When the sun shines on Martha’s Vineyard, everybody heads outdoors. The coves of this island off Cape Cod fill with kayakers and clammers; bikers whizz (and wheeze) along forest paths, and beachgoers frolic in the cold blue surf.
Even the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center — known for its indoorsy Summer Institute of lectures, films and author talks — has an al fresco side, as I discovered during the seasonal concert series. The Long Point Five, an Island woodwind quintet, moved a recent event outdoors on the Hebrew Center porch, where the audience took in Debussy and Piazzolla amid sea breezes and the scent of blue hydrangea.
The first Jewish Vineyarders were drawn to the Island in the early 1900s by the beauty and tranquility of this spot. A century later, many of the pristine views that lured them are still in evidence. Meticulous conservation has kept development at bay; where McMansions might have sprouted, a peaceful summer haze lingers on centuries-old farm fields, and dense oak forests teem with deer and blueberry.
It’s easy to get sucked into a routine of beach by day and in-town strolls at night, but this year, I decided to delve deeper into the natural surroundings that make this 87-square-mile isle unique.
I started where I usually start a Vineyard day — at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown, with a cup of hazelnut coffee. A family-owned institution with acres of glorious green fields, Morning Glory runs a popular farm stand market selling produce, pastries and fresh-squeezed juices. I take my coffee out to a wooden rocker on the wraparound porch, gazing out over the wildflower lawn and waist-high cornfield.
Morning Glory is just one of dozens of Island farms, and a satisfying weekend can be had grazing from one to another — picking up fresh eggs or basil, sampling homemade pies or ogling spotted cattle. (One place to do it all at once is the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, held at the Grange Hall on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.)
Off a dusty, nondescript road, Island Alpaca is a different kind of farm: instead of beets and berries they grow alpacas, the furry, camel-like animals native to Peru. If dogs make you a little nervous, a herd of alpacas isn’t for you. But for those who love animals (and aren’t sensitive to strong smells), these 70-plus creatures are an entertaining change of pace.
Children in particular enjoy petting the dozens of alpacas that mill around a spacious barn. The animals might stroll over to say hi — or they may spit, if they’re in a bad mood (then again, so might your kids).
As cute as they are, alpacas aren’t native to New England shores, so I headed over to Polly Hill Arboretum for an in-depth look at what is. Hill was a 20th-century horticulturalist who established the arboretum on what had been a pre-Revolutionary war homestead, inn and later a family farm.
Hill was interested in testing the variety of plants that might successfully grow on the Island, which boasts a mild, ocean-influenced climate. On a hot summer day, I had 72 acres of dappled paths and woodland gardens to myself; I strolled through fields and groves of carefully labeled trees, by antique barns and mossy stonewalls.
A display in the Visitor Center reminded me that the Vineyard — lovely as it is — demands a heightened attention to natural perils. Chief among these are poison ivy, which is everywhere, and Lyme disease, spread by the ubiquitous deer tick. Lyme is so prevalent here that practically anyone who walks into the Island hospital is given a tick smear, just in case.
But as I learned at Polly Hill, much of what grows on the Vineyard is actually therapeutic. Throughout the summer, the arboretum offers classes on making herbal salves, collecting medicinal plants and foraging the arboretum grounds for edible treats.
After a pause on the patio, I headed to the North Shore and less cultivated Island landscapes. The Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary sprawls across miles of unspoiled marshland between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown; its trails explore the diversity of Vineyard environments, from tidal pools crawling with hermit crabs to groves of sassafras (the plant that gives root beer its distinctive taste), ponds full of turtles, a butterfly garden and trees where osprey nest.
While many come just to wander the trails, the interplay of flora and fauna is what makes Felix Neck exciting. By dawn, nature lovers gather along the shore to survey starfish or watch for early birds; by moonrise, kayakers set sail on Sengekontacket Pond.
In between, I head across the inlet to the calm waters of State Beach. Many prefer the South Shore ocean cliffs, where seals surface along with the occasional Great White shark (this is where “Jaws” was filmed, after all).
But after a day of spitting alpacas, hooting owls and various creepy-crawlies in the tide pool, I’ll take the serenity of the bay.