Vineyard 101: Summer Immersion

Seven writers share elemental Martha’s Vineyard experiences.

1. Sunrise swim

When that way-too-early alarm rings, it will be dark. You will be sleepy. Rouse yourself, get dressed (a comfy old sweatshirt over a swimsuit works well for the purpose), then walk, run, or drive to the beach of your choice. Inhale deeply and look around. Wiggle your toes in the sand. Take a moment to appreciate that you’re standing at the ocean’s edge on Martha’s Vineyard in the misty pre-dawn light. Then dive in.

In our family, we call them dawn patrols. Incoming swells can be the inspiration, as very early morning offers access to prime up-Island surf spots, before beach guards arrive to ward off interlopers. But dramatic waves are only one reason to rise early and head toward the water.

Along most of the Island’s beaches, there’s quietude in those early-morning hours, a settled sense of nighttime peacefulness that’s not yet been jostled by the activity of the day. The later days of summer – when sunrise comes closer to six than five and the water temperature is generally in the comfortable seventies – offer the optimal conditions for a serene sunrise swim.

First light shimmering over the water breaks into ripples when you dip in a toe. A step further gives rise to wet knees, and a moment’s hesitation. Then a deep breath, a sudden plunge into the cool, dark, watery depths, and the circles widen out as you break the surface into the air again, breathing in the morning chill. Sometimes the water is warmer than the air, and feels deliciously soft and caressing as you push out deeper. Sometimes it’s brisk and you feel a rush of energy as your body’s circulation kicks it up a notch, and you dog-paddle quickly to warm up.

East-facing beaches offer the opportunity to watch the sun ease its way up over the water’s faraway edge, its reflection glistening on the waves beneath the pink-streaked sky. But wherever you happen to be, when you’re surrounded by water, the emerging light makes for an exhilarating and humbling start to the day.

– Nancy Tutko

2. Take a bike ride

Ray Ewing

I just finished reading a cycling magazine and was struck by how many of the articles were either about cycling faster, working to maintain pace with someone who was cycling fast, or being on a club ride for the first time and struggling to keep up because everyone was cycling too fast.

I don’t ride fast and I don’t feel compelled to. Even when I lead cycling club rides, I rarely come in among the first riders and rarely am the first up any of the hills. A focus on speed just isn’t my focus. The good parts of life go by fast enough.

Enjoy the ride, be challenged by the ride, soak in the ride and the surroundings – it just seems to be a much better use of the time and effort. I seek out pretty roads, and I keep returning to the rollers on Martha’s Vineyard. They are like a long, leggy, curvaceous, and familiar beauty.

I’m not talking about the more populated and traversed parts of the Vineyard where there is traffic or the secluded, pretty bike trail. My favorite route takes me up-Island, to Chilmark and Aquinnah, the roads less traveled.

Up-Island the flat areas of road are rare and appreciated. They are places where I can linger or whisk through based on my desire in the moment. The rollers and curves, the ups, bends, and descents are like that long, romantic relationship we all want.

The scenery varies from tree-and-shrub greens to ocean-and-pond blues. There are some homes and a few stores along the way. When I come to a rise and glimpse one of the ponds with a few stray boats, or the ocean with its constant motion, or the occasional gull or erne, it’s simply beautiful. There’s a lot more pleasure to be gained from cycling than just speed.

– Michael Heffler

Adapted from an excerpt from Climbing Through Life, A Collection of Hilly Vignettes by Michael Heffler, published by Michael Heffler, 2013.

3. Big beach day

Peter Simon

It is one of those glorious days where the humidity is tempered by a lilting summer breeze that carries with it the scent of flowers in full bloom and the tang of salt off the ocean.

My bag is already in the car. I carry it wherever I go, from June until October. There is a beach throw, lip balm, my current book, a hat, sunglasses, and a cooler. In the back of my car is a gaudy beach umbrella.

Now, the big question: “Which beach?” My sons, now in their late teens and early twenties, have access to a beautiful private beach, and we can join them, but today my daughters want to see their friends and be social. Lambert’s Cove is our West Tisbury town beach, but some days we want waves, real ones, as my children call them.

We head up to Philbin in Aquinnah for this kind of beach day, which requires at least a four-hour window. I take the picturesque path alongside the ocean to the red clay cliffs. I walk briskly through the throngs of tourists and bypass the rocks until I feel the soft fine sands of Philbin under my bare feet.

The kids have set up camp next to the little stream and the driftwood sculpture. I lay back and rest as they scamper to the water. My five children have no fear of the towering, thrashing waves. They jump in as the waves crest and swim back to shore – as sleek as dolphins.

When my children were little, we frequented State Beach in Oak Bluffs, and I am still very fond of it. You park roadside, free of charge, and simply walk along a short sandy path to the friendly beach. All manner of people come here: tourists, workers, Islanders, honeymooners, families, single folks with book in hand, daytrippers, and bikers.

I have stayed there for entire days watching my kids jump off the bridge, buying iced lemonade from the stand, hunting for crabs, and swimming. I have remained until dark, watching the men arrive in their pickup trucks with their fishing poles and coolers full of beer.

The glory of the sunset is on the north shore, however, around a bonfire with family and friends. We wrap ourselves with hoodies and pull on our sweats. Our feet still bare, we watch as the sun dips into the water. People cheer as it disappears. We remain for the more intense oranges and purples and pinks, finding the way back to our cars in the dark. We drive home satiated. The pile of beach stuff is dumped unceremoniously by the front door, and we take outdoor showers under the stars.

– Sian Williams

4. Prepare a local meal

Kelley Debettencourt

Recently I arrived home to find a note on the door telling me a friend had caught a yellowfin tuna and left a few pounds in my fridge. To me, this is summer cooking – no plans, just have a good base in your home pantry, and create something from what is fresh and available.

Summer is the jackpot season with swollen gardens and fishermen out for long days. Whether cruising around farm-stand hopping, or shopping at a market, local food is everywhere. Simplicity is the key to great summer cooking. Let the ingredients speak for themselves, and if you gather from the vast resources on the Vineyard, you can’t go wrong.

I head out to my small fledgling garden, where I know I have lots of tomatoes, along with basil, thyme, and chives. Back in my kitchen, I have some beautiful baby potatoes that I picked up from a farm stand a few days ago. In my fridge, I see Kalamata olives. I decide to make tuna with a black olive mayo, and a baby potato, tomato, fresh herb salad. Very simple, yet all the flavors of summer I can never get enough of.

The first thing I do is boil the baby potatoes. I am going to serve them at room temperature with the tomatoes, so I need to get them done. In a bowl, I quarter my tomatoes and add fresh basil, thyme, chives, some shaved red onion from my pantry, salt, pepper, and good olive oil. For my black olive mayo, I finely chop about 1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives and add them to 3/4 cup prepared mayo with lemon zest, fresh chopped chives, and lemon juice. (This can be stirred to combine well, or done in a food processor.)

Next I portion the tuna into individual steaks, about 1 1/2 inches thick. I lightly marinate the tuna in some olive oil, lemon juice and zest, and a dash of soy sauce for about 30 minutes. I sear the tuna on a hot oiled grill and finish it in a foil “box” to keep in the juices. This is a perfect way to keep the tuna from drying out. The “box” is just a few sheets of foil with the sides brought up, but no cover. You only want to grill the tuna for about 2 minutes, on both sides. Then transfer to the “box” and spread evenly with mayo before returning to the hot grill for about 4 more minutes. We like the tuna medium-rare (adjust your time based on your preference).

For the salad, I add the potatoes (halved or quartered as necessary) and a splash of cider to the tomato mixture, and gently toss, seasoning to taste. When served, the juices from the tuna and salad combine for a true taste of summer.

– Tina Miller

5. On the water

Alison Shaw

The summer I met my future husband, I should have known I was destined for a life filled with boats. Reid and I were both lifeguards on South Beach in Edgartown, but he was from Martha’s Vineyard – an avid fisherman, surfer, and sailor.

In the evenings, we played around on Vineyard Sound in his family’s tired, single-engine powerboat, which they dubbed the Sea Ox. During one of our first trips, her engine died in the waters of Middle Ground, so close, but so far from her home port: Lake Tashmoo. As the sun began setting beyond the Elizabeth Islands, Reid looked at me, asking, “What do you think we should do?”

“Uh, call the Coast Guard?” was all I could come up with. Ignoring my suggestion, he tinkered, cursed, and waited. Meanwhile, I cracked a crisp Sam Adams and took in the serene seascape. Eventually, the engine began sputtering.

Something was beginning for me. Beyond the love of a sunset cruise, I was embracing the freedom of being on the open water and the unique bonding that happens after a shared adventure.

The following summer was the rainiest I can remember. This was when Reid and his parents purchased a thirty-one-foot 1967 Choi Lee sailboat in need of some serious TLC. I was beginning to realize that it’s not logistics that matter to them; it’s opportunity. Islanders seem to have their own special way of boating. Once the family plugged Windfall’s major leaks, we enjoyed some smooth sails. Reid tried teaching me the ropes with minor success, but it soon became apparent that I was not a natural sailor, and Reid was not a born teacher. Still, we were having fun.

Leaving behind to-do lists and the television made us feel like we were living Henry David Thoreau–style, close to nature and simply. Despite various crises – like losing our steering on a windy fall day – we’d always be drawn back to the sea. Reid loved the adventure, while I savored waking up on Windfall, witnessing the pureness of a summer morning as the sun’s earliest light bursts over a tranquil harbor. A few years later, when it was time to launch Reid’s family’s self-built thirty-six-foot sailboat (which is still not quite finished), Windfall became a traditional Island lawn ornament.

Aboard Patience, my focus has been keeping our three-year-old son, Owen, occupied. I’ve discovered how to prepare “boat food” and how cozy the musty v-berth can feel while reading Green Eggs and Ham over and over again. I’ve learned that in many ways a sailboat is the perfect vehicle for a family, with a bathroom and an oven, and no seat belts required! It can also be a great preschool: Owen understands how a tiller works but cannot pick Elmo out of a lineup.

I may be the only member of my family who doesn’t feel quite like “the sea’s in my veins,” as Jimmy Buffett croons. Yet I’ve embraced how sailing is wanderlust in its purest form: a constant reminder to enjoy the journey and let go of the destination, to welcome adventure and go where the tide takes us.

–Moira C. Silva

6. Family game night

Nicole Grace Mercier

I couldn’t imagine growing up anywhere else than on Huckleberry Hill Lane in Edgartown. A private road that is owned by my paternal grandparents, it’s home to myriad cousins, aunts, and uncles. Summer has always been our favorite time, especially in our younger days. Though we had our own friends from school, we chose to use our summer nights to be with each other. And what better way than to play games?

After dinner we would congregate at the boys’ house – to us it was common ground. A Wiffle ball game would begin, even as we anticipated the falling darkness. We never had to pick teams; everyone broke up evenly, mostly turning into girls versus boys.

As the Wiffle ball game progressed, we watched the lightning bugs make their appearance in the woods that surrounded us. As their numbers grew and the sun slowly sank behind the horizon, we knew the time had come for our nighttime revelry.

Capture the flag was the go-to game – it let us take full advantage of the quarter-mile road we considered our own. Once the flags were set, the game was on. One person would dart to protect their team’s flag; others would attempt to catch the opposing team off guard by running immediately to grab it. But the usual strategy involved partnering up, as two could almost always beat one. The game could last from ten minutes up to an hour. After a couple of short games, or one long game, we turned our attention to a new amusement: kick the can.

We did eeny, meeny, miny, moe to pick who would be “it” and gave that person a flashlight to tag the rest of us. The second the can was set down, everyone scattered. As “it” counted, we raced for the best hiding spots, or hid closest to the can in hopes of being the first to kick it.

While the game progressed, the younger kids would get called home to get ready for bed. Slowly our numbers would dwindle down, till only a few of us remained. By then we knew it was time to call it quits. As we shouted out goodbyes and headed toward our own homes, there was the unspoken understanding that come tomorrow night the games would begin again.

And even now that most of us are older – like me home from college, working for the summer – we still can be found playing ball and wielding flashlights around Huckleberry Hill.

– Nicole Grace Mercier

7. Stargazing

Geoffrey Parkhurst

Before moving here year-round, I used to bring my family to the Vineyard for summer vacations. I would always keep an eye out for the Perseid meteor shower that peaks in mid August. Taking the kids down to the beach, laying out towels, and shutting off the flashlight, there was always a little pause as our eyes dark-adapted. Then there’d be the first “Whoa!” and “Did you see that?!” After a while it would drop to whispers, as if we were afraid of disturbing the performers of the celestial fireworks.

But this is the thing: You never know what you’re going to get when you go stargazing on the Vineyard. And that’s why it’s so great.

The Vineyard is blessed with velvety dark skies that hold an impossible number of stars. And fickle weather. And up-Island fog. And lots of twisty little dirt roads that all look alike after dark. And sometimes, the most remarkable sights that cannot be planned.

On a dark-night jaunt, I went to the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation property on the south side of Abel’s Hill in Chilmark. It was a very dark, still, moonless night. What had drawn me there was the crystalline clarity of the skies, and the darkness of the south side of the Island – furthest from any sky-lighting of distant mainland cities.

I knew there was a small dock that jutted out into the pond, giving an unobstructed view of the sky. As I cautiously tiptoed out onto the dock, I was very aware that there were no railings to let me know when I was about to step into the water.

I didn’t want to destroy my night vision, and my reward was that, in the still waters of the pond, I found an obsidian mirror, reflecting the heavens. I had stepped out into a bowl of stars.

The Milky Way was a ribbon of diamonds beneath my feet as well as over my head. It was so dark that I could see hints of colors in its mane. And the planets were so brilliant that even their reflection in the dark waters was dazzling.

And then it came – right over my head and perhaps a few feet behind – the screech owl I had disturbed let loose his feelings about my presence in his dark domain. I’m not sure what kept me from going into the water, but I’m still grateful that I ducked instead of diving headfirst.

You never know what you’re going to see when you go stargazing on the Vineyard. So look for it.

– Geoffrey Parkhurst