The Harbor Islands are Boston’s escape valve. When the pressure builds up from summer in the city, sea breezes and salt air are a short ferry ride away. Over the centuries, Boston used this urban archipelago for fishing, farming, medical quarantine, military forts, a candle-making and horse-rendering plant, and even a garbage dump. From the late 18th through the mid-19th centuries, there were two island resorts — before they were closed for illegal gambling and, per island signage, “less than desirable operations.” Now designated a National Park Area, the Boston Harbor Islands have finally found their calling as a place of rest and relaxation.
Park rangers suggest visiting no more than two islands in a day. (Remember, the point is to relax.) The two most popular islands, Spectacle and Georges, have the most amenities and are the easiest to reach. Ferries (www.bostonsbestcruises.com) depart from Long Wharf through Oct. 14 and it takes only 15 minutes to reach Spectacle or 25 minutes to reach Georges. (The trip to Georges takes 45 minutes on the fall schedule starting Sept. 3.) The journey is a bonus sightseeing tour as the ferries cruise past landmarks such as the Institute of Contemporary Art on Fan Pier, the digester eggs on Deer Island, and pentagonal Fort Independence on Castle Island. The ferries’ small snack bars even serve beer, wine, and mixed drinks.
Through Sept. 2, Boston’s Best Cruises offers direct service to either Spectacle or Georges and connecting service between the two islands. After that, you have to plan more carefully to connect to the islands on the service to and from Long Wharf. The ferries tend to depart from Long Wharf promptly. Once they are out on the water, they seem to revert to “island time,” so don’t be surprised by short delays.
WHAT TO DO
You could grab a rocking chair on the long porch at the Spectacle Island visitors center and spend your time reading and watching the boats pass by. But the 86-acre island has five miles of walking trails, including a flat path around the perimeter that is great for strollers or wheelchairs. For more of a workout, follow the path to North Drumlin. At 155 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point in Boston Harbor and has 360-degree views. Swimming is permitted on West Beach, which has lifeguards daily through Labor Day. Lots of folks like to stroll along South Beach at low tide to look for sea glass and other reminders of civilization that are churned up in the ocean before they wash ashore. (Rangers enforce a strict “find and release” policy.)
Thirty-nine-acre Georges Island draws history buffs — and ghost hunters. It’s the site of well-preserved 19th-century Fort Warren, where 2,300 prisoners, mainly Confederate soldiers, were held during the Civil War. Legend holds that the fort is haunted by the ghost of a Southern woman who was executed here after a failed attempt to rescue her husband. A self-guided walking tour map is available at the visitors center on Georges and rangers give guided tours.
In fact, both islands have ranger-led walks and other programs that run through early October and range from kite-flying and yoga to theater performances for children at Fort Warren and live jazz on the porch at Spectacle. (See www.bostonharborislands.org or call 617-223-8666.) Both islands also have outposts of Jasper White’s Summer Shack restaurant (617-960-7166, www.summershackrestaurant.com, open daily through Sept. 2, then weekends through Oct. 14, $5-$18). You can get clam chowder or a lobster roll at either, but Spectacle emphasizes wrap sandwiches that are easy to carry and eat on the trails. You’ll have to go to Georges for hamburgers and fried foods such as a fried whole belly clam roll or fish and chips. Reserve in advance for Thursday and Friday night sunset clambakes on Spectacle through Sept. 7.
Fares are adults $15, seniors $11, 4-11 $9. Inter-island fares (through Sept. 2) are $3. To save money, pack a picnic but be prepared to cart your trash back to the mainland. After a day of relaxation, the Boston skyline looks great on the return cruise.
If summer in the city really has you down, through Sept. 2 there is also service to Georges, Bumpkin, Grape, Lovells, and Peddocks islands from Hingham. It takes more planning, but you can board the ferry at Georges Island to reach one of the others. Ranger Tim Bedell particularly recommends Peddocks for its walking trails and views of Hull from East Head. And it’s fun to poke around in the rock pools at Lovells at low tide. In addition, Thompson Island (www.thompsonisland.org) is open for summer weekend tours but is largely devoted to educational programs run by Outward Bound.