Island Hopping, New England Style
I grew up in New England, and some of my best childhood memories are from summer vacations by the shore: playing on sandy beaches, having clambakes at sunset, catching fireflies at twilight, taking hikes through the woods, picnicking in grassy fields, and taking ferry boat rides across the harbor.
While I’ll never get those precious sun-drenched childhood days back (don’t we all wish we could!), I can help my own kids create seashore memories like these on a day trip or camping trip to the Boston Harbor Islands, a group of islands and peninsulas just off the coast of Massachusetts. Out of 34 islands, 12 (Georges, Spectacle, Lovells, Bumpkin, Grape, Peddocks, Thompson, Little Brewster, Deer, World’s End, Webb Memorial, and Nut Island) are open to the public and, combined, offer summertime activities, outdoor recreation, history, arts, picnicking, camping and more, with the islands’ incomparable view of the Boston skyline providing the backdrop for our summer fun.
Although several of the recreation areas – Deer, Nut, World’s End and Webb Memorial – are accessible by car, first-time visitors should plan to take the ferry from Boston (Long Wharf-North) to one of the two “hub” islands, Georges Island and Spectacle Island. At Georges, the most popular of the islands, there are two essential stops: its visitor center, where you can enjoy seafood at the Snack Shack and purchase books and gifts at the gift shop; and Fort Warren, a Civil-War era fort that housed Confederate soldiers and political prisoners during the war. Park ranger-guided tours are free, as is the museum dedicated to the fort’s role in history; also keep a lookout for the Lady in Black, a ghost that reputedly haunts the fort’s corridors and arches. The grassy areas on Georges are ideal for picnicking, with a wonderful view of the other islands and the Boston skyline.
Like Georges, Spectacle Island is an excellent jumping-off point for your island adventures, with ferries that travel directly from Boston and a “green” visitor center with a snack shack and exhibits on the history of the islands. Spectacle also has a lifeguard-supervised beach for a lazy afternoon of sun and sand, as well as hiking trails that take you up the tallest hill on the islands for an unparalleled view at the top. Spectacle’s also a great place to end your day trip, with sunset clambakes on Thursday and Friday evenings in the summer before hopping the ferry back to the mainland.
Sea Kayaking and Camping
Feeling adventurous? The islands are a popular destination for boating and sea kayaking. While most boats found in the area are privately owned, visitors can take a sea kayaking tour with a certified kayak trip leader. These tours are limited to five kayakers per guide; other restrictions apply, so visit Boston Harbor Islands' website for details.
Boston Harbor National Islands is also a favorite destination for campers; several of its islands – Lovells, Bumpkin, Grape and Peddocks – offer campsites. (If you’re less interested in “roughing it” than you are in having running water, you should opt for Peddocks, which offers yurts and a visitor center with fresh water and flushing toilets.)
In addition to getting back to nature in one of the loveliest and most scenic campsites in New England, camping on one of the islands will offer you the opportunity to see Boston from the water at night and at sunrise – surely an experience you’ll never forget. Campsites are reservation-based only, so be sure to visit the website to make arrangements.
Another unforgettable experience is the Boston Light Tour, where you’ll take a three-hour tour by ferry of the harbor, viewing two centuries-old lighthouses from the water (Graves Lighthouse and the Long Island Light), and disembarking at Little Brewster Island to take a tour of the third, and most historic lighthouse, Boston Light. The site of the oldest lighthouse in the United States, you’ll be able to climb Boston Light’s 76 steps and two ladders to access the top of the tower staircase. Along the way, you’ll hear stories of the lighthouse’s rich and compelling role in history: its first construction in 1716, the role it played in the American Revolution and other wars, and tales of the lighthouse keepers, sailors and soldiers who lived and (in some cases) died by its light.
Music, yoga, field trips and more
What’s also wonderful about visiting the Boston Harbor Islands is the way you can customize your experience to reflect your interests. Many activities take place throughout the summer: musical concerts, plays, historic re-enactments, arts and crafts for children, family fitness, kite flying, island yoga, painting and photography field trips, and so much more. The islands’ website provides an extensive calendar of events to help you make the most of your visit. No matter what you choose to do there, you’ll find a hundred different ways to celebrate the joys of summertime, and a hundred different reasons to return and try something new on your next visit.