I heard crickets chirping as I brushed my teeth. It was just after 10 pm — quiet time — and most of my roommates in the female dorm were already in bed. I chose the bottom bunk — I always do when I can — there were fresh sheets, a towel, fleece blanket, and pillowcase folded at the foot. After I made the bed, I set an alarm for 8 am and plugged my phone into an outlet next to the bunk. A humming fan and rummaging roommates rocked me to sleep — a lullaby of whitenoise I’m more or less used to.
This was one night out of maybe 200 total I’ve spent in a hostel. They hold a pretty special place in my heart — a lifeline for long, low-budget trips and an oasis for meeting like-minded travelers. A cup of coffee, some solid camaraderie, and a place to crash.
Ever since moving to Martha’s Vineyard, I’ve wondered what the hostel off Edgartown-West Tisbury Road was like. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve driven past it — the weathered, shingled building with a sprawling front lawn set back from the main road against dense woods. It always caught my eye. On a late-August evening, I finally decided to check it out.
I’m a resident here, but for one night, I wanted hostelling to feel like it always does — like an adventure. I left my car at home, hopped on a bike, and crossed three town lines before arriving.
A few cars were parked at the end of the long driveway. I stationed my bike on a rack beside dozens of others. Inside, I met employee Chris Boeur at reception. He gave me the door code to my room and showed me around.
There are 68 beds spread across an upstairs co-ed dorm, a downstairs female dorm, and a sprinkling of private and semi-private rooms. On an Island met with overflowing tourism and limited accommodations, the Martha’s Vineyard hostel, a branch of parent group Hostel International USA, offers visitors reliable, affordable, last-minute housing from mid-May to mid-October. Starting at $38 per night, you can’t find a better deal than that. And that’s what hostelling is all about.
Hostelling dates back to 1909 when Richard Schirrmann, a German teacher, recognized the need for an overnight shelter for students wanting to explore the German countryside during summer breaks. He opened the world’s first hostel inside the school in Altena, Germany. The concept caught on throughout the country, spread across Europe, and eventually made its way to the U.S. in the early 1930s. Hostels continue to make global travel accessible, affordable, and sociable. Hostels, in a way, give us the world.
There were only about 19 other guests during my stay. It was the Monday after Ag Fair weekend, when things begin to slow down. Chris told me the hostel was at-capacity the week before, and that the season really starts for them once Fourth of July hits. From now through closing, it’ll be a sprinkling of travelers here and there. We walked by a wall of information — everything from a list of weekly events to facts about the Island to maps, bike paths, and bus schedules.
The Martha’s Vineyard Hostel was established in 1955 by Islanders Lillian and Daniel Manter. It was the first purpose-built hostel in the country — meaning the building was built specifically for a hostel. The building had 300 beds — each 50 cents per night, and 40 cents for those under 21. Hostel ownership and management changed over the years, and in 1984, American Youth Hostels Inc. bought the building. It is now run by Hosteling International. In 1998, the hostel was officially dedicated to founder Lillian Manter and is also known as the Lillian Manter Memorial Hostel.
Chris showed me a wall of blue lockers for guests to store their personal belongings. At the end of the hall, there was a large, self-service kitchen with multiple stoves, sinks, refrigerators, microwaves, tableware, and seating areas. Next, the common space, which was peppered with couches, tables, books, games, and the season’s newest addition — air conditioning. Everything had a rural, rustic, summer-camp feel;clean and simple, yet everything you need. Hostel manager John Watson likened the concept of Hostel International to McDonald’s.
“No matter where you are in the world, you can find us, and you always know what you’re going to get,” he said. There are over 4,000 Hostel International properties across the world. In Massachusetts, there are locations in Eastham, Truro, Hyannis, Nantucket, and West Tisbury.
A woman from Montreal sat across from me in the common room. A man from Holland sat to my left. Neither had visited the Island before. The woman would be here for a week; the man for four days. They both shrugged when I asked what’s on the docket. “No plans at all,” the man said.
Another man from Montreal joined us. He’s been visiting the Island for the past six summers, but it was his first time at the hostel. “It’s a pretty nice place.” he said. “It doesn’t cost much, which is great for me.” State Beach and a jump off Big Bridge were on his two-day agenda. Other guests around us were from Germany, Spain, and Romania.
John told me it was his first season on Martha’s Vineyard, but his 15th in the hostelling world. John spent many years out West, and decided to give this East Coast Island a try. “I said, Sign me up,” he said. “That was mid-April. May 1 was my first day.”
John said the average age at hostels generally ranges from 25 to 27, but here on the Island, it’s more like 55 to 60. “The age demographic is a bit different,” he said. “But I love it. I love when people are commingling and coexisting, no matter their age.”
The hostel works in several ice-breaker activities throughout the summer: Outdoor s’mores by the campfire, trivia breakfasts, and “Jaws” screenings in the common room. “Some people come for the minging,” John said. “Some don’t.”
While the location is considered rural, there’s a bus stop right out front, connecting guests to all corners of the Island. “That bus stop is everything,” said Amber Chinander, another employee at the hostel. “The bike paths around here are incredible. I really dig this location a lot.”
When my alarm went off the next morning, I joined a small group of others prepping breakfast in the kitchen. The hostel provides free coffee, nine-grain bread for toast, plus a medley of jams and butters from 7 to 10 am. I met Veronica Fernandez. She was making a traditional Chilean breakfast on a stovetop. “I live in Maryland but I’m originally from Chile,” she said. “This was my mother’s recipe. Onion, garlic, tomato, egg, and I added red pepper.” Veronica said she’d spent the past four days biking around the Island. I asked for highlights. “Flat roads,” she laughed. Veronica also commented on the clean and eco-conscious community. “Everyone seems very environmentally-minded,” she said. “I work for the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection], maybe that’s why I noticed.”
I met a group of friends visiting from Rhode Island. They were about ready to flag a bus, beach hats and boogie boards in hand. “We’re leaving today, but squeezing in one more beach day,” Stephanie Lyons said. Diana Cristea, a frequent visitor from Romania, was also on her way out. “I’m spending one week here and one week on Nantucket,” she said. A trip to Gay Head, Chappy, and biking were on her agenda.
By 10 am, the entire hostel had pretty much cleared out.
“What we provide is a safe place to rest your head, wash up, and prepare your own meals,” John said. “That about sums it up. You have to be an independent traveler.” Check out is at 10 am, so I threw my sheets and towels in the hamper, gathered my things, grabbed my bike, and hit the road.
They say hostels are a step above a camp site and a step below a hotel. I say they’re in a league of their own.