HOUSE & GARDEN
It wasn’t an auspicious start. Ten minutes into the warm up bike ride, my friend Laura caught a shoelace in the gears and landed in a heap on someone’s front lawn. As she wobbled back to the hotel; barely able to steer well enough to hug the side of the road, I began to doubt the sanity of a six day biking holiday where we were expected to do between 15 and 52 miles a day. Laura hadn’t been on a bike since childhood and although I regularly tootle around Manhattan on a vintage bike doing the shopping and taking scenic trips through Central Park, I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep up the pace either.
Fortunately, neither of us would be called upon to mend a puncture or tweak the gears. The trip I booked was with VBT, one of America’s top cycling companies, who organize 41 trips to 27 destinations worldwide (and 9 destinations in the US). VBT custom-tailors the trip to your needs. You can add on days before and after for sightseeing and they take the stress out of the arrangements. All the equipment is provided, charming local hotels are pre-booked and two guides and a VBT van accompany you and pick up guests from any location, at any time, and ferry you back to your hotel. Along the daily cycle routes, which guests do at their own pace, there are VBT refreshment stops (which Laura and I greeted like two starving refugees) and lunch is provided most days (and sometimes dinner as well). Each morning starts out with a route briefing – maps and detailed instructions are handed out. As one guest remarked: ‘It’s like a daily treasure hunt.’
I had picked a trip rated ‘easy’ that centered on Martha’s Vineyard; a magical 20-mile wide island off the coast of Cape Cod. It was somewhere I had visited briefly 3 years earlier and been entranced by the gently rolling scenery, the huge forest in the middle that I was told was full of bike paths and the fringe of pretty white beaches that laced the edge. Its beauty and remoteness has attracted an unusually high percentage of vacationing presidents – including the Obamas, the Clintons, the Bushes and the Kennedy clan, as well as stars like Meg Ryan, Bill Murray, Oprah, Michael J Fox and James Taylor.
Each part of the island has its own character. Up Island (away from the main ports) is favored by the rich and famous because of its bucolic farmland, low key fishing villages, private beaches and the candy colored cliffs at Aquinnah (similar to those on the Isle of White). The busiest areas are the three toy size ports. The fanciest is Edgartown, an old whaling port filled with grand white clapboard mansions built by wealthy sea captains and ship owners in the 19th century. The liveliest is Oak Bluffs, which is centered around 300 brightly painted gingerbread cottages built by the Methodists as holiday homes. And the sleepiest is Vineyard Haven where Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett once lived and where we disembarked from the Cape Cod ferry. Late Spring and early Autumn are perfect times for cycling here as the weather is high 60s and the roads are free from tourist buses and tourist Vespas.
Having out-performed all expectations on the previous day, and managed a 25-mile ride along a tree-canopied trail to the Cape Cod National Seashore, we felt we had earned a leisurely day. So, as our fellow bikers sped off to Chappaquiddick to see the historic location where in 1969 Ted Kennedy crashed his political career by driving off a bridge and killing Mary Jo Kopechne, we nursed a pair of artisanal coffees at Vineyard Haven’s Beetlebung Café and then nosed around the surprisingly good selection of local vintage stores. I had heard great things about singer Carly Simon’s Midnight Farm store. And to my great surprise not only was Carly, and co-owner Tamara Weiss, in the store, but also the place was a real find on a par with a London or a New York boutique. After 2 hours shopping, our trunk packs filled to exploding, we cycled the 8 miles back to Edgartown (the VBT base for the trip) as the sun set over the dunes.
The next two days were spent criss-crossing the Manuel F Correllus Forest and visiting the more remote parts of Up Island. Everyone went at their own pace. In our 16-person group, the majority of cyclists were in their late 40s to mid 60s; many had come with other family members or friends, and everyone had a different level of fitness. Among our co-vacationers were an Olympic gold medalist in swimming and his English wife, who both shot off each morning before most of us had read the route instructions. One Kentucky foursome adopted a sprightly pace but fitted in side trips to almost every antiques barn, art gallery and coffee spot en route. The oldest pair in the group were in their 70s. He had done 61,000 miles cycling he estimated – (‘That’s more than I’ve done in my car,’ another guest marveled.) At dinner one night, his wife (one of the more leisurely cyclists in the group) confessed ‘I haven’t really seen him in years.’
At our final supper at the Harbor View Hotel, overlooking the Edgartown lighthouse, everyone agreed that the best thing about this kind of biking vacation is that you experience a place differently. ‘You are smelling, living, breathing the environment. It is freeing and fun. You can stop when you want, eat when you want, It is just a great adventure,’ said John Ord, a private equity company CFO from Colorado. By the end of the week, Laura and I had managed 85 miles in total and felt fitter and more relaxed than when we arrived. Our highlights were the chance encounters – a local woman putting out her washing who stopped to explain that the ‘lace’ stone walls, built by native Americans, were designed to let the wind pass through and the couple in Oak Bluffs who invited us into their gingerbread cottage to view their art. It is easy to see why 75% of VBT customers are repeats.