The Vineyard Paradox

The sign of a good annual vacation destination is the strong tug of melancholy one feels upon leaving, knowing that one will not have the pleasure of taking in the locale’s unique and magical charms for a whole ’nother year.

The sign of an exceptional vacation spot is when this feeling kicks in shortly after you arrive, as the overwhelming sense of joy in having landed at your own personal Heaven on Earth gives way to the realization that it’s only a matter of time before you’ll have to leave it all behind and return to your boring Real Life.

That is roughly what happened last week when I set foot on Martha’s Vineyard, where my family has set up camp for a week of every summer since I was born.  (Or rather, since before I was born.)  It’s our proverbial home-away-from-home, and none of us can envision a summer without it.

Why do we feel this way?  What is it about this wealthy tourist magnet seven miles off the coast of Cape Cod that draws us back year after year?

In part, it’s the Vineyard’s sheer predictability.  The way the ferry from the mainland always casts off at precisely 10:45.  The way Menemsha Harbor and the Edgartown docks look exactly as they did when Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws there in 1975.  The way a scoop of Mad Martha’s ice cream and the fresh fruit at Among the Flowers Café hit the spot like nothing else—not least because of the picturesque setting in which they are enjoyed.  It’s been years since I’ve ridden the Flying Horses Carousel—America’s oldest—but I’m pleased as punch to see that it’s still there.

The Vineyard is also notable—and, in my view, laudable—for its stubborn refusal to adapt to many aspects of contemporary society.  Despite a midsummer crowd of some 100,000 souls (the year-round population is 20,000 at most), the island contains not a single traffic light.  Nor does it play host to any Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts.  Most of its famed beaches don’t contain even one porta-potty, and most businesses don’t bother posting their hours, perhaps because they tend to change on a near-daily basis.  (This phenomenon is known as “island time.”)

Not that Martha’s Vineyard is the land that time forgot.  There is, for instance, a pair of Stop & Shops and, for some reason, a Dairy Queen.  All the main thoroughfares are paved (although many side roads are not).  There are ritzy shops and restaurants out the wazoo, and a state-of-the-art film center to boot.  In recent years, the condo in which my family stays has introduced free Wi-Fi, which runs just as well as the service back home.

In our view, then, the Vineyard is the best of all worlds:  Exotic and remote, yet accessible and modern.  An island paradise with electricity and a gift shop.  (Don’t even get me started on the hiking trails, seafood and sunsets.)

For that reason, we have long entertained the possibility that we would eventually move there for good—or at least stay for a full month each summer, rather than a week.  After all, we love being on the Vineyard so very much, how could we possibly tire of it?

Which brings us to the most terrifying prospect of all:  The likelihood that, in fact, we would.

Is it not reasonable to surmise that sticking around in our idealized Vineyard haven would gradually come to be slightly less than ideal?  Wouldn’t the magic inevitably wear off?  Isn’t our unconditional infatuation with the island’s beauties and quirks a function of the fleeting nature of our encounters with them?

Everyone knows the cliché, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  In the present context, we should be equally concerned with the notion that familiarity breeds boredom.

Case in point:  As we popped into a bakery on our last day on the island, expressing our sadness about leaving and our (fanciful) wish to stay forever, the young woman behind the counter—a year-rounder who has lived on the Vineyard her whole life—dryly quipped, “Want to trade places?”

My suspicion—which I take no pleasure in formulating—is that our favorite summer getaways are so pleasurable precisely because they are so novel and rare.  We may yearn to live in paradise all the days of our lives, but the truth is that if we actually did, it would cease being paradise in a depressingly short period of time.  The key is to savor the blissfulness while it lasts, understanding that the ephemeral nature of bliss is what lends it its power in the first place.

I am well aware of the old Mae West line, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”  As well, I have no particular desire to abandon my hometown of Boston—a “destination” city in its own right—where I have resided for some eight years and whose offerings I still enjoy immensely.

And yet I am as certain as I can be that were I to up and leave and not return for a long time, my love for the city of beans would only increase.  Just like the Vineyard.

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