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The Path to Family Bliss at the Beach

Maybe it's the soothing surf or the old pond on Martha's Vineyard, but an all-relatives- all-the-time vacation goes swimmingly


WEST TISBURY, Mass. — Planning a reunion for a family whose coat of arms could bear the motto "Born to Bicker" is not a simple task.

So when the Boston-bred Feldman clan agreed--for our matriarch's 75th birthday last summer--to head en masse to Martha's Vineyard, questions arose on just what kind of accommodations to book.

My mom posed the first question to my brother Steve, the lawyer:

"Should we rent one big house for all of us?"

The cross-examination was swift:

"Why would we want to do that?"

Mom: "Oh, you know I'm turning 75, and I don't know if we'll ever be able to vacation all together again."

Steve: "Well, I can tell you this. If we rent one big house, I can guarantee you we won't vacation together again."

We considered separate hotel rooms but thought that too sterile for a reunion. Besides, without a kitchen, how would my mother engage in three of her life's passions--preparing food, freezing it and defrosting it for her grandchildren?

After factoring in the inflated summer vacation rental rates, we finally compromised on renting side-by-side houses, which we found on one of several Martha's Vineyard Web sites.

The contemporary one-story houses, which are down a dirt road in West Tisbury, weren't much to look at from the outside. But they were comfortable inside, particularly the larger of the two, a four-bedroom with a screened-in porch, a spacious living room and, most important, a convenient full kitchen, which rented for $2,500 a week in late June.

The houses were next to a large but unswimmable pond, ideal for kayaking, at the center of the island.

The downside of such an arrangement, we feared, would be our distance from the beach. But as it turned out, the stay in West Tisbury was a swimmer's dream.

Because we were lodged about 15 minutes in almost any direction from the coast, we had good reason to sample beaches throughout the easy-to-traverse island.

Exploring more than half a dozen of them in seven days, we discovered that Martha's Vineyard may be compact, but it offers beaches to meet almost anyone's cravings: sandy-bottomed or rocky; cold water or warm; child-friendly or roiling.

We also discovered that with enough space and enough activities, we could all get along just swimmingly.

On ferry day, our landing party consisted of my family of four; Steve's equal-sized brood; another brother, Marc; and my mother and stepfather. Later in the week an aunt and uncle joined us.

The 85-mile drive to Cape Cod from Boston, where all but my immediate family live, took less than two hours on a misty late June morning, far less time than on midsummer getaway days.

We gladly paid $208 to transport a minivan and a station wagon across the five-mile Vineyard Sound. That way we would never risk remaining landlocked on a hot afternoon or even have to be ferried in waves to the beach.

The best advice for summer travelers is to book car ferry reservations many months ahead for the day you need, even if the specific departure time is bad. Then be prepared to call back repeatedly to get better times. The natives are used to it, and it works.

Courtesy of the persistent efforts of my sister-in-law, Hedda, an early morning reservation and a late evening reservation were finally melded into two midafternoon reservations on the same boat. After squeezing the vehicles aboard, we relaxed on deck for the calm, 45-minute ferry trip.

From the deck, details of the compact, leafy island came quickly into view. Although only 20 miles long, it includes a variety of environments, from the quaint New England town of Edgartown to Menemsha, a quintessential fishing village where Vineyard lobstermen deliver their catch, and from the serene woods of the interior to the crashing waves of the ocean-side beaches.

When we arrived, one sticky detail remained: Who would stay in which house? TV seemed to mark the line in the sand.

Brother Marc and 5-year-old nephew Jason wanted nonstop sports. My wife, Iris, preferred the TV off. There was a suggestion we should designate one structure the girls' house and the other the boys' house. Although the idea was nixed, it more or less worked out that way anyhow because of the vagaries of modern technology: When Marc realized the cable in the bigger house wasn't working, he bailed out and headed to the other, nephew in tow. The two surfaced for meals and swimming excursions but were otherwise happy to hang out at the smaller house, visions of Red Sox lulling them to sleep.

The first morning on the island was hot and humid. We packed tuna and turkey sandwiches, the first of dozens we would make that week, and headed for the water. For our debut trip, we decided to take the easiest approach--the popular Joseph A. Sylvia Beach, a two-mile stretch of open shore along the state road running between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. Sylvia Beach, which is on Nantucket Sound, is decidedly family-friendly--gently sloped, with warm waters lapping onto a sandy shore.

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