To most Islanders Aquinnah means the world-famous cliffs, the Gay Head Light, and the Wampanoag Tribe.

Throw in the beach and the Outermost Inn and, truth be told, there’s not a lot more to the town. Which is exactly the way the happy few who figure out a way to stay for any length of time in the village like it. Aquinnah is where you can leave it all behind, as long as you brought enough groceries up from down-Island to last.

Aquinnah Beaches

Zack’s Cliffs

Red Beach

Menemsha Neck Preserve

Moshup Beach

Lobsterville Beach

Philbin Beach

Primer

A Brief History

Gay Head, Lighthouse, Aquinnah, Cliffs, Alison ShawUnlike the rest of the Island, most of Aquinnah is not rubble carried south by the glaciers and piled up here. Instead, the colorful clays of the famous Gay Head Cliffs were pushed up from the ancient local muds by the weight of the advancing ice, the way a carpet might fold and buckle upwards when pushed forward.  As a result, there are strange and wonderful fossils in the cliffs from millions or even hundreds of millions of years ago: prehistoric camel teeth and such. For thousands of years before Europeans arrived on the Island in the seventeenth century, the local Wampanoag people fished and farmed here, and today the town is still home to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. The Wampanoag didn’t limit their angling efforts to the plentiful bass, bluefish, cod, and other fish: they went out in small canoes and hunted whales with harpoons. Not surprisingly, when the Europeans took up whaling in larger vessels in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Wampanoag went with them. In Moby Dick, the character Tashtego is a Gay Head Indian, and in real life the only known harpooner to kill a white whale was a Vineyard Wampanoag named Amos Smalley. In the age of sail, the passage between Cape Cod and the Islands was second only to the English channel in terms of ship traffic.  But the entry to Vineyard Sound was treacherous, and the first lighthouse on the Island was built atop the cliffs in 1800 to help guide ships into and out of Vineyard Sound. The waters below the cliffs are notoriously dangerous, with ripping tidal currents and a shoal called the Devil’s Bridge that stretches out toward Cuttyhunk and has caught many unfortunate vessels. Most famously, the steamer City of Columbus wrecked on an icy night in 1884 with a loss of more than one hundred lives. The present lighthouse, made of bricks fabricated out of the red clay from the cliffs, was constructed in 1856 and is scheduled to be moved in the next few years to prevent it falling over the eroding edge of the Island. Since the birth of the tourism business on the Island in the nineteenth century, the Gay Head Cliffs have been a major attraction, with steamboats bringing tourists up from Oak Bluffs and Edgartown to “Pilots’ Landing.” From there they hiked up to the lighthouse, and to the western style tipis from which the Wampanoag sold crafts and snacks. Today the tipis are gone, but the Wampum artists and chowder sellers are alive and well. The town, which separated from Chilmark in 1870, changed its name from Gay Head to the Wampanoag word Aquinnah in 1997. The vote was close: 79 to 76.

“Settled”: 10,000 BC

Incorporated: 1870

Land Area: 5.4 square miles (13.9km2)

Water Area: 35.4 sq miles (92 km2)

Population: 311

Getting Around

L.A. BrownParking can be hard to come by at Aquinnah’s cliffs and shops — it’s limited to just a few spots at the top of the hill, so park considerately. If you’re headed to the town beach, there is a $15 fee to get into the lot. For the other beach parking lots, you need a residential pass. The scenic bike ride around Moshup’s trail is a favorite way to get around. If you’re coming from down-Island, stop off in Menemsha and take the bike ferry to Aquinnah’s West Basin for $5. Your legs will enjoy the break.

Where to Stay

Unless you’re lucky enough to call dibs on an Aquinnah rental property, there’s really only two options for lodging in Aquinnah.

The Duck Inn is a 200 year old farmhouse built by a Wampanoag whaler. Now, it’s a funky five-bedroom bed and breakfast (farm fresh, organic breakfast, mind you), with a five minute walk to a private beach.

People come to the high-end Outermost Inn as much for the restaurant as the lodging. The gardens from which the food is harvested is right out back, and the openness of the inn offers sweeping views of the Aquinnah cliffs, the Gay Head Light, and the sunset.

So, even if you don’t have an Aquinnah rental property, if you score reservations at either of these inns, you’re pretty lucky too.

Milk, Cash, Etc.

Photo by Nelson SigelmanYeah, right. The first rule of Aquinnah is stock up before you head up. You can get a glass of milk at the Aquinnah shop on the cliffs. And there are many among us who believe hand-crafted wampum is a necessity, which is also available at the cliffs. But in truth, the nearest place to get anything resembling groceries is the Chilmark Store…

See & Do

Outdoors

Alison ShawOutdoors in Aquinnah, the main attraction is the dramatic coastline: high, striped clay cliffs descending into bouldered beaches and good south-shore surf. It’s worth the trip just to gawk from the scenic overlook near the Gay Head Light, but there’s plenty of recreational opportunities, too. Aquinnah has some of the most beautiful public beaches on the Island (Moshup Beach), as well as renowned surfing (from the South shore), fishing (from Lobsterville Beach), kayaking and sailing (around Menemsha Pond) and a few beautiful Land Bank properties that are definitely worth a stroll.

Arts & Culture

Wampum jewelry, a well-honed craft of the Wampanoag Tribe, is the mainstay of the Aquinnah arts and culture scene. You can buy Wampum at stores all over the Island, but some of the best locally crafted jewelry is at the Aquinnah Shops, near the Gay Head Light. That’s because Aquinnah is home to most of the Island’s Wampanoag population. You can stop in to the Aquinnah Cultural Center, or the tribal offices to learn more about the Wampanoag and their traditions. The Cultural Center offers frequent talks and tours during the summertime, including showings of the Edwin DeVries Vanderhoop Homestead, a museum and preserved 17th century home.  The Gay Head Gallery, which specializes in contemporary art, photography, and fine jewelry, is also a popular stop for artsy types in Aquinnah.

Shopping

Photo by Susie SaffordMost of the shopping in Aquinnah takes place at the Aquinnah Shops, which is also the gateway to the cliffs, lighthouse, and most Aquinnah beaches. There’s only a few shops here, but the cluttered funkiness of this mini-mall has something for everyone. Shopping ranges from touristy trinkets to finely crafted local artwork and jewelry. If you’ve come to Martha’s Vineyard seeking Wampum jewelry, this is the place to get it. There’s also the Gay Head Gallery for photography and contemporary art, and don’t-miss deliciousness at The Orange Peel Bakery (if you took a wrong turn and plan to do you grocery shopping in Aquinnah).

Eat & Drink

Aquinnah RestaurantOptions for dining in Aquinnah are limited, but classic. At the Aquinnah Shops (where you’ll find most everything in Aquinnah), Faith’s Seafood Shack serves up good old New England beach fare, like lobster, chowder, and…sushi? If your legs need a rest, plop down on the porch of the Aquinnah Shop Restaurant, a family friendly seafood joint. Or, join the Orange Peel Bakery for a build-your-own pizza night in their outdoor oven.