Martha's Vineyard: Affordable Isle

Martha's Vineyard has a reputation as the summer playground for the rich and famous.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has a secluded estate on the island. Playwright Lillian Hellman spent much of her later years here, and novelist William Styron summers here.

Singer Carly Simon used to own the Hot Tin Roof nightclub out near the airport. You may see newsman Walter Cronkite taking out his yacht for a day sail to Nantucket. Actor John Belushi is buried here.

Summering on the Vineyard can be an expensive proposition. Yet the island's accessibility (seven miles, or 45 minutes by ferry, south of Cape Cod), natural beauty and old-fashioned New England charm make it attractive to everyone.

Fact is, a vacation on the Vineyard is not necessarily out of reach for the average wage slave. A week's stay can cost less than $1,500 a couple, not a bad figure in this era of resorts that cost $100 a day and more. For that price you won't get to change clothes in the Chappaquiddick Beach Club cabanas that "Jaws" made famous, but you won't feel as if you've been roughing it either.

Reservation Service

Name your price for lodging. You can keep a rein on expenses by using a free reservation service. The two on the island are Dukes County Reservations Service, phone (617) 693-6505, which handles more than 50 properties, and Martha's Vineyard Reservations, at (617) 693-4111, which handles about 300. Specify not only what type of accommodations you prefer, but how much you want to spend.

In-season prices at guest houses start at $50 a night for a double room with shared bath, according to Patty Leland of Martha's Vineyard Reservations. Apartments sleeping as many as four may rent for $550 a week. Three-bedroom houses average $550 to $800 a week.

The size of your party may determine what you choose. A room in a guest house would be the least expensive option for singles or couples. On the other hand, even a $1,500-a-week house becomes a bargain when six to eight divide the cost.

For those who prefer to rough it, the island has two campgrounds: Webb's Camping Area in Oak Bluffs, at (617) 693-0233, and Martha's Vineyard Family Campground on Edgartown Road in Vineyard Haven, at (617) 693-3772.

The American Youth Hostel in West Tisbury, (617) 693-2665, offers dormitory space at $7 a person a night for members, but also welcomes nonmembers.

Waterfront Accommodations

Remember the law of supply and demand: "Everybody wants to stay on the water, and there's not enough waterfront to go around," says Diane Churchill of Dukes County Reservations Service. Thus, beachfront houses often rent for $1,000 to $2,000 a week; a house a few blocks away may cost a few hundred dollars less.

"The second place they want to be is in town, so they don't have to bring a car," Churchill says. She means Edgartown, the seat of Dukes County since 1642 and the Vineyard's undisputed center for shopping and night life. Edgartown accommodations routinely cost more than in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, the island's ferry ports.

Churchill warns the cost-conscious against moving too far from town. "Up-island (the western part, including the villages of West Tisbury, Chilmark and Gay Head) is very expensive. A lot of people think that if they stay away from the heart of things they'll get away from costs."

Go Early or Late

Extend the season. Everybody wants to be here in summer, thanks to the Vineyard's unspoiled beaches, broad romantic moors, shady country lanes and gentle sunshine. But you can have most of this and less--fewer tourists, shorter lines at restaurants, bargains at the shops--if you arrive early or late.

From April through early June the island gradually turns green and hints of the summer to come; in September and even into October the water remains warm enough for swimming while leaves on the mainland are changing hues.

Tourism and prices peak from mid-June to mid-September. "Off-season, most rooms go for one-third to one-half their prices in-season," Churchill says.

Arrive midweek. Some lodgings offer reduced rates during the week. The Nashua House in Oak Bluffs, for example, charges $50 to $55 a night on weekends, but rents the same room for $40 on week nights and offers a three-night midweek package at $99 for two.

Leave your car on the mainland. The triangular island measures just 21 miles at its hypotenuse, and most down-island attractions are within a few miles of one another. Weigh the number of people in your party and their needs against the costs of transporting a car.

The Steamship Authority, the only car carrier to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, charges $26.50 for a car each way from Woods Hole on Cape Cod. In addition, each person with the car is charged the regular passenger fare of $3.75 for adults or $1.90 for children.

Long-term parking is available in Woods Hole and nearby Falmouth for $6 a day, with free shuttle service to the ferry.

A Pleasant Alternative

On the island, bicycles provide pleasant alternative transportation thanks to the Vineyard's paved, protected bike paths. If you bring your own bike, the ferry will transport it for $2.50 each way. Bikes may also be rented by the day or week; expect to pay about $30 for a week plus a $10 deposit. Prices vary, so shop around.

If you arrive without a car you'll probably need to take a taxi to your lodging. But if your bags are manageable and you're heading for a major town, hop right on to the shuttle buses that make the rounds of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown.

Fares depend on destination; the average is a dollar or two a ride. Buses to Gay Head at the western tip leave from Edgartown, where shuttle buses also run from Upper Main Street to the downtown shops and to Katama Beach on the south shore.

Bring your own supplies. Commodities are expensive on the Vineyard because just about everything must be ferried from the mainland.

"Everybody who takes a car off the island gases up before they get on the ferry to come back," says Churchill, a year-round resident. Gasoline prices in April on the Vineyard averaged about $1.15 a gallon for unleaded, compared to about 90 cents on the mainland.

Economize at Lunch

Restaurant prices follow the same rules of economics. Lunch for one at an Edgartown cafe may cost $20 for an undistinguished lobster salad sandwich, a distinguished rice pudding with currants, a Bloody Mary and iced tea. On the other hand, lunch at tiny Katama Airport a few miles away cost just $4 for a wonderful six-ounce burger with provolone on a poppy-seed roll, plus the entertainment of watching the small planes take off and land.

So far, Vineyardites have staved off the fast-food phenomenon, except for the Edgartown Dairy Queen. Gourmet takeout tends to be relatively expensive, but less than the same food served in a sit-down restaurant.

If you have kitchen privileges--even the use of a guest house refrigerator for drinks, salads and cold cuts--take advantage of them. Buy live lobsters and cook them yourself instead of spending $25 or more on the baked, stuffed variety at a restaurant. Or dine out at midday; many restaurants charge less for lunch than dinner for the same food.

Enjoy the simple pleasures. If your motive is to get away from it all, spend a day at a free public beach or, for a few dollars for entry and parking, on the wilderness beach at Wasque Reservation on Chappaquiddick Island.

Join in the traditional festivals: Tisbury Street Fair, July 8; the Agricultural Fair, Aug. 20-22 or the Tivoli Day bike race Sept. 19.

The Flying Horses

In Oak Bluffs, visit the state lobster hatchery, admire the architectural gingerbread on the cottages around the Methodist Camp Ground, and take a spin on the Flying Horses, America's oldest continuously operating carrousel.

In the evening, instead of heading for a nightclub with a cover charge and a pricey bar, take in a summer movie upstairs at Edgartown Town Hall. (Try for the back row, where you can sit on a raised platform and smell fresh popcorn throughout the show.)

Window-shop along Main Street and stroll down to the platform, where you can watch the tiny Chappaquiddick ferry run back and forth on its two-minute trips across the neck of the harbor.

Take advantage of free information. Many guest houses give away maps and have small collections of literature about the island, as do the public libraries in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.

The Chamber of Commerce publishes "The Island of Martha's Vineyard," a 104-page guidebook distributed free on the island. To obtain an advance copy for vacation planning, send $2 for prepaid handling to Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 1698, Vineyard Haven, Mass. 02568.

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