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Between seasons on Martha's Vineyard

By Brendan Newnam, Special to CNN
Martha's Vineyard has a serene environment in between seasons, a calm May just before the summer buzz.
Martha's Vineyard has a serene environment in between seasons, a calm May just before the summer buzz.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Martha's Vineyard mid-May: Dormant insularity before the summer infestation
  • It's a refuge of calm away from your day-to-day chaos
  • There are six beautiful towns to explore in Martha's Vineyard
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Brendan Francis Newnam hosts a national public radio show called The Dinner Party Download produced by American Public Media. He's the author of a new CNN.com travel column called "The State I'm In." Follow him on Twitter @bnewnam.

(CNN) -- In mid-May, Martha's Vineyard is a pregnant widow.*

One season dead, the next yet to be born. Half protective quiet, half mindful preparation. An in-between place caught between the two seasons of a tourist economy: On and off. Winter population 15,007. Summer population 105,624. (Imagine your household of four expanding to 28.)

Martha's Vineyard to the outside observer mid-May: Dormant insularity making way for the buzzy infestation of summer.

Bookending each trip to the "The Vineyard" is a 45-minute ferry ride, a small tutorial on island life itself: You are surrounded by water, the pace is slow, there are arcane rules (you can't purchase booze from the snackbar until the boat is off to sea) and the chowder is delicious.

It also prepares you for the island's defining attribute: magnificent calm.

The Vineyard's shores remain calm before summer tourists descend on the beaches.
The Vineyard's shores remain calm before summer tourists descend on the beaches.

The clanging, bustling, door-slamming frenzy of the mainland falls away. Speed limits are obeyed. Slumber is deep. Buying a box of tea can be the centerpiece of an entire afternoon. Hardened urbanites stop and admire a beach plum shrub.

Sun-bleached books and well-thumbed card decks bear silent witness to languorous meals pulled up from the cold ocean floor. A powerful stillness exists here.

There are six towns in Martha's Vineyard.

Along the Eastern part, you'll find:

-- Oak Bluffs, a former Methodist camp with colorful Victorians, gingerbread cottages and the island's most vibrant nightlife.

-- Vineyard Haven, the island's primary ferry port and home to galleries, saltwater taffy and the famous Black Dog Tavern.

-- Edgartown, a compact whaling community that's all grass and quaint architecture.

The Western part of the island (called "up island" by locals) has three towns:

-- West Tisbury, home to commerce and agriculture, the island's farmer's market, airport and Grange Hall.

-- Chilmark, which features beautiful houses around beautiful ponds and the highest real estate value in Massachusetts

-- Aquinnah, home to colorful clay cliffs the island's original residents, the Wappanog tribe.

While the different towns change out their stores, the Island's beauty remains the same.
While the different towns change out their stores, the Island's beauty remains the same.

During this liminal phase between seasons, each town's retail district molts unsuccessful businesses and replaces them with new dreams.

A deli closes and a charcuterie shops opens. A gift shop shutters and a surf shop emerges. Bagels turn to croissants. T-shirts turn to hoodies.

And over the course of many seasons, these little shifts add up: Old-world vacation demands like antiques, scrimshaw and dry martinis give way to new wants like cheeky beach clothes, intimate restaurants and designer cupcakes.

Everywhere on the island, the newly hired are struggling: The shopboy unaware of what time his store closes. Girls in a window wrestling pants on to a mannequin. A clerk at a bookstore sheepishly asking her boss once again for the proper code to ring up periodicals.

The edges have yet to be smoothed. The rhythms of commerce have not been established. Where will people gravitate to this year? Which business will survive through next season?

But towns aren't why you come to Martha's Vineyard. Not this time of year and hardly ever after your inaugural visit. The beach is why you came, and in this time between the 15,000 and the 100,000, a visitor can take in the beach undisturbed. Perhaps more interestingly, a visitor can take in the undisturbed beach.

On a sunny Saturday, footprints on the beach are the exception, not the rule. The ocean transforms from navy blue to clear as it thins itself on land. Cliffs display their colorful scars from the past winter's storms. The sea wants the island ... and it will eventually get it. Stones and former shellfish homes are so plentiful that a visitor can walk a mile and see every color and shape known to man without once lifting his head.

Then on Sunday, spring blinks and the sky turns the color of a bruise. A walk around the ponds reveals flowering bayberry, sleepy rose bushes and a variety of birds whose names read like poetry: ruby-throated hummingbirds, gray catbirds, barn and tree swallows, black-crowned night herons, red-headed woodpeckers, male hooded warblers and scarlet tanagers.

An observant eye will see water spitting from the earth instead of the sky. A curious spirit might begin to dig down through the brown sand, into the black musky mud until they found the water source: a clam. Then another and another. And soon they have one of those rarest of American phenomena: the free lunch.

At which stage there is only one thing left to do: Put the clams in a pot, add a can of beer, cover with a lid, turn on the stove, melt butter, eat, pack your suitcase and make your way to the ferry and leave before the pregnant widow comes to term.

* I should note, I didn't come up with the phrase "pregnant widow." It's the name of a novel by Martin Amis that I brought on my my visit to "The Vineyard. " The book is a stylish meditation on the time between the conservative mores of the '50s and the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s. The title is a quote from the Russian writer Alexander Herzen. I'd tell you more about it -- but, honestly, who gets a chance to read on vacation?