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A magical stay on Martha's Vineyard

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 19, 2001


MARTHA'S VINEYARD -- If this sun-baked island in the northern Atlantic is Sodom or Gomorrah, then I am right at home, in my element, as it were.

Mellow red wine flows, cold beer brings friends together, extraordinarily beautiful women and handsome dudes decorate the sidewalks. The aromas of fine cuisines beckon all around as yachts slice through turquoise waters. Narrow streets of quaint shops invite the traveler, and strings of colorful gingerbread houses give many streets the aura of a fairy tale. Lovers meander along the beaches, famous people appear out of nowhere and perfect strangers exchange knowing smiles and nods.

This is the summer season on Martha's Vineyard. The island is 7 miles southeast of the Massachusetts mainland, 20 miles from New Bedford, 80 miles from Boston and 150 miles from New York. Its winter population is 15,007, while summer's is a whopping 105,624. A part of Dukes County, Martha's Vineyard consists of six towns: Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury (Vineyard Haven), West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah (Gay Head).

Without much effort, the visitor can easily pretend to be in a foreign country.

I have the good fortune of spending an eight-day vacation here with friends in Oak Bluffs. My friend Judith Lombard owns Island Canvas, a shop specializing in hand bags, purses and travel ware. I had not been here since 1991, and little has changed. Vineyarders love the way their island looks and feels and fight to keep that unique ambiance. Installing a stoplight at the dangerous airport road intersection, for instance, probably will take God's intervention. I suspect, though, that God will be chased off the island if he votes to install the light.

Besides its physical beauty, Martha's Vineyard's esprit de corps is, well, something big to write home about. Politically, it is a den of Democrats. It is one of former President Clinton's favorite playgrounds. If Clinton is not in New York or California, he can be found on the Vineyard, strolling along Circuit Avenue, golfing, dining at The Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs, browsing at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Edgartown.

Most Vineyarders are proud of the Clinton connection, and his arrival always prompts an announcement, such as this headline of Aug. 8 in the Vineyard Gazette: "Clinton Family is Expected on the Vineyard Tomorrow." And despite the traffic nightmare Clinton's entourage brings, most islanders like his visits. When my friends and I went to the golf course restaurant for breakfast, men were standing around waiting for the man from Harlem to tee off.

Oh, did I mention the other famous people -- and money and decadence? Spike Lee pops up in Mocha Mott's in Oak Bluffs, the coffee shop where I had coffee each morning. Francis Ford Coppola pulls his outsized anatomy out of his Mercedes near the Chappaquiddick ferry in Edgartown and walks toward a fancy restaurant, of course.

Two blocks away at the luxurious Harborside Inn, syndicated columnist Art Buchwald, a seasonal islander, serves as auctioneer for Edgartown's annual Possible Dreams auction.

In three hours, with items blessed by the likes of singer Carly Simon, historian David McCullough and former network news anchor Walter Cronkite, the auction raises $403,600. In part, here is how:

Just to hear Simon, decked out in sunglasses and a strapless top, sing and generally cut up, the highest bidder bellows "$55,000." Cronkite takes the mike and offers up his annual luncheon sail for four. The final bid for four lucky sailors? A modest $20,000. To tour the 60 Minutes studios in New York with Mike Wallace, the grateful bidder forks over $20,000. The man who winds up playing a golf game with Clinton's main man Vernon Jordan peels off $4,500.

Ah, Martha's Vineyard.

I travel up island to Aquinnah, where many year-round residents are descendants of the Wampanoag Indians. Research shows that the Wampanoag taught colonial settlers how to hunt whales, cultivate corn and unearth clay for brick. "Much later, these Aquinnah Indians were in great demand as boatsteerers in the whaling fleets," an island expert wrote. "It was the boatsteerer who cast the iron into the whale. The Aquinnah Indians were judged to be the most skillful and courageous boatsteerers of that era."

I spend some of my best time at the Inkwell in Oak Bluffs, the beach that black Vineyarders and their guests have enjoyed for many generations. Much of the nation does not know that blacks, most of them enslaved servants, first came to Martha's Vineyard from many points worldwide in the late 1600s. Today, many descendants of the first Africans live here year round.

Other black islanders, some newly arrived, are some of the wealthiest blacks in the United States. They own homes on the Vineyard and operate businesses both on and off the island. Many African-Americans still call Oak Bluffs the "Black Hamptons."

While my stay on Martha's Vineyard has been magical, I will remember most fondly my day of fishing with my pal, Wayne. We (mostly Wayne) caught several large flounder and a variety of sunfish. Catching fish was fun, but where we caught them was an equal highlight: the small fishing village of Menemensha, where the movie Jaws was filmed.

No, Wayne and I did not hook into a great white this time. Perhaps next summer -- when we take the boat out into deep water.

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