By Joe Myerson • Photography by Louisa Gould

Oak Bluffs has a well-earned reputation as Martha’s Vineyard’s party spot, so it’s ironic that the town got its start as a religious retreat for Boston-based Methodists.

There’s some Methodist behind the madness in bustling, boisterous Oak Bluffs!
There’s some Methodist behind the madness in bustling, boisterous Oak Bluffs!

They arrived in 1836 to hold annual outdoor camp meetings in a sheep pasture surrounded by wind-blasted oaks overlooking Vineyard Sound, in what was then a part of Edgartown. The gatherings grew in popularity. Families returned every year, erecting wooden platforms for their tents. Eventually the tents gave way to small cottages built in the whimsical “carpenter’s Gothic,” or “gingerbread” style, painted in bright colors and fronted by meticulously tended gardens behind colorful picket fences.

By the 1860s, the cottages at Wesleyan Grove, as the campground was known, had become a tourist attraction in their own right. Developers bought up adjacent land, laid out streets, built seaside hotels, rooming houses and summer homes—many mimicking the gingerbread camp houses—and the community of Cottage City was born. At the beginning of the 20th century, a channel was cut from a salt pond at the center of the community to Vineyard Sound, creating the harbor boaters know today. By 1907, the town had adopted the more dignified name of Oak Bluffs and began to take advantage of its waterfront by welcoming ferries from the mainland.

Harbor Highlights

Transient slips and moorings are available through the town-managed Oak Bluffs Marina.
Transient slips and moorings are available through the town-managed Oak Bluffs Marina.

Today, the compact harbor remains a popular destination for recreational boaters of all types, given its close proximity to many southern New England ports, particularly those on Cape Cod. The harbor entrance is 15 nautical miles from Hyannis Harbor, five miles from Falmouth Harbor and roughly six miles from Woods Hole, putting it within easy daytrip range.

Twin jetties mark the relatively narrow but deep entrance to Oak Bluffs Harbor from Nantucket Sound. The channel faces roughly northwest, with a flashing red 30-second beacon at the end of the northernmost jetty. Be aware of the small shoal area to the north, just as you enter the harbor, and the dock on the south side of the channel reserved for the Island Queen passenger ferry from Falmouth. Keep to the channel until you’re into the pond itself and you’ll find plenty of water—and plenty of boats.

With 81 slips and 45 moorings, the town-owned Oak Bluffs Marina is the largest marina on Martha’s Vineyard. The harbormaster, whose office is at the marina, recommends making advance reservations, especially on summer weekends, but his staff can probably find a space for you, as up to three boats are allowed per mooring. The marina office begins taking reservations for the Med-moor-style (stern-in) slips at midnight on February 1, and they are usually booked throughout July and August. Space on the moorings is on a first-come, first-served basis. During the shoulder seasons of June and September-through-October, short-term visitors may use slips for $10 an hour, while moorings are free for a day. Hail the Oak Bluffs Launch on VHF channel 71 for service to and from the moorings.

The Oak Bluffs Marina sells gas and diesel, and operates a DIY pump-out station for smaller boats and a pump-out boat for larger vessels. Anchoring in the harbor is prohibited, but there’s good holding ground 300 feet from shore north of the harbor entrance.

The other marina in the harbor is the Dockside Marina and Marketplace, which has eight slips and hosts a small fleet of charter fishing boats. The Marketplace is home to several restaurants and shops, all right on the waterfront.

Touring the Campground

Just a few blocks inland from the bustle of the harbor, the ferry landings and the restaurants and clubs, visitors to Oak Bluffs can stroll through 34 acres of winding lanes, lovely pocket parks and riotously painted gingerbread-style cottages. This area, bounded roughly by Cottage Park, Quequechan, Clinton, Dukes County, Siloam and Central avenues, marks the site of the original Methodist campground that eventually grew into the modern tourist town of Oak Bluffs.

Owned and managed by the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA), the site and its buildings have been a National Historic Landmark since 2005. Each picturesque cottage sits on a tiny plot of land, leased from the MVCMA, where individual families originally pitched their tents for a summer of revival meetings, hymn sings and wholesome family activities. Many of the cottages have been passed from generation to generation since the 19th century. Those that do come up for sale fetch exorbitant prices.

At the center of the Campground stands the Tabernacle, a unique wrought-iron and glass open-air pavilion, itself a National Historic Landmark. It was built in the 1880s and is still used for nondenominational religious services, lectures, family sing-alongs and public celebrations.

While visitors are welcome to stroll the Campground’s quiet, colorful lanes on their own, the MVCMA conducts walking tours ($10 per person) every Tuesday and Thursday in August, starting at 10 a.m. in the Tabernacle. The Association also maintains a Cottage Museum featuring old photographs, documents and memorabilia of the Campground’s history.

“Illumination Night” marks the high point of every summer season at the Campground. That’s when residents festoon their cottages with Chinese-style paper lanterns, either electric or lit by candles. The lanterns remain dark until after dusk, when residents gather in the Tabernacle for a sing-along. Afterwards, on cue, the lanterns are lit. This year’s Illumination Night is scheduled for August 17, and will begin at 7:30 in the Tabernacle.

Carnival Atmosphere

Hungry teens devour pizza near the harbor.
Hungry teens devour pizza near the harbor.

From a slip or mooring in the tight but well-managed harbor, boaters can easily walk to beaches, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and Victorian landmarks. Bicycle and moped rentals are a stone’s throw from the waterfront, and the efficient—and inexpensive—buses of the Martha’s Vineyard Transportation Authority (VTA) make frequent trips to Edgartown and Vineyard Haven.

Oak Bluffs itself often seems like a milling, cheerful street carnival. You’ll find plenty of T-shirt shops, ice-cream vendors, restaurants and clothing stores on Circuit Avenue, as well as on Lake Avenue near the harbor, but the centerpiece attraction is the Flying Horses carousel—a registered National Historic Landmark since 2005.

The carrousel was built in 1876 on Coney Island and shipped to the Vineyard in 1884. It stands in the center of the village, surrounded by Circuit, Kennebec, Lake and Oak Bluffs avenues. Inside, you and your children can ride the hand-carved horses, buy ice cream and souvenirs, play video games or just watch this last working platform merry-go-round in action.

Summer-Long Celebration

At night, particularly on weekends, the village rocks, with music of all sorts issuing from the clubs and bars. Festivals and events dot the summer calendar, beginning with the annual Harbor Festival in June, fireworks shows in August and ending with the Tivoli Day celebration in September. Every other Sunday in August you can enjoy a free band concert at the gazebo in Ocean Park, near the bus stops and opposite the Steamship Authority terminal.

While swimming isn’t allowed inside the crowded harbor, you’ll find several fine beaches nearby. North Jetty Beach, near the private East Chop Yacht Club, is accessible by dinghy only. There’s also a somewhat rocky town beach just below the seawall south of the ferry terminal. The spectacular and popular Joseph Sylvia State Beach lies along Seaview Avenue, which becomes Beach Road when you cross into Edgartown. You may want to rent a bike to visit this stretch of white sand—and follow the bicycles-only path that eventually leads to Edgartown.

No matter how you get around, or get there, you’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy yourself in Oak Bluffs—a town that’s welcomed summer visitors for nearly two centuries, and continues to do so.

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