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The Islands

Email|Print| Text size + By Kari J. Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / July 16, 2006

OAK BLUFFS -- A sea breeze catches our backs and gently nudges us forward as we pedal down South Road on Martha's Vineyard. The only sounds are the calls of a cardinal and several gulls, wind churning the leaves overhead, and the faint crunching of our bike tires as they spin along the pavement.

As we round a bend in the road, a delightful scene reveals itself. To our left is a pastoral landscape that looks plucked from the Vermont countryside: a gray-shingled farmhouse surrounded by rolling fields marked by stone walls and grazing sheep. To our right, we spot a lone osprey nest high above the sea roses and scrub brush, with miles of ocean as a backdrop.

This is one of the many million-dollar views you can see while exploring Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and one of the most enjoyable, least expensive ways to take in these sights is on a bicycle.

Biking allows you to see the islands' highlights at a pace suited for exploration. Stop for a photo, a picnic, a museum visit, or a chat with a local as you pedal through small towns and fishing villages, past old saltbox-style houses with split-rail fences, past lighthouses, cranberry bogs, and conservation land, and to many of the area's best beaches.

Whether you're climbing onto a bike for the first time in years, a recreational cyclist looking for an easy route to stretch the legs and explore, or an avid biker looking to log some hard-earned miles on more challenging terrain, you can find a route that suits you.

The islands have more than 60 miles of well-developed, paved bike paths, separated from the roadways by grass or woodland areas, as well as miles of bike-friendly roads. The terrain ranges from perfectly flat paths along the ocean to heart-pounding hills that seem to roll for miles like giant ocean swells and, in the process, test your lung capacity, your quadriceps, and your vocabulary.

Looking for a healthy, relatively low-cost way to explore the islands, my biking companion and I decided to leave our car on the mainland and use pedal power, our feet, and the ferries to explore the islands' back roads and bike paths for a weekend.

There are many ferry options and routes for a trip to the islands. We decided to park on Cape Cod and do a loop from Hyannis to Nantucket to Martha's Vineyard, spending a day on each island before returning to Hyannis.

We packed lightly and brought our bikes. You can also take your pick of bikes from rental shops, which offer anything from good, all-around cruisers to high-performance mountain bikes for those who want to go off-road or tackle more rugged terrain. A good shop will match you with a bike that fits your body, riding style, experience, and destination. Children's bikes are also available.

Rental typically includes a map, helmet, lock, handlebar basket, and, if requested, rear rack, plus delivery and pickup at your guesthouse, and roadside service. Standard bike rental runs $20 to $25 per day or per 24 hours ( make sure to ask), with the exception of Edgartown Bicycles on Martha's Vineyard, which rents high-end road bikes for $40-$90 per day. It's worth bringing your own bell, especially during the busy summer season, and lights, if you plan to cycle at night.

We wanted to experience as much of the islands' varied terrain as possible, while stopping off at notable sites like Chilmark Chocolates on the Vineyard and Sankaty Head Light on Nantucket.

Nantucket has about 25 miles of paved bike paths that reach across the island from the outskirts of town, two of which connect on the east side of the island to form Nantucket's only significant loop. One of the joys of biking here is that it is relatively flat . The highest point is Folger Hill, only 109 feet above sea level, and Nantucket is just 3½miles wide by 14 miles long. That means you can cover a lot in a day. And if your legs give out, you and your bike can catch a lift on the shuttle bus ($1 or $2) that runs along the main bike routes .

Nantucket's bed-and-breakfasts offer reasonable rates, some as low as $65 per night, even in summer -- especially if you visit midweek or don't mind a room with a shared bath. Another inexpensive option is the Star of the Sea, which we chose for its price ($28 per person, per night) and location. The historic hostel, originally a li fesaving station, is at the end of the Surfside Bike Path, just 3 miles from the ferry dock and overlooking Surfside Beach.

We began our adventure with a stop at Provisions on Straight Wharf to pick up sandwiches and snacks for the ride. (If you're heading to the west side of the island first, stop at Something Natural on Cliff Road.) After a visit to the Whaling Museum and a walk past the historic homes in Nantucket Town, we headed east for a 15-mile loop along the Milestone Road and Polpis Road bike paths.

On the mostly level Milestone Road path, we pedaled past cranberry bogs and open moorland, and through conservation land and arrived at Siasconset village. Siasconset ( 'Sconset for short) is a historic fishing village that features some of the island's oldest homes and a biker's favorite reward, a market selling ice cream.

After lunch on 'Sconset Beach, we took a short detour to Sankaty Head Light at the end of Baxter Road before continuing on the loop along the Polpis Bike Path. This gently rolling route winds past marshland, bogs, ponds, and woodland, as well as the Nantucket Life-Saving Museum .

If you have energy to spare, as we did, or if you're looking for a shorter alternative, head west out of Nantucket Town along the Madaket Bike Path, which dead-ends at Madaket Beach, an ideal place to catch the sunset. There are water fountains along the path, but you won't find any shops, so stock up on snacks before you go.

Too tired to pack up after our Saturday ride, we spent the night on Nantucket and took an interisland ferry to the Vineyard early the next morning. Budget-minded bikers can stay at the Martha's Vineyard hostel, located along the bike path in West Tisbury, or in many of that town's reasonably priced B&Bs .

From Oak Bluffs, we completed an ambitious, 65-mile bike tour, looping around the island to take in sites and scenic views. Highlights included the gentle, 8-mile bike path along Beach Road, which links Edgartown and Oak Bluffs and overlooks the turquoise-colored State Beach on one side and the shallow, sprawling Sengekontacket Pond on the other. A bike bell is essential along this popular route in the summer.

After pedaling around Edgartown, with its stately sea captains' homes and bustling wharf, you can take a short ( 6 miles round trip) detour to South Beach, one of the island's most spectacular sandy beaches. Or, continue another 8 miles along the well-marked bike path to West Tisbury, cutting through Correllus State Forest with its pine and scrub-oak forest, and passing the hostel.

We stopped for lunch, as many people do, at Back Alleys , an authentic sandwich shop with reasonbly priced take-out that is popular with locals and visitors . Load up on calories here if you're heading up-island to Aquinnah (a 12-mile ride) through the bucolic and hilly countryside. The views of the 150-foot, multicolored cliffs at Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head) are worth the effort.

Beginning in mid-July, you'll be able to visit the Wampanoag tribe's new Aquinnah Cultural Center, which will provide tribal history, exhibits, Wampanoag art, jewelry, crafts, and special events.

During the summer, a bike ferry links West Basin Road in Aquinnah with the village of Menemsha, a worthwhile stop, especially later in the day when you can see a spectacular sunset from the west-facing beach. Grab a lobster roll or clams from one of the local fish shops and sit on the sea wall to watch the sun set. Then catch one of the Vineyard Transit Authority's bike-transporting buses back to your lodging (fare is $1 per town). Or, from the cliffs of Aquinnah, follow the paved Moshup Trail alongside the dunes and retrace your pedal strokes back to West Tisbury, stopping at Chilmark Chocolates at 19 South Road. That's what we did.

We then took a slight detour on Lambert's Cove Road in Vineyard Haven for a wonderful 4-mile ride through a distinct landscape marked by kettle-hole ponds, and sassafras, beech, and black gum (also known as ``beetlebung") trees. We finished our ride with a much-deserved triple cone from Mad Martha's in Vineyard Haven, and a final oceanside ride past East Chop Light in Oak Bluffs.

Contact Kari J. Bodnarchuk, a writer in Portland, Maine, at travelwriter@karib.us.

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