Top people and no Big Macs

Martha's Vineyard is a select kind of island, as Tom Maddocks discovered

Bill and Hillary have vacationed here. Sharon Stone and Spike Lee are regulars. But don't let that put you off - we never saw them - nor, for that matter, the hordes of rubbernecking celebrity-seekers that are supposed to invade the Vineyard in the summer months.

Fortunately, there are far better things to do on this island off the Cape Cod coast of Massachusetts. The low-key but pleasurable pastimes include hiring a bike to explore the 20-mile long island, hitting the uncrowded beaches or simply gazing at the wondrous whiteness of the 19th- century clapperboard houses.

All these make it an excellent place for a family holiday away from the hordes, with the added bonus of being one of the few corners of the United States where the McDonald's, Pizza Huts, Dairy Queens and the rest are nowhere to be seen. Ice-cream vendors and tawdry attractions are banned from the beaches.

You have to pay for the privilege, though. Most of the higher-quality rooms are in the $150-250 a night bracket in high season. The cheapest we could find was the 120-year-old Nashua House in Oak Bluffs, with shared bathrooms, which will set you back between $49 and $75 plus tax.

Before the Kennedys came to Martha's Vineyard, bringing style and scandal in equal measure, the island was best known as a centre of the 19th-century whaling trade. Chappaquiddick, across a narrow strait from the port of Edgartown, meant "separate island" in the Algonquin language of the local Wampanoag Indians, rather than the place where Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in Teddy Kennedy's car. Ships sailed from Edgartown for the whaling grounds of the Arctic and Pacific.

An exhibition at the island museum in Cooke Street, Edgartown, reveals that these trips could last as long as 11 years, suggesting that the pages of Moby Dick contain just the edited highlights of a whaling voyage. Today Herman Melville would still recognise the beautifully preserved whaling captains' houses lining North and South Water Streets.

Nowadays the occupants are more likely to be captains of banking and industry, spending their vacations in the same houses. Jaunty in the knowledge of deals profitably done, they stride forth to struggle with lobsters at smart restaurants. In carefully faded Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts and shorts, they are typically accessorised with lean-limbed younger second wives.

Over excellent clam chowder at the Sand Bar and Grille on Main Street, we decided to read up the island's history before setting off to explore. The place is said to take its name from the daughter of the explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who discovered the island in 1602. Mr Gosnold was English and so would have immediately felt at home on this crab-shaped glacial remnant, 20 miles long and 10 miles wide. It has the feel of a lusher version of Surrey, with the glittering Atlantic Ocean as an added extra.

We set off to the western end of the crab, where the scenery becomes wild. Here at Gay Head, scene of spectacular fossil-rich cliffs, Jackie Onassis had her house. You can buy a postcard of this but the picture is mysteriously smudgy, as if trying to hide its secrets. A lack of parking places for non-residents in this part of the island also seems to discourage the casual visitor. However, nearby Gay Head Beach is extremely popular, with a $10 charge for parking behind the dunes.

Leaving the bracing air of Gay Head, another feature that Mr Gosnold would have also found familiar, we took the road back towards Vineyard Haven, the island's main port. We had read that the Vineyard was so overrun by tourists it was becoming spoilt, but the author had presumably not been to Gay Head. The roads were nearly empty.

On the way, my wife insisted that we stop at the Scottish Bakehouse on State Road, a slice of Dumbarton in New England. This shop stocks everything that a Scot, homesick for a high-fat snack could, desire: authentic macaroons, Forfar bridies. At Vineyard Haven, it took us five minutes to sweep the crumbs from the car before looking around.

The town is perfectly pleasant, but unremarkable. It boasts an excellent bookshop which sounds more like a pub (the Bunch of Grapes on Main Street) and one of the island's main social rendezvous (the Black Dog Tavern on the harbour). But otherwise it does not detain the majority of visitors.

By contrast, Oak Bluffs is the island's one town that grew up in response to the influx of seasonal visitors. In the 1830s the area was the scene of a remarkable Methodist revival. The faithful in their thousands gathered from across the island and beyond for weeks on end during the summer to hear the word of the Lord in a camp ground.

As the popularity of this meeting place grew, the canvas holiday homes were replaced by a cast-iron, open-air tabernacle surrounded by extraordinary, gaudily-painted wooden cottages, known as gingerbread houses. The shady camp site has been preserved, along with the Tyrolean-style cottages.

Elsewhere in Oak Bluffs, helping give the resort a slightly raffish San Francisco air, there are larger versions of these cottages, some more American Gothic than Heidi House. Many are built around a large green which we found empty on a July afternoon. Perhaps Sharon Stone was lunching elsewhere, taking all her fans with her. Or perhaps the kind of family that takes its holiday on the Vineyard is more interested in taking a ride on the hand-painted Flying Horses Carousel at the other end of town.

VINEYARD VACATIONS

Getting there: Martha's Vineyard is 100 miles south of Boston. Gatwick-Boston flights on Delta/Virgin Atlantic in late September cost pounds 355 return through Trailfinders (0171-937 5400). From Boston, you can pick up a rental car and take the ferry from Woods Hole. Summer rates: $38 for car plus $4.75 per passenger. Advance booking is strongly advised, on 00 1 508 477 8600. Alternatively, take a commuter flight from Boston on Cape Air or USAir Express.

Staying there: Tom Maddocks paid $175 per night for a double room at the Edgardown Heritage Hotel, 227 Upper Main St (00 1 508 627 5161). In low season, this can fall to as little as $56.

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