I live in Washington, DC -- so when I visited Martha's Vineyard the same week in August as the Obamas, I worried they might think I was stalking them. Though our paths didn't exactly cross, there were signs of them everywhere. Within a single block of our hotel, there was a sign in an ice cream shop advertising the Flavor of the Month: Baracky Road; a local bar billed its specialty drink as an Obamatini; a fudge store boasted Sasha and Malia chocolate fudge filled with M&M's and at a confectionary stand at a nearby Farmer's Market, my personal favorite -- Yes We Candy. It seemed only natural then to focus my Martha's Vineyard story on food.
I'm not a food writer, though, so don't expect anything remotely knowledgeable about ingredients, textures or garnishes. Still, the food options on the Vineyard during the president's stay were even more enticing than usual, and I need little encouragement where food is concerned. But more on dining with the president later.
From the traditional tourist-town appeal of Vineyard Haven to the down 'n dirty beach-strand shacks of Menemsha to the total isolation of Chappaquiddick, the approximately 100-square-mile island is big enough to explore by car but small enough to traverse by bike. And unusual eateries popped up everywhere (except Chappaquiddick where, even more unusual, not a single restaurant can be found).
My first surprising food experience came in Aquinnah, at the western end of the island, whose claim to fame is the Gay Head Cliffs and Lighthouse and the influence of the Wampanoag Indians, who still live there. A red cobblestone walkway houses an assortment of stalls selling everything from "Wampum" pendants and jewelry to t-shirts, crafts, ice cream and sandwiches. What I didn't expect to see was Faith's Seafood Shack and Sushi Bar, a walk-up window promising sushi, sashimi and almost two dozen different kinds of California rolls. Seaside sushi? Not your normal boardwalk fare.
A visit to Menemsha, a working fishing village that is part of Chilmark where Obama hid out during his vacation here, brought more fun food encounters. In this small surf 'n sand community with tiny beach shacks you'd never confuse with fine dining establishments, the emphasis is on all things ocean. As I passed a picnic table unexpectedly residing alongside the run-down gas station, I did a double-take at the family dining there on whole lobsters. What they lacked in ambience, they made up in succulence as the drawn butter dribbled happily from their lips onto their bathing suits. Just down the road, another family was enjoying a private tail-gate party -- literally, in this case -- as they also lunched on lobster, standing and eating out of their hatch-back trunk. All they were missing were the lobster bibs.
Spending summers in Maine, I'm somewhat of a lobster roll aficionado so I was eager to sample the ones recommended from Larson's Fish Market. Although it didn't best my all-time favorite from the small Pine Tree frosty ice cream stand in Rangeley, Maine -- a tad too much mayo for my liking -- it did serve up meaty chunks of lobster. Several Menemsha eateries also offer options to carry out and take down to the beach for a sunset-and-seafood supper, another Vineyard tradition. Pick up the famous fried clams from The Bite, the $14.99 Sunset Special (1 lb. lobster, soup, seafood salad and stuffed clams) from the Menemsha Café or order off the Back Door Menu from the Home Port Restaurant. Keep in mind that most of the towns on the Vineyard are dry, so if you wish to wash your seafood down with suds, bring booze along with your beach blanket.
If you want sit-down seafood, your restaurant choices are far too numerous for me to convincingly whittle them down to the not-to-be-missed few. I've decided instead to focus on alternatives to seafood, selecting a couple of off-beat dining options that provide a different flavor to everyday Vineyard dining.
Historically, the island celebrates the influence of the Native American, African American and Portuguese populations that have long inhabited the island. But the influx of the Brazilian community has been a recent addition, and they have settled in as year-round residents only in the past 10-15 years. According to Anna Carringer, assistant curator of the Martha's Vineyard Museum in Edgartown, "The flavor of Vineyard culture has been greatly enriched by the increasing impact of the growing presence of the Brazilian community. In fact, they will be the focus of next year's oral history exhibit."
So it only seemed fitting to seek out a Brazilian restaurant. Joelson Cardoso and his chef-wife, Rose, have owned Tropical in Vineyard Haven for only a year, but it already has become a mainstay of local Brazilians. They imported a special oven from Brazil to accommodate the multiple slabs of meat that cook rotisserie-style. Customers select from among a multitude of options -- chicken hearts, beef ribs, roast beef, pork loin, chicken legs and wings, lamb and two different kinds of sausages -- which are then sliced to order and paired up with a vast selection of potatoes, rice and beans, salads and stews from the buffet.
When I read about the Obamas' night out at the Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs, I was surprised that I could still get a reservation the following evening. Apparently, I was the only celebrity-chaser. And we gambled that if the Tuna Tartare appetizer and the steak and short ribs entrée with twice-baked potatoes were good enough for the president, they were good enough for us. My husband pronounced the tuna "interesting and delicious" and if the Obamas enjoyed the main course half as much as we did, they had a terrific time! Thank you, Mr. President.
Is there anyone who doesn't love fresh hot donuts? Those prepared nightly at the MV Gourmet Café and Bakery in Oak Bluffs are a legend on the island. So despite having finished off every bite of dinner, we headed to the Café's "Back Porch" for our fix. As one island resident, clearly not one for hyperbole, enthused: "The freshly baked donuts are the most amazing thing you will ever eat in your life. They're an institution here," she added. "And thank God." Who were we to argue?
The recommendation of another islander led us to Humphrey's in Edgartown for lunch, a bustling take-out deli that judging from all the Hiyas and How 'ya doins' being bandied about, was overflowing with locals. There we encountered The Gobbler, an entire Thanksgiving dinner crammed between two pieces of bread. Oatmeal, as it turned out: another recommendation. The mile-high combo of roasted turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce plus lettuce and tomato measured at least five inches tall, and at a mere $6.95, was a filling repast for two -- or three.
So while President Obama hit the links and the biking trails while in Martha's Vineyard, I exercised my eating options. So Mr. President, eat your heart out -- okay, maybe not the most appropriate of clichés. And while I'm not sure which of us had the better time on the island, I suspect both of us want to return. For more information about Martha's Vineyeard, call 508/693-0085 or visit www.mvy.com
Fyllis Hockman is an award-winning Washington, DC-based freelance travel writer. She is syndicated nationwide by Copley News Service, and is also a featured columnist for several online travel magazines as well as on msnbc.com. She was a regular columnist for many years for The Washington Times. Ms. Hockman's travel stories also have appeared in the New York Post, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Providence Journal, Halifax Herald, Boston Herald, Gazette Newspapers, Asbury Park Press, New Hampshire Sunday News, Buffalo News and many other publications. She is the author of AAA Guidebook: A Photo Journey to Washington, D.C. and co-author of the Pelican Guide to Maryland. Ms. Hockman is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, Travel Journalists Guild and the North American Travel Journalists Association.