 cottages. So defined, the region was known as Cottage City until 1880 when the name changed to Oak Bluffs. Only 318 of the original brightly colored cottages remain.

I spent some time wandering among the closely-spaced cottages, enjoying the architectural whimsy.

Outlandish colors aside, I was reminded of some of the Victorian dwellings from Main Street of my home town. I grew up calling any ornamented wooden scrollwork "gingerbread", so the phrase was already familiar. Mom always loved the gingerbread houses at home and I think she would have been utterly charmed by Oak Bluffs.

Leaving the gingerbread house neighborhood through a large, crucifix-topped gate labeled "MVCMA", I entered a retail district filled with souvenir shops and eateries, including the Black Dog General Store associated with the famous Black Dog Tavern. I did not do any souvenir shopping.

No thanks. I already have one. And she laughs at me far too often already.

Did the First Resident Wear an Edgar Suit?

A third lighthouse stands sentinel on a beach at the entrance of Edgartown Harbor near Chappaquiddick Island.

To my surprise, the best way to reach the lighthouse was through a beautiful Edgartown neighborhood of quintessentially New England homes, all immaculately maintained. 

Though it was clearly a lived-in neighborhood, the homes and their limited grounds were so flawlessly maintained that I had the sense of walking through a newly painted movie set.

Despite perfectly coifed shrubberies and impeccably kept vintage homes, little touches of whimsy stood out to show that the neighborhood was truly inhabited by living, breathing people.

The original 1828 light at this site was destroyed by a hurricane in 1938 and replaced by an 1881 vintage cast iron lighthouse relocated from Ipswitch, MA in 1939. (A recycling program for lighthouses, how extraordinarily progressive!)

Interestingly, the lighthouse was originally located on a manmade island about 1300 feet offshore that was later connected to the island by a stone causeway. In fact, it still is. The beach formed over years as an accumulation of sand around the causeway, parts of which are still visible.

West Chop

My final lighthouse visit was to West Chop Lighthouse in Tisbury. Together with its counterpart on East Chop, the pair bracket the entrance to Vineyard Haven Harbor.

West Chop Lighthouse is also in a neighborhood and located across the street from a stately New England mansion. Note the aesthetically pleasing yet effective parking deterrents.

Constructed in 1891, the lighthouse tower is made of brick. (Presumably because the straw and wood lighthouses were constantly being blown down.) Of the lighthouses on Martha's Vineyard that I visited, this is the only one still under jurisdiction of the United States Coast Guard. 

The attached keeper's dwelling is residence to the commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Menemsha and the other structure on site is used as a vacation home for military personnel.

Lake Tashmoo ("the great spring") photographed from an overlook on State Road

Alpaca Villa

Unusual for my annual fall solo trip, I spent the night on Martha's Vineyard. In searching for a suitable place to stay in early October, I was stunned to find many hotel rooms going for $500+ per night. Then I found a deal at Lambert's Cove Inn that was decidedly far less expensive than that.

My room was probably one of the more modest ones at the Inn. When I saw that the Inn was well reviewed and offered free parking, I was sold.

Lambert's Cove Inn offered fine dining outdoors in a garden setting that benefitted from the localized warmth of portable heaters.

My room was not located in the main building, but in a guest house accessed via this brick pathway.

The accommodations were simple, but functional. I was reminded of the bed and breakfasts we patronized while touring Scotland in 2014, older structures outfitted with modern amenities. When the bones of the structure are out of square, those amenities are not always incorporated with perfect fit and finish. That was certainly the case here, but it was a clean, charming place to call home for an evening.

It was interesting to me that Martha's Vineyard twice reminded me of my time in Scotland.

Directly outside my door were...

Alpacas! Just because. 

I had dinner at the Inn that included a seafood chowder and a salmon dish made from what tasted like the freshest salmon I have ever eaten. It was overpriced, but absolutely delicious.


Along with my meal, I enjoyed a Mexican-style lager from Banded Brewery in Maine, the aptly-named "Wicked Bueno". It lived up to its name.

I reflected on the day as I sipped my beer in the dark, sparsely populated dining room. (It was just me and the lady across the room who didn't "do spicy".) Martha's Vineyard seemed to exist in its own bubble and move at its own pace. This surprised me given the number of Massachusetts license places I observed as I traversed the narrow, tree-canopied roads. Nobody drove over the speed limit and all drivers I encountered were courteous. Everyone I met was extremely friendly. Several times I found myself in neighborhoods holding a camera (and thus readily identified as a tourist) when I encountered a resident. Each and every one was outgoing and friendly, the first to speak up in greeting. This included the fellow with the loose dog that I encountered when Google Maps led me astray onto a private drive as well as the Edgartown woman with whom I unintentionally made eye contact as she sat on her own front porch. Friendly people and a slower pace, all within spitting distance of Boston. Who would have thought? Perhaps Martha's Vineyard is the yin to East Coast big city yang.

Shear Surprise

That night, my only dinner companion was ForeFlight. Reviewing the next day's forecast, I discovered a surprising change in weather anticipated for Rochester, NY. This immediately pulled me out of my reverie and into contingency planning mode. In that moment, the relaxed tenor of my brief vacation changed abruptly, a perfect example of the double-edged sword that is travel by general aviation.


  1. Beautiful pictures, as always. Thanks for sharing the adventure! Mary and I hope to visit there at some point. Lunch looked delicious.

    1. Thanks Gary! Martha's Vineyard has been on my list for some time and it was wonderful to finally explore it. And, yeah, lunch was delicious!