You cannot get a Big Mac on Martha’s Vineyard. In 1979, campaigners on this little island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts – among them James Taylor and Mia Farrrow – repulsed an attempt by McDonald’s to extend the franchise here.
There is no KFC or Pizza Hut here either. No strip malls. No chain stores. No high-rise condos. No neon signs. You can’t get reliable directions on your iPhone; you can’t even get a mobile phone signal in some parts of the island. There are no multi-lane roads. No traffic lights. You can’t drive fast because (a) the maximum speed limit is 45mph and (b) most of the roads are rutted dirt. You can’t even order a glass of beer or wine with dinner in the island’s largest town; you must bring your own.
Vineyard Haven harbour is replete with wooden sailing boats and historic tall ships, not cigarette boats. There is almost no crime. The last time a police officer fired a gun in the line of duty, a year ago, it was to bring down an unusually aggressive wild turkey.
This is the most un-American of American resort communities. Indeed, locals taking the 11-kilometre ferry trip to the mainland – there is no bridge – refer to it as “going to America”.
Yet, despite – or maybe because of – all this un-American-ness, people come here in droves every summer. The population explodes from about 15,000 to more than 100,000; it goes from being a place where the average year-round resident earns 30 per cent less than the state average to the wealthiest little community in the US. Last November, a BusinessWeek magazine survey identified one of the island’s six towns, Chilmark, as the most expensive small town property market in the US.
For the most part, they are of a certain type, the folks who come here in summer: well-educated, liberal-minded, wealthy but (mostly) not ostentatious people who lead otherwise pressured lives. They eschew badges of social rank here, dress down and de-stress. And, many of them are black.
When the White House announced, on July 17, that President Barack Obama was coming here with his family, there was little surprise because Martha’s Vineyard is, in effect, a presidential retreat. John Adams reportedly came to the Vineyard in 1760. Ulyssess S. Grant came in August 1874. Franklin Roosevelt sailed here. Richard Nixon visited. Bill Clinton came all but one summer through his presidency. The Clintons remain regulars; Bill was here in the past week.
The most notable and enduring connection, though, was that of John F. Kennedy. As a boy he would sail over from the family’s compound at nearby Hyannis, on Cape Cod to compete in regattas here. He continued to come throughout his presidency.
There had been clues for months about the Obama vacation – quiet communications with realtors, restaurants, local law enforcement …A president doesn’t go on holiday without a lot of preparation. They arrive August 23.
The main topic of speculation was where he would stay. A lot of early opinion leaned towards Oak Bluffs, the historic locus of the black middle-class, where a number of Obama’s political and academic friends have summer places. But the Obamas settled on a 28.5-acre property, Blue Heron Farm, in a more rural area of the 220 sq km island, on a finger of the Tisbury Great Pond. How much they are paying has not been revealed but similar places run from $35,000 to $50,000 a week in high season.
I visited the property last week, and it’s quite something: quiet, private and New England tasteful. It includes a slate-roofed Victorian farmhouse, a reconstructed Pennsylvania hay barn and a Vermont shed, the latter two of which date back to the 1800s. It offers all the amenities one might expect of an upscale holiday place, from a boat shed with all manner of water craft to a gym, tennis court and a half basketball court.
But its real charm lies in other things. There is a pretty apple orchard with 40 trees surrounded by an old, lichen-encrusted drystone wall. The undulating, manicured lawns, green from a wet spring (nitrogenous fertiliser would damage the pond), are shaded by large oak, maple locust and catalpa trees, a swinging chair hung from one and a hammock between two others near the boathouse.There’s an osprey nest maybe 100 metres from the house.
There was early speculation that Obama would holiday in Hawaii, where he spent much of his youth. The Vineyard surf is not up to Hawaiian standards but the beaches have other attractions. For a start, they are private. One of the quirks of the island is that while everyone leaves their houses and cars open, they literally lock up their beaches. Two-thirds of Martha’s Vineyard’s beaches are privately owned – under Massachusetts law, that means down to the low-water mark – and keys to the gates of “association” beaches sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a place that respects the privacy of others. The notables who come here do not come here to be seen, and locals understand this.
Martha’s Vineyard has always been a discreet, tolerant and liberal place. The island’s indigenous population, the Wampanoag tribe, was never conquered or relocated; the early white settlers honoured their land rights. In 1665, the first Wampanoag graduated from Harvard.
In 1780, Massachusetts became the first US state to abolish slavery, but long before that on Martha’s Vineyard, a black or Wampanoag whaler could earn more than a British slave ship captain. The island was a link in the trail for blacks escaping southern slavery, and was one of the first places in the country to desegregate everything, including beaches.
For more than a century, this has been a destination for affluent blacks. Political friends of Obama who summer here include senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, attorney-general Eric Holder and Henry Louis Gates Jr, an old Harvard colleague who is a leading intellectual.
After Gates was arrested recently, trying to force a stuck door to his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first thing he did on emerging from the ordeal was escape to this island. “I think the Vineyard is the most integrated community I’ve ever experienced,” he said afterwards. “It’s racial heaven for me.”
It’s also a smart and cultured place, long a haven for academics, writers and artists. If so inclined, one could take in a lecture, debate or performance (theatre, music, dance) almost any day of the summer.
If I were the president, though, I wouldn’t be doing that. This is chill time. Maybe I’d play some golf – there are several pretty courses – or have a basketball game. I might swim, sail or paddle a kayak, or look for fossilised sharks’ teeth with the kids under the cliffs at Lucy Vincent beach. The fishing is good at this time of year, notably for striped bass and bluefish. I might join a chartered expedition for the day, or just do a bit of beach fishing. There are miles of beaches and trails through the woods, full of birds and other wildlife. And late August is the height of the berrypicking season.
Lobster is cheap and plentiful just now. I’d share a meal with friends, probably in private homes, although there are some very good restaurants. I might visit a few art galleries, treat the girls to a ride on the Flying Horses (America’s oldest carousel, built in 1876, designated a National Historic Landmark), and take in sights like the gingerbread cottages at the old Methodist campground in Oak Bluffs, the Gay Head cliffs and the sunset at Menemsha.
Things I would do for sure are: let the kids and the dog run, for there is no safer, freer place for them; devote a lot of attention to my wife and spend as much time as possible in that shady hammock down by the boathouse at Blue Heron Farm.
Mike Seccombe is senior writer for the Vineyard Gazette
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