Our trip out to Star Island, part of the storied Isles of Shoals, a group of nine islands straddling the New Hampshire and Maine border, was short and scenic. We chugged out of picturesque Rye Harbor, dotted with fishing boats and wooden dinghies, gently rolling into the fog-shrouded Atlantic Ocean. There were only a handful of people aboard Uncle Oscar, a 20-passenger vessel that provides ferry service and tours of the island. Within 30 minutes, the rocky island outcroppings appeared on the horizon. We motored into sheltered Gosport Harbor and roped to the Star Island pier.
There’s a lot of rich history — and mystery — surrounding these islands. Captain John Smith (of Jamestown and Pocahontas fame) is said to have discovered them in 1614, and not-so-humbly named them “Smyths Iles.” But archeological findings reveal that Native Americans were here between 800 AD and 1200 AD, and early fishermen likely stopped on the islands before Smith arrived.
These wind-slapped ocean ledges, set some 10 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine, have always been fertile fishing grounds. By the early 1600s, word of the nutrient-rich, bountiful waters had traveled around the world, and Gosport Harbor became one of the busiest commercial fishing ports along the New England coastline.
“Stories spread fast,” says Ann Beattie, Star Island historian. “It was said the waters were so plentiful, you could walk from ship to ship on the backs of cod.” By the mid-1600s, cod sold here in the Isles set the world market price, and the islands continued to dominate the fish market for nearly 200 years.
Legends and stories abound. There have been ax murders and ghost hauntings, shipwrecks and suicides. The notorious pirate Blackbeard is said to have honeymooned on Smuttynose Island and to have hidden plundered British silver bars somewhere on the shoals. There are still people who look for Blackbeard’s buried treasure.
By the mid-19th century, the islands had become a popular summer resort for city dwellers arriving by steamers to escape the urban grit and summer heat. Artists and writers — such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Childe Hassam, William Morris Hunt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Celia Thaxter — came too, inspired by the wild, isolated landscape.
We hopped off the boat and headed up to the Oceanic Hotel, a remnant of the Gilded Age, perched on a hill overlooking the harbor. Not much has changed with this sprawling, frozen-in-time beauty, with its large wood-paneled lobby, antique-filled parlor, grand dining room, and arguably the best porch in New England. We could have grabbed a couple of cane rockers on the wraparound porch and been happy as clams for the rest of the day. But we were also interested in seeing the rest of the island, so joined a short walking tour.
Star Island is the second largest of the group (Appledore across the harbor is the largest), a rugged 46-acre outpost owned and operated by the nonprofit Star Island Corporation, founded on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Anyone is welcome to visit for the day, an overnight, or to attend one of the programs or conferences offered on a variety of topics.
We walked the path to the Stone Chapel, located at the island’s highest point. The simple structure was constructed in 1800, where two previous chapels sat. A sign tells us that the Gosport Church was “originally constructed of the timbers from the wreck of a Spanish ship A.D. 1685, Was rebuilt in 1720 and burned by the Islanders in 1790. This building of stone was erected in A.D. 1800.” Apparently, 1790 was a very cold year, and the islanders burned the wood from the church to stay warm. Surrounding the chapel are several small cottages, replicating Gosport Village, the island fishing community dating back to the 1600s.
We passed Tucke Monument, the gravesite of the Reverend John Tucke, who was a prominent person on the island until his death in 1773. Constructed of 15 tons of granite, the gravestone is the tallest in New Hampshire. In the distance on the island’s south shore, we could also see the chunky Smith Monument commemorating the captain’s arrival in 1614. There were other buildings to pop into: the Art Barn, which was used as an icehouse in the early days; the Rutledge Marine Lab, an education and research center, and Vaughn Cottage, which houses the tiny Thaxter Museum, with original art and artifacts from poet and painter Celia Thaxter.
We had lunch, simple fare served family style at communal tables (there was also an outdoor barbecue grill serving hamburgers, hot dogs, and lobster rolls near the pier), and thought about taking kayaks out (you can rent them for $5 an hour), going for a swim at the tiny beach in the harbor, or walking out to East Rock, a promontory on the southwest side of the island with sweeping ocean views. Instead, we walked past the Caswell Cemetery, a burial ground for one of the island’s original fishing families, to the Summer House gazebo, where we sat soaking up the salt air, listening to the seabirds screeching and the waves lapping against the rocky shoreline.
“There’s something mystical about these islands,” historian Beattie said as we boarded Uncle Oscar for the return trip. “They possess some magical siren call; for hundreds of years, people just keep coming back.”
The staff on shore waved as we motored out of the harbor. “Come back! Come back soon!” they shouted. And we probably will.
If you go . . .
For more information on Star Island programs, including day visits, overnight retreats, meal reservations, activities, and conferences, visit www.starisland.org. A variety of weeklong programs are open to all and are offered throughout the summer and fall, such as Renewable Energy for Your Home and Environment, Discover Star Island Family Festival, Ignite Your Creative Spark, Rug Hooking Retreat, Fostering Creativity, Meditation and Daily Life, and Yoga Retreats. Visitors are also welcome to come for an overnight visit, based on availability, and attend any of the classes being offered at the time. Island Cruises provides daily ferry service to Star Island from Rye Harbor, N.H., including island walking tours (www.uncleoscar.com), adults $43, ages 4-15 $33. The Isles of Shoals Steamship Company (www.islesofshoals.com) also offers ferry service and walking tours on Star Island, departing out of Portsmouth, N.H., adults $37, ages 4-12 $27.