WEST TISBURY -- One of life's pleasures is sitting on the porch at Alley's General Store in this bucolic town on Martha's Vineyard, sipping coffee and reading the Sunday papers as island life goes by.
With its horse -crossing signs and stone-walled rural landscapes, West Tisbury is a world apart from the populous `` down- island" centers of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown. No chintzy souvenir and charm bracelet shops here. No overflowing bars (it's a dry town) or crowded ferry docks. This is the pastoral `` up- island" Vineyard, with its own distinct history and the breathing room and tranquillity afforded by acres of farmland, forest, water, sky, and sand.
It's my favorite place on this island off Cape Cod, and we were lucky enough to take the ferry over for one of the rare sunny weekends in early May. We knew some restaurants and attractions were still unbuttoning from winter, but West Tisbury is less about eating out than being out. The town, with fewer than 3,000 residents, contains numerous conservation areas and roughly half of the island's 4,300-acre state forest, with its paved bicycle and hiking trails.
Founded by English settlers, including the son of Myles Standish, in the 1670s, West Tisbury's early mainstays were clay and salt works , along with sheep farms and mills, including one that made wool for whalers' pea coats. These days, you'll find a yoga studio and supermarket, gymnastics training center, and even a poet laureate. Yet the town still resembles a traditional New England farming community in many ways with a white, steepled church, general store, antiques traders, an annual fair and livestock show, and a seasonal farmers market.
We have stayed at several inns on the Vineyard. This time, mindful of a budget, we felt we had struck gold with the newly opened Bluebird Meadow Guest House and its proprietress, Joyce Maxner, 61. She is a mother of five and a certified doula , who offers support during childbirth, as well as a music teacher .
The gray-shingled house had a wide covered porch, landscaped garden, and expansive lawn with inviting hammocks. We could hear songbirds almost from the minute Maxner greeted us and escorted us to a spacious, second-floor room with a high ceiling, skylight, and king-size sleigh bed that once belonged to Andre Previn.
That first day, with nearly a full afternoon before us, we drove to Garcia's Deli at Back Alley's behind the general store and bought sandwiches and chocolate chip banana bread to eat outside on a bench in the sun. Just across the street we could see The Field Gallery and white sculptures by the late local artist Tom Maley dancing across its lawn. After lunch, we saw more pieces inside , including black-and-white photographs of the Grateful Dead and vibrant botanical collages by Peggy Turner Zablotny of Vineyard Haven.
Relaxed after our late afternoon wanderings, we detoured back to our guest house past the antique homes on Music Street, so named for the many pianos purchased by the prosperous whaling captains who lived there.
For postcard-perfect sunsets, many people head to Menemsha, a working fishing village that appeared in the film ``Jaws." Instead, lured by the promise of an intensely colored sky, we grabbed sweaters and drove to Lambert's Cove Beach, where a sandy path leads from the small parking lot through woods to the shore.
The great part about being in West Tisbury in the so-called ``shoulder" season is that you can watch the sunset on a beautiful ly empty beach. The downside is that dining out at night can be a challenge before mid-May. But June travelers will have a wide range of options, including at the fine, if not inexpensive, bittersweet and Lambert's Cove Inn restaurants.
We lucked out our first night with a last-minute call to the inn, and a dinner that included filet mignon with wild mushroom ragout, butter -poached lobster, spinach salad, vanilla crème brûlée, and pecan pie . Our impulse reservation meant we had no time to purchase wine, but the food held its own beautifully.
The next morning, a hefty breakfast was waiting outside our door: granola, yogurt topped with fresh fruit, tea, juice, and muffins.
I was eager to assume my Sunday perch at Alley's, the heart of the town since 1858, and it wasn't long before I was sitting on the porch, reading away. Meanwhile, my companion walked over to take a look at the First Congregational Church, whose preachers included early settler and missionary the Rev. Thomas Mayhew Jr. Arguably, the town's most famous resident is Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail solo around the world, taking three years to circle home in 1898.
We next made a quick stopover at the Polly Hill Arboretum, part native woodland and part botanical garden developed over the past 40 years. Here, visitors can see the famous North Tisbury azaleas and the Pleached Hornbeam Arch, a carefully pruned horticultural folly sometimes referred to as the ``Tunnel of Love."
Since neither of us had been to Christiantown, we decided to stop at the prayer site of the Wampanoag tribal members Mayhew converted to Christianity in the 17th century . A simple chapel built in 1829 sat at the far end of a dirt road, padlocked with a cross made of shipping tape on its door. Through the windows, we could see little more than a dozen white pews. A short trail nearby led through pignut hickory trees and old growth forest, and an Indian burial ground rested at the top of a small rise across the road .
Our outdoor ventures continued Monday . After breakfast, we drove out to Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary, past horse stables and green pastures speckled with dandelions and fluttering violet butterflies.
The 312 hilly acres are indeed a sanctuary. Through woods and past freshwater ponds, trails here converge at a narrow beach with views of Vineyard Sound and the Elizabeth Islands. We found it helpful to get a trail map at the parking lot .
We picked up a late lunch at Fella's, a take-out sandwich and pizza place, kicked up our heels at the guest house, and later decamped to Pomodoro in Oak Bluffs for a relatively inexpensive Italian meal.
Rain finally hit Tuesday, but we squeezed in sightseeing and shopping before returning to the mainland. First, we went to Chicama Vineyards, where three generations of the same family have been producing wines and specialty foods since 1971. It is the oldest continuously operating winery in New England, and winemaker Lynn Hoeft, 56, said visitors are surprised to learn it's the only vineyard on Martha's Vineyard.
``They expect there to be 20 of them," she said.
Then, with just enough time to spare, we popped into Martha's Vineyard Glassworks, where you can see artisans in action. We watched as a glassblower spun molten orange threads around a twirling magenta vase, then cast it back in the furnace. The two-story gallery features everything from hand blown glass jewelry and ornaments to goblets and platters .
Reluctantly, as the glassblowers broke for lunch, we broke for the ferry and, in what would be the first of many gloomy days, sailed for home.
Contact Pamela Ferdinand, a writer in Cambridge, at pam firstname.lastname@example.org.