Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard are deeply linked to American identity. Indigenous peoples like the Wampanoag have populated both for thousands of years. Newcomers from Europe founded some of their first colonies in the United States on these coasts in the 1600s. The two groups sometimes coexisted peacefully, but more often found themselves with conflicting interests over the next 400 years. Cape Cod is the ninth oldest English place name in the country while Martha’s Vineyard is the eighth – explorer Bartholomew Gosnold named both.

Today, they welcome wealthy vacationers like the Kennedy and Obama families. It may therefore surprise travelers to learn that while Cape Town and the Islands share some basic characteristics – beautiful beaches, for one – a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard is very different from a vacation on Cape Cod. Read on to find out which New England’s best destination is.

Martha’s Vineyard overview

Most people think of Martha’s Vineyard as a VIP resort where celebrities don’t have to worry about prying cameras from the press. Exorbitant rental prices and quiet seaside villages probably spring to mind. Movie buffs may remember Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws on these shores. In fact, there is an annual JawsFest here, and tourists can jump off the “Jaws Bridge”.

While these descriptions of Martha’s Vineyard are true, the island can provide a much more complex experience for visitors. Many residents categorically support local wildlife conservation efforts, but the tourism industry can be harmful. The island is also the scene of blatant economic injustice. Year-round residents receive some of the lowest wages in the Northeast, but face a higher cost of living. Summer visitors are often much richer than islanders.

In summer, the island’s population drops from around 17,000 to nearly 200,000 according to the local chamber of commerce. All of these people must share 96 square miles of land and 14 beaches open to all. This means that at the height of the tourist season, there are around 2,000 people per square mile and 14,000 people per beach. Not everyone goes to the beach at the same time, but Martha’s Vineyard shoreline can get crowded. Fall and spring can be the time to visit for people who expect quiet fishing villages.

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The beaches of Martha’s Vineyard are spectacular, especially those of Nantucket Sound. The geographical conditions allow for warmer water temperatures and the soft, warm sand invites you to sunbathe. There are prime spots for swimming, fishing and surfing.

Martha’s Vineyard includes 14 beaches open to all:

  • Aquinnah Public Beach
  • Lobsterville Beach
  • Menemsha Beach
  • Eastville Beach
  • Oak Bluffs Town Beach
  • Joseph Sylvia State Beach
  • Tashmoo Lake Town Beach
  • Owen Park Beach
  • Tisbury Town Beach
  • Beach of the long point
  • East Beach
  • Fuller Street Beach
  • Katama Beach
  • Lighthouse beach

Martha’s Vineyard Vacation Rentals and Hotels

Edgartown offers some of the more affordable rentals, starting at around $ 300 per night for six-person accommodation near Katama Beach according to Martha’s Vineyard Rentals Prices range up to over $ 2000 a night depending on the level of luxury preferred by visitors. Most rentals have minimum stays of more than seven days, but this may allow them to access beaches reserved for residents. Hotel rooms start at around $ 150 a night.

  • Towns: Tisbury, Oaks Bluff, Edgartown, West Tisbury, Aquinnah and Chilmark

Getting there and getting around

Since Martha’s Vineyard is an island, the means of getting there are limited. There are commercial flights, but most people take the ferry from Falmouth on the Cape. Anyone wishing to bring their car should contact the Steamship Authority well in advance to make a reservation.

  • Steamship Authority Phone: 508-477-8600

Martha's Vineyard Bus Route 13 sign

By M01229 via Wikimedia Commons, CC SA 2.0

The widest point of the island is 25 miles in diameter. From north to south, it measures approximately 9 miles. This means that visitors can cycle to almost anywhere, so a car is probably unnecessary. Rental cars are available, as are taxis and public buses.

Introducing Cape Cod

Like Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod has become famous for attracting affluent vacationers. People love to visit the towns here for the delicious seafood, sandy beaches, and picturesque sunsets. It houses several institutes and laboratories of marine biology. Visitors can take whale watching tours from Provincetown. From Chatham, they can see white sharks feeding on the resident seals. The peninsula is also home to the only authenticated wrecked pirate ship, the Whydah Galley in Yarmouth and one of Guglielmo Marconi’s original wireless stations in Chatham, which is now a museum.

Humpback whale off Cape Cod

by Henrik Dreisler via Wikimedia Commons CCA 2.0

Related: How Safe Is Shark Island Really & Can You Visit?

Cape Town’s summer population is around 500,000, more than double the off-season population of almost 230,000. Cape Cod is roughly four times the size of Martha’s Vineyard. This means that the population density in the summer is around 1,500 people per square mile. These residents and visitors share the sixty or so public beaches nearby. That means there are around 8,300 people per beach in July and August.

Cape Town’s beaches offer everything to visitors. The beaches by the bay have calm water, perfect for families with children. The beaches of the Atlantic are ideal for windsurfing, kiteboarding and surfing. Along the Nantucket Strait near Dennis and Hyannis, the water temperatures are the warmest, perfect for swimming.

Race Point Beach Cape Cod MA

by Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons, CC SA 2.5
  • Cape Cod Beaches: over 60 public beaches, including the top rated Coast Guard National Beach along the Cape Cod National Coastline

Cape Cod Vacation Rentals

According to Cape Cod Summer Rentals, there are a wide variety of homes available for around $ 900 per week. That’s significantly less than the cheaper options on Martha’s Vineyard. There are also campgrounds, but also luxury locations, like the Wequasett Resort in Chatham, as expensive as travelers can afford. Provincetown has become an LGBT resort with several resorts geared specifically to this community.

Towns: Provincetown, Truro, Eastham, Chatham, Yarmouth, Sandwich, Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, Barnstable, Dennis, Brewster, Harwich, Orleans and Wellfleet

Getting there and getting around

Cape Cod Rail Trail

By Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikimedia Commons, CC SA 4.0

Travelers can cross one of two highway bridges to Cape Cod, take a ferry from Boston to Provincetown, or take a commercial flight to Barnstable or Provincetown. They can even take a passenger train, the Cape Flyer, on weekends.

Private cars are the easiest way to get around, but there are public buses and cycle paths all over Cape Town.

So what is the best vacation destination?

Both are worth a visit if time permits. For someone who wants a long, quiet beach vacation, renting a home with restricted beach access along Nantucket Sound in Martha’s Vineyard is the best option. Travelers looking for a wider range of offerings, including historic sites, wildlife and science museums, should plan a Cape Town vacation.

next: Boston Vs. New York: Which is better for a weekend getaway?

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