Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Third day (part one): Exploring Star Island

The Isles of Shoals are a beautiful place.  Really, this is a severe understatement.  Before bed last night we were treated to this sunset, soon accompanied by the evening star.
By the time the boys were asleep, the Milky Way was plainly visible and an ocean of stars one can never see in a town like Salem, unless there is a serious power outage on an unusually clear night. There were shooting stars, presumably part of the annual Leonid Brezhnev meteor showers.   
When I was last in Isles of Shoals, more than twenty years ago, the impression I received was that it was off-limits to univited visitors. We explored White Island and Lunging by inflatable raft but did not set foot on shore. It remains true that most of the islands are private property, and that the prospect of people on cruising boats traipsing around on them is about as welcome to the owners as the idea of tourists in the back yard would be to you and me.  
But times have changed. Star Island, in particular, is now a hive of activity, and well worth a trip ashore. Tour boats from Rye and Portsmouth (Star, Lunging and White Islands are in New Hampshire, technically in Rye; while Appledore, Cedar, Malaga, Smuttynose, and Duck Islands are in Maine) dock several times a day. Anyone who is interested can book a "personal retreat" in Star Island's magnificent Oceanic Hotel.  As unexpected visitors, we were welcomed at a float attached to the main pier by a friendly lifeguard who helped us to tie up our dinghy.  At the top of the gangway is a map of the island, and a donations bin (the donations bin suggests a donation $10 per person; I am embarrassed to say that  had left my wallet on Bufflehead and thus gave nothing).  Despite my own failure in this regard, I do strongly recommend a donation; if for no other reason, than that if you use the Oceanic Hotel's toilets (which I strongly recommend) you should at least help pay for their upkeep.  If you do use the Oceanic toilets (they are in the basement, accessible from the right hand side of the lobby via stairs), you might notice that there are also showers adjoining.  I did not ask about using these, but I did notice that even the Oceanic's paying guests are only supposed to shower every other day.  Do not presume.

Also in the lobby is a remarkable little bookstore (selling mostly titles relating to the islands or to spiritual matters—the isaland is run by the Unitarian Universalist association), a fun gift/craft shop, and a snack bar.  The lobby itself, as well as the grand front deck of the hotel is a throwback to another era of vacationing, and is sight to behold in itself.  There can be few such sights left anywhere in New England.
Just to left of the hotel is a little graveyard, honoring members of the Caswell family, most whom died before 1880 or so.  Here can be found some of the best examples I have seen of Victorian marble headstones, still legible after all these years.
Beyond that, on a low rise, is a gazebo called "the summer house," with a fine view (pictured above) of the White Island Lighthouse and its causeway.

If you continue around behind the hotel, there is a sort of industrial looking zone where we assume a lot of the maintenance work of the island and its buildings takes place. There are also some sheds where boat building, mainly of dorys, is being done. Travelling up the hill behind the hotel, you come to a little village of stone structures.  One of these is a chapel, where candlelit services are held nightly.  Another is a small museum dedicated to Island history, and its principal bard and gardener, Celia Thaxter,
It is not clear exactly how old these buildings are.  In style they match the chapel, which was built in 1800, or so.
The plaque is deliberately vague about why the islanders burned the the previous building to the ground.
Beyond the little square of stone buildings, out towards the Atlantic shore of the island, are a series of monuments. The famous is a monument to Captain John Smith, who stopped here and spoke highly of the islands, attempting to the name them after himself.  The name did not stick.  There are numerous cairns of uncertain provenance, which are not dedicated to Smith.  The most visible monument, below, is also not dedicated to Smith.  
This monument, which is not visible from any distance, is:
Many of the sponsored activities on Star island revolve around the arts.  The Art Barn is located between two cistern-pools.

Circling back around the island towards the wharf, one begins to walk by Gosport Harbor again.  There is a short stretch of industrial looking stuff again—construction debris and old screen doors—before one comes to a building housing a small marine laboratory and exhibition space.  Here one can see baby lobsters and touch starfish, and examine bones.  Right next to this building is a playground, which is useful for expending any excess energy your children may have retained even after walking around the island.

We are told that Smuttynose also has a nice walking trail.  We didn't get to check it out on this visit.  At certain times of year, especially early in the summer, it is worth noting that human owners and seabirds may have different ideas about whether a given island is open to visitors.

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