This past weekend began with a short ride down the Shining Sea Bikeway to the village. At the end of our jaunt we reached the Woods Hole ferry terminal. Little did we know that the ferry we were planning to take was cancelled due to mechanical difficulties. So an hour and a half later and a new sailing vessel in dock, we were finally on board. Destination: Martha’s Vineyard. Our forty-five minute ferry ride took us across Vineyard Sound to the island. Martha’s Vineyard is located south of Cape Cod and is the third largest island on the east coast of the United States measuring 100 square miles. It is only accessible by water or air; there are no bridges or tunnels which connect it to the mainland. Martha’s Vineyard is known to be a summertime destination causing the population to swell from 16,000 to more than 100,000. The island has been known to host a variety of visitors from tourists to celebrities to presidents. In 1974 Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws on the island in the town of Chilmark. Many of the extras in the movies were residents of the area. On a more solemn note, it was off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard where John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crashed in 1999.
The island is made up of six main towns: Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah. We decided against taking our bikes on the ferry primarily because it would have been more expensive than using public transit on the island. Once we arrived, we were so relieved that we made such a decision. Although Martha’s Vineyard is an island, it is significant in size and made of rolling hills that would have challenged us on our less than ideal bikes. It was great to be able to take the bus from location to location because it allowed us to see much more of the island than if we were biking everywhere. It takes about an hour by bus to travel from one end of the island to the other since the island is so large; as a result, we ended up stopping for longer periods of time at the Gay Head Cliffs and lighthouse in Aquinnah and at the Campground houses in Oak Bluffs.
After exploring the shops in Tisbury (home to the Vineyard Haven Ferry dock), we caught our bus to take us to the southwestern tip of the island known as Aquinnah. We past trees upon trees upon trees. Hints of autumn were visible on tips of leaves baring reference to the coming splendor when rolling hills are blanketed in a kaleidoscope of colours from burnt orange to vibrant red and citrus yellow. Aquinnah, formerly known as Gay Head, is the home of the Wampanoag tribe. On a side note: this tribe is the same one that greeted the first pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. The area was renamed Aquinnah in 1998 to mean “land beneath the cliffs”. This name is fitting as the main features on this part of the island are the Gay Head Cliffs. Designated as a national landmark, this colourful clay outcropping was formed by the shearing force of a glacier which also formed the island 20,000 years ago.
The view off the coast is awe-inspiring. Variegated colours of brown, red, grey and tan mark the surfaces of the exposed clay cliffs. Long grasses sway gently in the ocean breeze. Waves roll onto the shore. The sweet sound of birds is carried on the wind. Amidst it all stands the red brick sentinel. But the fate of the lighthouse is not as calm as the spectacular setting. The Gay Head Lighthouse was built in 1854 replacing the original that was built out of wood in 1799. The current lighthouse is made of red brick actually made by hand on the island. The threat to the lighthouse comes in the form of erosion. The edge of the cliff moves closer to the lighthouse at the approximate rate of two feet per year. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently designated the Gay Head Lighthouse as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Geological experts recommend moving the lighthouse within the next two (or less) years. It is estimated that in two years there will not be enough land left to move the lighthouse due to the machinery needed to complete the task. The approximate cost of moving the lighthouse is $3,000,000! As a way to raise funds, a $5 donation is requested if you want to climb up to the top of the lighthouse.
Audrey and I decided to take this opportunity, and it was definitely worth it. After climbing a couple flights of spiral stairs, a door opens onto what is called the gallery. It’s basically a railed deck that surrounds the entire circumference of the tower. This is used for access to the windows to clean them as well as for making repairs. The view from up there was phenomenal! 360 degrees of cliffs and ocean. Leading up from this level inside the tower is a steep staircase bringing you to the lantern room. We were allowed to go right inside which put us about five feet away from the lantern itself! This lantern rotates with one white light and one red one. The use of the red light is apparently to distinguish Gay Head Lighthouse from the other lighthouses on the Cape. Being next to the lantern was quite an experience. Every ten seconds or so you would feel the heat of the light directly on your face…I could feel my body temperature significantly rising. I was fairly surprised that people are allowed in that room as it seems somewhat dangerous if you were to trip and fall. Thankfully our adventure up the tower did not end with a face-plant to the light.