EDGARTOWN -- Rain fell steadily for several hours the morning six of us had planned a sea-kayaking excursion on Martha's Vineyard. Just before 10 a.m., the rain stopped. With overcast skies and gray clouds scudding overhead, we loaded our red, white, and yellow plastic boats into a friend's pickup truck and headed Up-Island. For the uninitiated, Up-Island (a nautical term concerning longitude) actually means west. Down-Island is east. That day, it took us a half-hour to travel from the brick sidewalks and shuttered white whaling mansions of Edgartown to the rural sheep pastures of Chilmark, where we pulled into a small parking lot on South Road. A narrow bridge there spans two ponds, Stonewall Pond and Nashaquitsa (which locals simply call Quitsa) Pond.
With a glance at the threatening skies, we loaded water bottles, chicken salad sandwiches from Humphrey's in Edgartown, and homemade chocolate chip cookies in plastic bags into the holds of our sea kayaks and pushed off. The flapping wings of Canada geese, whirling of cormorants, and splash of paddles slicing the water: All was sublime stillness even though it was August and high season on the Vineyard.
As we paddled, the wind came up. There was more chop, and it became harder to work our way across the water, past pristine and unspoiled landscapes of breathtaking cliffs and stones, sea grasses, bayberries, and beach plums. In almost three hours, we did not see another soul.
We stopped for lunch on a deserted beach at Menemsha Pond and looked hard for an overgrown passage, through high sea grasses, into Squibnocket. We paddled down a herring run and into a storm drainage pipe to get from pond to pond and lay flat in our kayaks to go under two old and rotten piers and, miraculously, beat the weather to arrive at our destination at the edge of Squibnocket Pond.
Carrying our kayaks over a short stretch of dune, we waited as one of our friends hitched a ride back to the truck, then drove back for us and the kayaks. It was a grand adventure, "a four pond day" as one friend called it. As if on cue, once we happily settled into the truck for the ride back Down-Island, the heavens opened up and rain gushed from the sky.
Martha's Vineyard is lavishly beautiful, especially if you know where to go. Even in high season, you can feel like the island belongs to you alone if you pick your spots carefully. Because so much of the Vineyard is privately owned and because the remaining 30 percent is set aside for conservation land and 35 miles of bike paths, the really smart traveler -- even middle-aged nonjocks like us -- are drawn to kayaking, biking, or walking. Besides, trying to get a car on the island during the summer is sheer hell. To get over on the weekend, you have to book car ferry reservations months ahead. On the other hand, you can be spontaneous and decide one day to walk for miles in the State Forest in the middle of the island in high season and never see another soul for hours -- or check out the fabulous wildlife preserves Up-Island, ranging from the colored clay cliffs of Aquinnah (Gay Head) and Menemsha Hills Reservation, to Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and Wasque -- very far Down-Island on the little island of Chappaquiddick.
A helpful guide, published by the Appalachian Mountain Club and written by Lee Sinai, is "Exploring Martha's Vineyard by Bike, Foot and Kayak." It is filled with great maps and helpful advice, including information about where to rent bikes and kayaks in the three Down-Island towns of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Haven. The Trustees of Reservations, at their two spectacular beaches on Chappaquiddick also rent kayaks and canoes and conduct tours of Cape Pogue Bay and Poucha Pond.
For the less athletic, travel is also possible around the island in a rented car, by taxi, or, for $1 from town to town, on clean and efficient buses operated by the Martha's Vineyard Transit Authority.
Discovered in 1602 by an Englishman named Bartholomew Gosnold, who promptly named the island Martha's Vineyard after his daughter and because of the grapevines he saw everywhere, the Vineyard is still beautiful and even peaceful despite the waves of wealthy, celebrated, and powerful who flock here in season. Most recently, a flurry of media attention followed in the wake of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who started vacationing here while he was in the White House in 1994. Hillary was back in Vineyard Haven recently to sign copies of her autobiography at Bunch of Grapes, a bookstore. One of two really wonderful independent bookstores on the island (the other is Edgartown Books), these are a book lover's dream and great places to hide away on rainy days. Both feature summerlong schedules of readings and signings by the many New York and other literati who call the Vineyard home, at least in summer.
If you're in Edgartown buying books, you'll want to stop by Espresso Love for a red-white-and-blue Presidential muffin, which owner Carol McManus concocted for the former president (from cream cheese, flour, butter, strawberries, and blueberries). In the evening, the restaurant is a calm oasis behind Edgartown's Main Street, featuring Provencal fabrics and French wrought-iron furniture on blue stones, set amid a beautiful garden. Other good dining spots Down-Island are the Alchemy Bistro and Bar and the pricey L'Etoile, at the Charlotte Inn. Don't eat dessert. Instead, stop by Scoops for ginger or coconut ice cream.
A great dinner option Up-Island is Larsen's, in the achingly perfect fishing village of Menemsha. A retail fish store owned by a Martha's Vineyard premier fishing family, Larsen's also boils lobsters and serves cherrystones, oysters, crab cakes, mussels, steamers, and stuffed quahogs for takeout. Go just before sunset. Walk around the village. Order your food. Uncork some white wine (you have to bring your own because all the Up-Island towns are dry) and sit out back of Larsen's on a lobster trap while you eat, watching the lobster fleet and fishing trawlers come back into the harbor across Menemsha Bight as the sun sets. If you want to go to a real restaurant, try the good but crowded and touristy Homeport in Menemsha.
A dessert option Up-Island, combining food, sunsets, and sightseeing, would be home-baked blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream at Aquinnah Shop on Aquinnah (the name was changed from Gay Head in 1998), where descendants of the island's original Wampanoags still live and where the sun bathes the red, yellow, and orange clay cliffs in light as it drops into the sea.
If you are lucky enough to own or rent a house on the Vineyard, there are wonderful farms, including Morning Glory Farm on the Edgartown-Tisbury road, where you can buy organic vegetables, fruits, meat, flowers, honey, eggs, cheeses, and cream, as well as concoct a feast along with great fish or lobsters from one of the several fish stores on the island.
The best time at the Vineyard is coming up. In September and October, the day-trippers and summer renters and summer residents and literati and glitterati have all left by ferry and plane and private jet. Then the long, golden days of Indian summer seem to stretch endlessly ahead.
Maria Karagianis is a freelance writer and executive director of Discovering Justice, a Boston nonprofit whose mission is to teach about democracy. She lives in Milton.