Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard are deeply linked to the U.S.'s identity. Native peoples like the Wampanoag have populated both for thousands of years. European arrivals founded some of their first settlements in the U.S. on these shores in the 1600s. The two groups co-existed peacefully at times, but, more often, found themselves with conflicting interests over the following 400 years. Cape Cod is the ninth oldest English place name in the country while Martha's Vineyard is the eighth--explorer Bartholomew Gosnold named both.

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Today, they play host to wealthy vacationers like the Kennedy and Obama families. It may surprise travelers, then, to learn that while the Cape and Islands share some fundamental characteristics--beautiful beaches, for one--vacations on Martha's Vineyard are vastly different from those on Cape Cod. Read on to find out which is the better New England destination.

Martha's Vineyard Overview

Most people think of Martha's Vineyard as a VIP vacation hot spot where celebrities don't have to worry about the prying cameras of the press. Exorbitant rental prices and quiet seaside villages probably come to mind. Cinema fans may recall that Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws on these shores. In fact, there's an annual JawsFest here, and tourists can jump off the "Jaws Bridge."

While these descriptions of Martha's Vineyard are true, the island can offer a far more complex experience for visitors. Many residents adamantly support local wildlife conservation efforts, but the tourism industry can be harmful. The island is also the site of stark economic injustice. Year-round residents receive some of the lowest wages in the northeast but face a higher cost of living. Summer visitors are often far wealthier than islanders.

In summer, the population of the island swells from around 17,000 to nearly 200,000 according to the local chamber of commerce. All of these people have to share 96 square miles of land and 14 beaches that are open to all. That means that at the height of tourist season, there are roughly 2000 people per square mile and 14,000 people per beach. Not everyone goes to the beach at the same time, but the shoreline at Martha's Vineyard can get crowded. Fall and spring may be the time to visit for people expecting quiet fishing villages.

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The beaches on Martha's Vineyard are spectacular, especially those on the Nantucket Sound. Geographical conditions make for warmer water temperatures and the soft warm sand invites sunbathing. There are prime spots for swimming, fishing, and surfing.

Martha's Vineyard includes 14 beaches that are open to all:

  • Aquinnah Public Beach
  • Lobsterville Beach
  • Menemsha Beach
  • Eastville Beach
  • Oak Bluffs Town Beach
  • Joseph Sylvia State Beach
  • Lake Tashmoo Town Beach
  • Owen Park Beach
  • Tisbury Town Beach
  • Long Point Beach
  • East Beach
  • Fuller Street Beach
  • Katama Beach
  • Lighthouse Beach

Martha's Vineyard Vacation Rentals and Hotels

Edgartown has some of the most affordable rentals, starting at about $300 per night for a six-person accommodation near Katama beach according to Martha's Vineyard Rentals http://www.marthasvineyardrentals.org/rentals/edgartown. Prices go up to more than $2000 a night depending on the level of luxury visitors prefer. Most rentals have minimum stays of more than seven days, but this may allow them access to resident-only beaches. Hotel rooms start at about $150 a night.

  • Towns: Tisbury, Oaks Bluff, Edgartown, West Tisbury, Aquinnah, and Chilmark

Getting There And Around

Since Martha's Vineyard is an island, there are limited ways to get there. There are commercial flights, but most people ride the ferry from Falmouth on the Cape. Anyone who wants to take their car along should contact the Steamship Authority well beforehand to make a reservation.

  • Steamship Authority Phone: 508-477-8600

The island's widest point is 25 miles across. From north to south it measures about 9 miles. That means that visitors can get almost anywhere on a bicycle so a car is probably unnecessary. Rental cars are available as are taxis and public buses.

Cape Cod Overview

Like Martha's Vineyard, Cape Cod gained fame for attracting affluent summer vacationers. People love visiting the towns here for the delicious seafood, sandy beaches, and picturesque sunsets. It is home to several marine biology institutes and laboratories. Visitors can go on whale watching tours departing from Provincetown. From Chatham, they may witness white sharks feeding on the resident seals. The peninsula is also home to the only authenticated shipwrecked pirate vessel, the Whydah Galley in Yarmouth and one of Guglielmo Marconi's original wireless stations in Chatham which is now a museum.

related: How Safe Is Shark Island, Really, And Can You Visit?

The Cape's summer population is around 500,000 which is more than double the off-season population of nearly 230,000. Cape Cod has a land area of approximately four times that of Martha's Vineyard. This means that the population density in summer is around 1500 people per square mile. These residents and visitors share the 60-some public beaches nearby. That means that there are about 8300 people per beach in July and August.

The Cape's beaches offer visitors everything. Bay-side beaches have calm water, perfect for families with children. Atlantic beaches have great spots for windsurfing, kiting, and surfing. Along the Nantucket Sound, near Dennis and Hyannis, water temperatures are warmest, perfect for taking a dip.

  • Cape Cod Beaches: more than 60 public beaches including top-rated Coast Guard National Beach along the Cape Cod National Seashore

Cape Cod Vacation Rentals

According to Cape Cod Summer Rentals, there are a wide variety of houses available for around $900 a week. That's significantly less than the cheapest options on Martha's Vineyard. There are campgrounds, too, but also luxury locations, like the Wequasett Resort in Chatham as expensive as travelers can pay. Provincetown has become an LGBT vacation hot spot with several resorts catering specifically to this community.

Towns: Provincetown, Truro, Eastham, Chatham, Yarmouth, Sandwich, Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, Barnstable, Dennis, Brewster, Harwich, Orleans, and Wellfleet

Getting There And Around

Travelers can drive over one of the two highway bridges to Cape Cod, take a ferry from Boston to Provincetown, or jump on a commercial flight to Barnstable or Provincetown. They can even take a passenger train, the Cape Flyer, on the weekend.

Private cars are the easiest way to get around, but there are public buses and bicycle tracks all over the Cape.

So, Which Is The Better Vacation Destination?

Both are worth a visit if time allows. For someone who wants a long, quiet beach vacation, renting a house with access to a restricted beach along the Nantucket Sound in Martha's Vineyard is the best option. Travelers looking for a wider range of offerings, including historic sites, wildlife, and science museums, should plan a Cape vacation.

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