Islands apart

Rivalry between Vineyard and Nantucket is part of their charm

MARTHA’S VINEYARD — On the beach in Oak Bluffs, one of six towns on the island, which some say is vastly more diverse than its rival. MARTHA’S VINEYARD — On the beach in Oak Bluffs, one of six towns on the island, which some say is vastly more diverse than its rival. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / August 8, 2011

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On a recent afternoon, a group of teenagers were playing Frisbee on a lawn on Martha’s Vineyard, having a fairly typical conversation for children who grew up on this storied island: They were talking about how much they despise Nantucket.

“We don’t like Nantucket at all,’’ said Zac Wannamaker. “Like, not one bit,’’ Augusto Bueno added. Pressed for reasons, both struggled for an answer. They just did.

Of the seven youths playing Frisbee, only one had even been to Nantucket. But for those who grew up on either of these islands, disliking the other is a birthright enforced through years of athletic rivalry culminating in the fierce Island Cup battle between the high school football teams. For decades, the coach of the Nantucket team visited newborns in the hospital to present them with a tiny football.

While the rivalry between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard is very real, those on both sides say the root is simply this: Everyone needs a rival, and they’re the only other thing around.

“It’s little more than the old ‘My-island-is-better-than-your-island’ thing,’’ said Luke DeBettencourt, a fourth-generation Vineyarder.

But what has changed, natives say, is how rabid the rivalry has become off the field, especially among the summer people who couldn’t care less who wins the football game but care very much about what their island choice says about them.

“I like the Vineyard because I find it’s more diverse culturally and economically and socially,’’ said Lisbeth Cooper, who has been coming to Martha’s Vineyard each summer since the 1970s. “When I go to Nantucket, I just feel out of place,’’ she said as she paused from reading “Anna Karenina’’ on the beach in Oak Bluffs, where her son now owns an inn.

“Oak Bluffs is just revolting,’’ Richard Zahm said as he rode the ferry to his preferred island, Nantucket. “It’s like the Jersey Shore. The colors are garish.’’

Both islands, of course, are summer paradises of great natural beauty. They are also very expensive, very exclusive, and very preppy. Nantucket, the broad-brush argument goes, is just more extreme in all categories. In other words, many Vineyarders say, “snobby.’’

“We totally agree,’’ Whitey Willauer, a Nantucket selectman, said to the charge of snobbiness as he sat with friends at the private Wharf Rat Club just off the ferry terminal. “They tend to be movie-starish. We tend to attract CEOs and political persons. It’s a different culture.’’

But, Willauer and others said, being “snobby’’ was precisely what made Nantucket better.

“That snobbiness is part of the attention to detail that makes Nantucket so uniformly beautiful,’’ Molly Myers, who has been summering on the island her entire life, said as she pushed her 4-month-old daughter Josie down Main Street, whose cobblestone streets have the storybook feel that is practically uniform on the island. “It’s not that I have disdain for the Vineyard. I’ve been there; it’s fine. I just have no desire to go back.’’

The social identity of both places is tied heavily to geography. Martha’s Vineyard is much larger and more populated, with six towns that have distinct personalities; while Nantucket is just one town. The Vineyard is also considerably closer to the mainland. The traditional ferry takes just 45 minutes to arrive, and well over two hours to get to Nantucket.

Depending on what island you’re standing on, those geographic aspects are the key to the “my-island-is-better-than-yours’’ argument.

Vineyarders like their island’s proximity to the rest of the world, which makes day trips more of a possibility and opens up at least the idea of the island as a destination for the middle class. On Nantucket, they like the opposite, and argue that the distance is part of the appeal, the long ferry ride part of the separation and decompression that makes it feel like its own distinct place and not just an extension of Cape Cod.

“Their geographic location is more restrictive,’’ said DeBettencourt, “and because of that, we’re kind of like everyman’s island, and they’re the ‘only-if-you-have-a-million’ island.’’

Politically, Nantucket is considered to lean Republican, while the Vineyard has become the summer home for the last two Democratic presidents (Obama is scheduled to visit in late August).

There are flip sides to all arguments, which are often little more than stereotypes (Nantucket, the so-called snobbier and more restricitive of the two, is known for its public beaches, while the Vineyard is known for its private beaches), but there is one area where their two looks often collide: fashion.

In Vineyard Vines, a self-described “preppy’’ clothing store that began on Martha’s Vineyard and has now spread to other Sperry meccas, including Nantucket, pastels, braided belts, and shorts with whales on them rule the day.

At the Oak Bluffs store on Martha’s Vineyard, as a sales associate told a caller they didn’t have any more of the tote bags with lobsters on them “but we do have a lobster and crab skirt,’’ Julia Graham, an assistant manager, put the fashion of the two islands into perspective.

“It’s basically the same style,’’ said Graham, who is from Greenwich, Conn. and has been summering on the Vineyard her whole life. “But in Nantucket, they pop the collars up.’’

The popped collar, even for a girl from Greenwich, is a thing, a symbol, the epitome of the preppy snob. Except that on Nantucket, many wear that exact stereotype as a badge of honor.

When presented with Graham’s assessment, John Murray, the latest generation of his family to own Murray’s Toggery Shop in Nantucket, the birthplace of Nantucket Reds - perhaps the quintessential preppy trouser - did not dispute the pop-collared joke.

“I’m OK with that,’’ he said. “We like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated.’’

Billy Baker can be reached at Follow him on twitter at @billy_baker .