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Inn Season : Destination: California & Massachusetts : Five quirky towns, five charming hotels--its a match made in Martha's Vineyard

August 27, 1995|MARK JENKINS | Freelance writer Mark Jenkins lives on Martha's Vineyard part of the year. and

EDGARTOWN — The island of Martha's Vineyard, a 23-by-9-mile patch of real estate five miles off the coast of Massachusetts, has long been a summer playground for moneyed Northeasterners attracted by its 350-year-old Colonial history, 124 miles of spectacular beaches and coastline, varied and often eccentric architecture and the accepting disposition of the legendary taciturn islanders.

In recent years the island's visibility has increased dramatically due to highly publicized visits by President Clinton and Princess Diana and the presence of such celebrities as Walter Cronkite, Billy Joel, Mike Wallace, Carly Simon, Alan Dershowitz and James Taylor.

The consequence of this fame, combined with improved transportation to the island, has been a deluge of visitors. Critical mass is reached in July and August, when the residential population explodes to 130,000 (not including tens of thousands of day-trippers), 10 times what it is year-round. On an island this small it can seem as if there's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Faced with gridlock on stone-wall-lined country roads and 45-minute waits at West Tisbury's farmers market for a pot of plum jelly, the common refrain among locals this time of year is, "Stay calm--September's comin'!"

Vineyard cognoscenti know that fall is the best time on the island. The crowds thin and the water is at its warmest (thanks to the Gulf Stream). Days can be spent sunbathing on the beach, but nights are cool enough to warrant a sweater. Calls for dinner reservations can be made without eliciting snorts of derision at the other end of the line. Perhaps most significantly, you can actually find a room at one of the island's inns.

The Vineyard has a long history of accommodating visitors. At the turn of the century it was a thriving commercial fishing and shipping center (Vineyard Sound was the world's second-busiest waterway). Starting in the 1920s, vacationers seeking a respite from city living came for the island's deserted beaches. With such a tradition of inn keeping, it is not surprising that today there are inns all over the island.

After taking a summer home with a private beach the past few years, I have become well acquainted with many of them. They provide a welcome means of sidetracking friends, acquaintances and relatives who miraculously rediscover my telephone number at just about the time an August heat-wave is predicted in Boston or New York. A man only has so much couch space, after all.

The following is a selection of the island's finest, selected for its geographical diversity and diverse character.

The 25-room Charlotte Inn is nestled among enormous linden and chestnut trees in Edgartown, the county seat since 1642 and the most genteel of the island's towns, physically and attitudinally.

In contrast to the casual dress code observed elsewhere, in Edgartown you might spot a lady in a frock and bonnet or a fellow wearing a coast and tie (as a yachting center, this usually means a crested blue blazer and yacht club tie matched with lime-green pants, scuffed deck shoes and no socks). If you know Edgartown, you don't think twice if you overhear a lock-jawed, pearl-bedecked matron calling her 70-year-old consort "Binky."

Stately white Greek Revival houses built by wealthy whaling captains dominate the town's three-story "skyline." On South Water Street, in the shade of the huge pagoda tree brought from China in the early 1800s, stands the former home of Capt. Valentine Pease, master of the ship on which "Moby Dick" author, Herman Melville, made his only whaling trip. When the whaling industry faced ruin after the Civil War, many of these homes were sold and became inns.

The Charlotte Inn is the iconoclastic vision of owner and innkeeper Gery Conover, who claims he really belongs in the Edwardian era. Enter the hushed lobby adorned with 19th-Century oil paintings, approach the imposing mahogany front desk to sign in the ledger and you feel like you've stepped back in time.

The oldest of the inn's three main buildings, the Garden House, dates to 1705. Each of the buildings has been painstakingly restored. Conover has spent decades accumulating antiques and artwork in Europe and the United States to make this an accurate incarnation of the Edwardian period. Most pieces look as if they belong in a museum, but are actually functional--hat stands, brass gas lamps (converted to electricity), roll-top desks and standing clocks. Conover himself cruises around Edgartown's narrow streets in vintage cars. Thumbing its nose at convention, the inn provides TVs in only a few of its rooms;there are no VCRs, piped music, Jacuzzis and the like. All the phones are antique rotary.

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