Celebrities fit right in on Martha's Vineyard

When then-undercover couple Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal strolled holding hands and playing with her children on private Lucy Vincent Beach here the summer before last, Jeffrey Ross debated whether to snap a photo of the stars with his cellphone.

"I could have sold it to the tabloids for hundreds of thousands of dollars," says the regular Martha's Vineyard summer visitor and former TV production executive. But of course, he didn't.

Though celebrities are fixtures on the low-key island south of Cape Cod, they're generally not hounded. "You respect their privacy," says Ross, 57. The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sheltered from paparazzi on her remote compound on the western side of Martha's Vineyard and shopped unbothered at Alley's General Store.

Bill Clinton raised the Vineyard's profile in the '90s and keeps returning. (He was spotted this week.) Last month, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. escaped to his summer retreat in racially diverse Oak Bluffs here after police in Cambridge, Mass., mistook him for a burglar in his home.

Now the spotlight is shining even brighter on the 23-mile-long, summer-home haven: President Obama is due to arrive Sunday for a week's family vacation at a rented estate.

Some locals are dreading the traffic and media mania surrounding what has been dubbed "Obamarama." But many are excited.

Even the rich have cut back on spending this year, says Susan Mercier, manager of Edgartown Books, a genteel shop in a former whaling captain's home on Main Street. She hopes increased exposure will bring more visitors to the Vineyard. "It has been a hard year."

Obama T-shirts already are on sale, threatening the Black Dog Tavern tees emblazoned with a proud canine as Martha's Vineyard's souvenir status symbol. Amid the hoopla, Mercier, 45, hopes prospective visitors understand that the Vineyard — named for a 17th-century British explorer's daughter but bereft of wineries since Chicama Vineyards closed last summer — is "a very down-to-earth and normal place to be."

Indeed, the island is no Hamptons. Velvet ropes, flash, franchises and traffic lights are virtually non-existent. There's not even a Starbucks. Many residents never lock their doors. While "McMansions" have gone up, typical Vineyard digs are discreet gray-shingled houses near bicycle trails, ponds and beaches. Visitors are expected to follow island customs such as paying on the honor system for flowers or produce at unmanned roadside stands.

Jan Pogue, co-founder of the Vineyard Stories publishing firm and a transplant from the mainland, understands the appeal for celebrities. "The island's so special, and the people are special. You come for your privacy, because the Vineyard will give it to you."

Stars who have sought that seclusion have included former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who died last month; John F. Kennedy Jr., who was killed in a crash while flying to the island 10 years ago last month; and comedian John Belushi, who is buried here in Abel's Hill Cemetery. Princess Diana quietly visited.

Not that the Vineyard doesn't have a grapevine. In fact, it's active. There's talk that Oprah Winfrey is on the island, and stories persist that Chelsea Clinton may marry her longtime beau here.

Stars and other well-heeled summer residents can send the population soaring past the 100,000 mark. Offseason, the island's six towns — Edgartown, West Tisbury, Tisbury, Aquinnah, Chilmark and Oak Bluffs — have 15,000 year-round residents, who include farmers, fishermen, artists, writers and descendents of early settlers. Most everyone you meet is interesting: Volker Kaempfert, the muscular co-owner of The Farmhouse B&B who serves you coffee, for instance, once guarded three secretaries-general of the United Nations.

In her weathered, shingled home called Cleaveland House, white-haired, 13th-generation Vineyard resident Cynthia Riggs writes mysteries and rents rooms to authors and artists. She shows a visitor the wooden crib fashioned by sailors on her great-grandfather's ship to cradle the children his teen bride bore and raised on long voyages. With carved posts and a sailcloth bottom, it's open on the side where it attached to the captain's bunk.

Riggs enjoys living "up island" in West Tisbury, away from the store-lined streets of Edgartown, Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs. You probably won't see her at celebrity-studded events such as the annual Possible Dreams charity auction, where you bid on a boat ride with serenade from resident Carly Simon ($10,000 this year) or a round of golf with Clinton and pal Vernon Jordan ($2,250).

Each Vineyard town has a personality. West Tisbury is farming country. Oak Bluffs is a more boisterous former Methodist summer camp whose bright-hued Victorian "gingerbread cottages" — as well as its bars — are tourist draws. Oak Bluffs also is one of the oldest African-American vacation destinations in the USA. Obama has visited it before.

Edgartown is filled with the stately white-clapboard former homes of sea captains, upscale restaurants and boutiques. It was a filming site for the movie Jaws and adjoins Chappaquiddick Island (locally called "Chappy"), where Sen. Ted Kennedy drove a car off its bridge in 1969, resulting in the death of a campaign worker. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs are the only towns with bars.

Vineyard Haven, part of Tisbury, has a harbor with hundreds of sailboats bobbing at anchor.

"Up island" towns are on the island's less-populated west side. Chilmark — where Obama is bound — hosts Gyllenhaal's family. Rich residents live behind hedges at the end of long driveways. Westernmost Aquinnah, formerly known as Gay Head, is home to the Wampanoag Indians, spectacular cliffs and a clothing-optional beach. Juli Vanderhoop hosts pizza fests Wednesday nights at her Orange Peel Bakery's outdoor fireplace. Bring $10 and a topping, and join locals for a slice or three.

A tour of the 'real' Vineyard

Tourists spilling off ferries in bustling Vineyard Haven or Oak Bluffs often miss the island's essence, says L.A.-guy-turned-Miami-metals-broker Ross, savoring fresh-caught halibut and Sancerre white wine at Chesca's Restaurant in Edgartown. He offers to give a tour of "the Vineyard most people never see" the next day.

So at 9:50 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, Ross, towheaded son Lucas, 2, and former father-in-law Bill Coleman, 66, await on the porch of Alley's General Store, an island meeting place that stocks everything from old-fashioned penny candy to fishhooks. Coleman, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, proffers a cup of Alley's perfect coffee, and the tour begins.

First stop: Blue Heron Farm, where the Obamas are due to stay. On the short drive on South Road past meadows, farms, hand-stacked stone walls and weathered houses flanked by hydrangeas, Ross enthuses: "Look at this … it's like living in a Norman Rockwell painting. Everything leaves my body here: doubts, anxiety, the (outside) world."

He turns onto a dirt driveway indistinguishable from others. The car creeps down it, passing a tennis court and large barn. Suddenly, Blue Heron's sprawling white frame house with wraparound porch and American flag flying come into view. So do a state trooper, local policeman and a black SUV of the sort used by the Secret Service. Ross tells them he's looking for Larsen's Fish Market — miles away. They don't bite. Time to leave.

Sample the seafood, savor the sun

The next tour stop indeed is Larsen's, in the village of Menemsha, where fishing boats pull up to the pier at the back door. Inside, Betsy Larsen efficiently filets striped bass and sole, which are snapped up by customers in line at the counter. Sit out back with a steamed lobster and glimpse the yacht of Maurice Tempelsman, Onassis' former companion, which is moored at the far dock. Locals also flock to Menemsha with beer or a bottle of wine to watch the sun go down.

After a swirly soft ice cream cone at The Galley, where summer resident Ted Danson waits in line like everyone else, the energetic Ross points his car back toward Chilmark, where piglets suckle a giant sow at Allen Farm Sheep & Wool Company, and shoppers finger woollen blankets.

The day is fading, so Ross' tour of Vineyard insider haunts continues the next morning.

At Morning Glory Farm, a local institution and subject of a new Vineyard Stories book, tanned visitors politely battle for fresh-picked corn (85 cents each). Down the road at Wednesday's West Tisbury Farmers Market, the longest line is for Thi Khen Tran's $5 Vietnamese spring rolls. When word gets out that she's out of the island favorite, Ross reluctantly settles for an egg roll. At a communal picnic table, New Jersey visitor Tabby Block, 11, clings to one of the last spring rolls and smilingly refuses to sell it. "So good," she says teasingly. Her granddad offers the disappointed Ross a stock tip.

But there's really no need to fret.

Whether it's the succulent lobster rolls sold by some island churches to raise funds, Mad Martha's madly popular ice cream cones, Morning Glory Farm's beet soup or the majestic lighthouse guarding the cliffs in Aquinnah, a treat of some sort is sure to be around the Vineyard's next tree-shaded, hedge-shrouded or wind-blown corner.