April 2015

Springtime on Chappaquiddick

Cape Cod Life  /  April 2015 / ,

Writer: Matthew J. Gill

Peaceful gardens, colorful wildlife and a dynamic coastline are just an island away

When considering the places you might go to relax, to enjoy nature or just to get away from it all, what scenes come to mind, and what are the details you envision? Do you see a quiet, sunny spot offering a warm, Atlantic breeze? Are you near the beach in this daydream, and yet nearer still to a small pond, one that glows with goldfish and is surrounded by flowers and trees? Are there birds about—and we’re not talking seagulls and turkeys—but cardinals and hummingbirds, ospreys and majestic, great blue herons? Do you see other wildlife, too, perhaps colorful dragonflies flitting around, turtles peeking their heads through the lily pads, and river otters making an occasional, playful appearance?

Springtime Chappaquiddick

If you have imagined some of these details, perhaps you have been to the Mytoi Garden on Chappaquiddick before, and you’re recalling the serenity of your time there. Or perhaps when your thoughts wander to a peaceful stroll or getaway, the details listed above—which describe a Mytoi morning in spring—just happen to settle into your thoughts? And now, intrigued to learn more about this hidden gem on Martha’s Vineyard, perhaps you will be booking your next trip to the island?

Just a few miles from the OnTime ferry—which transports vehicles, cyclists, and walkers on a 90-second trip from Edgartown to Chappaquiddick, Mytoi Garden is located on Dike Road, just a short walk from Leland Beach and the Dike Bridge. Spread over three meticulously manicured acres, the garden is owned and maintained by The Trustees of Reservations, one of the state’s largest land conservation organizations. The property consists of 13 different “rooms” or gardens, each featuring different plants and themes. As visitors make their way from one garden to the next along winding pathways, the changing landscape evokes unique feelings and inspires different moods.

Springtime on Chappaquiddick

Springtime on Chappaquiddick

“A visit to Chappaquiddick should obviously include a visit to Mytoi Garden,” says Chris Kennedy, superintendent of the Trustees’ five properties on Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s a place where you really can unwind. Of all the properties we have, it’s places like Mytoi that refresh the human spirit.”

Mytoi glimmers with several pools, a stream, and a small island with a charming bridge. Around every turn, endless varieties of trees, plants, and flowers—from azaleas to rhododendrons, daffodils to seaside goldenrod—grow with abandon.

Naturally, the garden teems with wildlife, from deer and cottontail rabbits, to a wide variety of birds. Cardinals are a vivid sight, and last year, one hummingbird family made its nest in a cypress tree. Lucky visitors may see Black-crowned Night Herons, or perhaps, in the late afternoon, recognize the call of the Great Horned Owl. The snapping turtles in the pond are well accustomed to people, Kennedy adds, and they enjoy being fed, which is allowed.

Though Mytoi is not a Japanese term—former owner Hugh Jones worked in the garden so much he referred to it as “my toy”—it is often described as “a Chappaquiddick garden with Japanese influence.” A “torii,” or a Japanese-style gate, which literally means “welcome,” serves as the main entrance to the property, and along the grounds visitors can pause at a Japanese-style hut, which offers shade, seating, and an opportunity, as Kennedy says, “to watch the world go by.” Another bonus: admission is free, year-round.

Springtime on Chappaquiddick

How, one might ask, did this one-of-a-kind, Japanese-themed oasis come to be on Martha’s Vineyard? The answer dates back to 1954, when Mary Wakemen acquired the property, which was located just across the street from her home. Wakemen, in turn, sold the land (for $1) to Jones, an architect who had designed her Japanese-style home. Having served as an architect with the U.S. military in Japan following World War II, Jones had developed an appreciation for Japanese culture, including the nation’s distinctive gardening style.

When Jones moved to Edgartown in the 1950s, he opened an antique shop, the Orient Trader, and in his spare time, set to work developing a portion of the land Wakemen had given him. He dug the pond on the property, and with the excavated rock and soil, he created a hill next to it, which he reportedly dubbed Mt. Jones. He added goldfish to the pond, planted 2,000 daffodils, and incorporated many other special touches.

Springtime on Chappaquiddick

When Jones died in 1965, his children returned the property to Wakemen with the understanding that it would be preserved as a public garden. In 1976, Wakemen donated the land to the Trustees, but remained involved and even donated funds to cover the cost of gardening fees through 1984, when she passed away.

In 1991, Hurricane Bob wreaked havoc across Cape Cod and the Islands, and at Mytoi, more than half of the pitch pines—the property’s signature native feature—were felled. Many other trees and shrubs in the garden were either uprooted or damaged by the fallen pines. Following the storm, the Trustees’ staff as well as landscape designer, Julie Moir Messervey, and gardeners, Don Sibley, and Lindsay Allison, collaborated to redevelop the property. Due to the extensive damage, it was determined that the garden could not simply be rebuilt as it was, so the decision was made to design a new layout, incorporating new “rooms” and other features visitors experience today.

John Vasconcellos, a regional director for the Trustees, describes Mytoi as fascinating and highly unusual. “What you find is a very thoughtfully laid out garden that invites you to explore,” he says. “It’s serene. It’s contemplative. It’s a break from any hustle and bustle you might experience when you’re on vacation—but then again, you’re on Chappaquiddick where hustle and bustle doesn’t exist.”

Since the Trustees took over stewardship of the property in 1984, Vasconcellos says the organization has promoted the garden as a destination, while maintaining Wakemen’s desire that it remain open to the public, free of charge. Much of the work involved with maintaining the property is completed by a devoted group of volunteers, some who visit the garden daily. “I think it’s a lovely place to visit year-round,” Vasconcellos says, “but the Rhododendrons are a highlight if you’re talking about spring.”

The Trustees of Reservations also owns and maintains two larger properties on Chappaquiddick: the Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge and Wasque Reservation. Each of the properties offers dramatic coastline scenery, recreational opportunities, and the chance to interact with nature.

A seven-mile barrier beach serves as Chappaquiddick’s eastern shoreline and includes Leland, a state beach to the south, and Cape Poge to the north. Vasconcellos says Cape Poge is “one of those points in New England, where, obviously you are still on land, but you are as remote as one can be—and still be in New England.”

Springtime on Chappaquiddick

Kennedy says the area is a great spot to enjoy the whole day, whether swimming, sunbathing, fishing, walking, or viewing wildlife. Vehicle and walking trails provide access from the Dike Bridge to Cape Poge; however, over-sand vehicles are required for the journey. From Memorial Day to Columbus Day, the trustees offer daily kayak and seaside tours as well as tours of the historic, Cape Poge Light.

Wasque—Chappaquiddick’s southeastern-most tip—has been featured in the news a lot in recent years due to the break in the Norton Point Beach. A Nor’easter in April of 2007 punched a quarter-mile hole through the south-facing barrier beach to Katama Bay; since then, the ‘break’ in the beach has migrated continually eastward, carrying with it, Kennedy says, “hundreds of millions of cubic yards of sand.”

Though the eastern edge of the beach will likely reconnect at Wasque Point later this year, the forces of nature have dramatically altered the coastline these past eight years. Both the beach at Wasque Point and the swan pond are gone, and stairs and boardwalks that led down to the beach have been destroyed or swept into the ocean.

Kennedy says every time he looks out over the water from Wasque, the view before him has changed. “Sometimes [the sandbar] will grow as much as 50 feet in a day,” he says. “For someone like me who loves nature, who likes looking at change in the natural world, it’s astounding.” Wasque, Kennedy adds, is “probably the most dynamic coastline, certainly in the Northeast—and it could very well be [the most dramatic] in the U.S. as well.”

Commenting on Chappaquiddick in general, Vasconcellos says visitors to the island get their money’s worth. “It’s unlike any other place they have ever been,” he says. “It’s unlike any place on the Vineyard. It’s another world—and you can fill up a day going to see all these things, and just be in nature in its rawest form. It’s where the great Atlantic Ocean meets the coastline.”

For more information about Mytoi, Cape Poge, Wasque and other trustees’ properties, visit thetrustees.org. To schedule a Chappaquiddick tour, call (508) 627-3599.

Matthew J. Gill

Matthew Gill is the former editor of Cape Cod LIFE and Cape Cod ART magazines. A graduate of U-Mass Dartmouth, Matthew has worked as a journalist since 2003 and has written on topics ranging from the sinking of Nantucket’s whale ship Essex and the history of the Barnstable-Falmouth Thanksgiving football rivalry, to the Cotuit Rowing Club, Provincetown’s Art’s Dune Tours, and more! A relative newcomer when it comes to the Cape, Matt and his wife Melissa just celebrated a Cape Cod-themed wedding.