It has probably been the worst-kept secret on Martha’s Vineyard that President Obama, Michelle, the girls and Bo the dog would, like last year, be renting a farm there this summer. They have been there this week but “The Vineyard,” an island 10km south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, has been attracting Democratic first families since John and Jackie Kennedy in the 1950s; the Clintons came seven summers in a row. And the coastal town of Oak Bluffs was one of the first US holiday destinations where middle-class African Americans were made to feel welcome.
But long before the politicians and the celebrities started to flock there, the island’s pristine beaches and rugged beauty attracted teachers, writers and artists, including Jackson Pollock, who would dig in for the summer in cheap boarding houses.
That culture has all but disappeared but it is still possible to do Martha’s Vineyard on a budget. I booked myself a few days in the Tashmoo Boarding House in Vineyard Haven. Owners, Roger and Elizabeth Hunt, an Anglo-American couple in their early 50s, took over in February last year. Roger, who is co-author of Old House Handbook: A Practical Guide to Care and Repair, couldn’t resist an interesting old house in need of restoration and is gradually chipping away at the restoration.
The plan is to turn it into more than just a place to stay in the summer, but for now the Hunts split their time between London and the Vineyard. In the meantime, they employ a delightful, dynamic young couple, Jamie and Justin, to manage the place.
Singles start at US$80 per night, doubles US$100. Unless you’re taking over the whole place, they have an over-21s rule, to ensure it remains peaceful, and the core clientele — artists, writers, social workers, nurses, grown-up groups — continue coming.
Elizabeth hit the nail on the head. “In the current economic climate,” she said, “the traditional summer boarding house model has never been more appropriate.”
I was told I wouldn’t need a car to experience the island, which is good, because renting one would not be cheap. The ferry from Woods Hole on the mainland cost US$15 return for foot passengers and glided across to Vineyard Haven, the island’s main port, in 45 minutes. Main Street, a pretty strip of boutiques, cafes and restaurants, is a two-minute walk from the ferry port. From there, it was a 10-minute stroll past clapboard houses with white picket fences to the pretty two-story boarding house, minutes from the town beach.
On a humid July day, it felt gloriously cool once inside. Windows open to the elements on all sides, the sea breeze providing natural ventilation. There is a vast, open-plan living area, with sofas, armchairs, a dining table and shelves stacked with vintage books. No TV. Heaven. Tashmoo sleeps 12 in seven guest rooms (each with its own washbasin), and guests share three bathrooms with clawfoot tubs.
Out back is an outdoor shower and a spacious lawn with a picnic table and chairs. My double bed was dressed with nice white linens, an antique bedside table, built-in wardrobe, chair and sink. The room felt serene, sunny and starched.
Other guests included a couple from Vermont on a cycling holiday and a nurse who had been coming every summer for the past 20 years — but our paths didn’t really cross, because most of them were out all day.