Friday, July 15, 2016

Travel Journal: Aquinnah, Noepe (Martha's Vineyard), MA

Traveling with kids is always an adventure. I love to take my kids with me when I get the chance to visit Native communities so they can learn along with me. We have had some great conversations as a result of our travels, and I hope they are more aware of the presence and history of Native people in this country.

But nothing ever goes quite the way you plan when the kids are along for the ride, and you have to learn to roll with it. Sometimes, you just get handed a soggy detour and a recalculation of what you can hope to accomplish that day. This is a story about one of those trips...

They look sweet don't they? No! Don't let them out of your sight for even a second.

We recently had the opportunity to spend an off-season weekend on Martha's Vineyard at a highly reduced price for the rental house. I have been wanting to get out there for ages, but it's pretty expensive even by pricey Massachusetts' standards. The house we were offered was a big one, so the whole family went with us, including grandparents and a cousin.

I didn't have a lot of hope of making it all they way out to Aquinnah, which is on the far western "up island" end of MV away from the ferry ports and our rental in Oak Bluffs, even though I really wanted to check out the Aquinnah (Wampanoag) Cultural Center and the beautiful cliffs on Moshup's Beach. With less than 48 hours on the island and a crowd in tow, I figured we would bump around Oak Bluffs for the day, see the Campground cottages, ride the Flying Horses Carousel, eat some fried clams, and call it good as a scouting trip for future visits. At least I could figure out the ferry options, find some places to eat, and get my bearings.

But fortune smiled on me. The rest of the family was as curious as I was to scope out the whole island, so we ended up renting a car (which all the travel advice says you don't need to do) and spent a whole day making our way out to the Aquinnah Cliffs and back.



Friday afternoon we drove down from Boston to Falmouth to catch the Island Queen Ferry. There are several ferry companies leaving out of Falmouth, Woods Hole, Hyannis, New Bedford, MA, NYC, and Rhode Island: some seasonal, some year round, some are high-speed hovercraft, only Steamship Authority carries cars and all the rest are passenger only (and bikes), all with different hourly schedules. There are also water taxi services and a small airport. It takes some research and planning to even get to Oak Bluffs (or Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, the two other ferry terminals). Are you flying in to New England, taking the train, or are you driving down to the Cape? Will you take your car to the island or pay for parking in the ferry lot? Will you take bikes or rent them in Oak Bluffs? If you are already on the Cape, you can just pop over to MV for the day and back, but if you're coming in from far away and staying for some time, you need a plan.


We took the last ferry over that day and landed in Oak Bluffs right at sunset in need of some dinner and groceries for the morning. There are taxis lined up on the docks whenever the scheduled boats come in, so it was a breeze to grab a van instead of schlepping all the tired kids and luggage a mile uphill to our house. We picked up some pizza and fried clams at Giordano's and some breakfast things and beer at Jim's Package Store and Island Market and settled in around the big dining room table to make plans for the next day.

The off-season weather was too chilly and breezy for a typical day on the beach, so after much discussion, we decided to rent a car at the last minute. We called Martha's Vineyard Auto Rentals first thing in the morning on Saturday, and to my surprise, they actually had a car available that was big enough for all of us. Again, keep in mind that this is all off-season (or what they call around here "shoulder" season, which is spring and fall just outside the normal summer rush). I wouldn't wait until the last minute if you go in summer. Also, we could have used the island bus system, but that wasn't really an option for the crowd I was with for various reasons. And Aquinnah is about 20 miles from Oak Bluffs (MV is BIG, y'all!), so bikes were out for us as well.

We loaded up the kids and hit the open road. In summer, I understand that the roads are clogged with pedestrians and kids on bikes headed for the beaches, especially around the main harbor towns. But off-season we made our way up island on the State Road fairly easily. We stopped in Vineyard Haven to have lunch at the iconic Black Dog Cafe, and made a pit stop at the quirky and historical Alley's General Store in West Tisbury.


The inner part of the island is covered with rolling farms and tiny towns with peeling houses and small churches. It feels as remote and disregarded - and, ironically, as far from the ocean - as the little prairie towns I grew up in. I definitely lost track of my location in the world a couple of times as we drove through the woods and sheep pastures. After almost two hours of eating and meandering and sightseeing, we finally approached Aquinnah Circle on the far western end of the island.

There's some street parking on the circle and also a $15/day parking lot. You are welcome to use the public restroom located in the middle of the loop if you pay 50 cents.

Aquinnah was called Gay Head until the town, which is heavily populated by members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), voted to change the name in 1998. Gay Head refers to the "gaily" colored cliffs on the headland of Moshup's Beach. Aquinnah Circle, therefore, is home to the newly-restored Gay Head Lighthouse, The Wampanoag's Aquinnah Cultural Center, and a collection of small shops and restaurants owned by tribal members.

Looking back up the path from the Cultural Center (left) with the Lighthouse behind (right).

There are trails from the circle that go past the Cultural Center and down to beach where the colorful cliffs stretch back along the bright blue water and pristine sand towards the lighthouse. According the Wampanoag, Moshup the Giant lives in Aquinnah, and when he catches a whale, he bashes it up against the cliffs, leaves the bones to crumble into the sand, and then cooks the meat over an open campfire. This accounts for the streaks of red, white, and black down the fronts of the cliffs.

The Aquinnah Cliffs at Moshups Beach

(Be aware: if you walk all the way down to the point under the lighthouse, the far end of the beach is traditionally a nude beach! My father-in-law ran into a guy who didn't quite get the message that the whole beach wasn't for old naked dudes. Also, the fragile clay cliffs are now a protected National Landmark, so giving yourself a mud bath like the hippies used to do here in the 60's or climbing up them is no longer allowed.)



My girls love the beach, so everyone immediately took off down the hill to the water's edge. I took a good look and a few photos of the cliffs and then snuck back up the boardwalk to tour the Cultural Center in peace. The Center is housed in a picturesque little New England-style grey shingled cottage known as the Vanderhoop Homestead.

Open Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 11am-4pm.

The Vanderhoop family are still a major part of the Wampanoag community here, and many of the stories told by the docent inside concerned the history of the family and the way they and the rest of their Native community lived here in Aquinnah through the centuries. There was a mishoon (a traditional canoe) and a cauldron used to render whale fat on display in the yard. Inside the house they have an fascinating old machine invented by a tribal member to sort cranberries as well as examples of the colorfully streaked Aquinnah clay pots the Wampanoag used to make for the tourists from the passenger ships that went by this end of the island in previous centuries.

Right in the middle of the tour, I started to get a string of texts. At first, I tried to reach into my purse and shut my phone off inconspicuously, but then I remembered my kids down on the beach and felt I really ought to check the messages. Good thing I did. My husband was trying to get me to come back to the car because our oldest daughter had fallen into the ocean and was soaking wet in the back of the van, sheltering from the chilly weather and cold wind. This is the daughter of mine who ALWAYS falls in the water and gets soaked from head to toe no matter what the weather or what she's wearing at the time. One of these days I'll learn my lesson and never take her to the beach in cooler weather unless she's wearing a full-body wet suit, but at least I had enough forethought to throw some extra towels in the car just in case! By the time I climbed back up the hill to the parking lot, they had her wrapped up in towels and were ready to go.


My Aquinnah adventure had to come to a rather abrupt end. I didn't fully finish the Cultural Center tour or get to visit the shops on the cliff or eat fried clams overlooking the sea at the Vanderhoop family-owned Aquinnah Shop Restaurant. As we drove right past the Orange Peel Bakery (also owned by a Vanderhoop), I struggled not to demand a quick stop for bread we didn't need lest my weary family leave me on the side of the road and continue home without me.

Oh Aquinnah, I saw more and less of you than I had hoped when I started out on this trip, but that's the way it goes. You are unbearably beautiful and so hard to get to, but I'll be back. Maybe by myself next time.


Also see my other blog post about Aquinnah as well as my posts about the related Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on Cape Cod's mainland.

1 comment:

  1. I would also love to visit this Island Queen Ferry someday to enjoy and also spend some time over there on this beautiful Island. compare park and fly deals

    ReplyDelete