I write this upon return from a week on Star Island technically part of Rye NH. Star is one of a group of islands that comprise the Isles of Shoals. This group of islands lies approximately 10 miles off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine and ownership of the islands is split between those two states. Natural and man-made changes have shifted the number of islands at the Shoals over time. Breakwaters connect land masses and higher tide levels separate others. Ownership has changed the names of many of the Islands over the years. Currently, the official names and number of islands in the group is nine; Star, Seavey, White, Duck, Lunging, Smuttynose, Appledore, Cedar and Malaga.
I visited some of these, and other, islands while growing up. My family had a 20 foot wooden outboard motorboat and we frequently made day trips during the summer to Plum Island in Massachusetts and Smuttynose, Appledore and Star Islands in Maine and New Hampshire. My mother and grandfather were in the US Navy and my brother worked on fishing boats while in High School. I guess loving the ocean is in my blood. My dad insisted that I attend a multi-week nautical safety and map reading course before I was allowed to drive the boat. I will never forget the phrase, “Red-Right-Returning”, which refers to the channel marker buoys in the ocean.
As an adult, I visited Star Island, at least one day each summer and often, several times for the day. At that time, the islands were held privately and were not available to other overnight guests. There were various boats offering trips out from early morning until evening but no overnight provisions were available to the public. Once the old grand hotel, the Oceanic House on Star Island, became open to the public for overnight stays, it became a goal of mine to stay there and experience the island for all 24 hours. When I was working on my degree, nearly 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to take 2 intensive courses on Star and Appledore Islands for college credit. I took that opportunity 2 summers in a row. They were each a week-long and began most mornings at 6 am and except for meal breaks, often went until nearly midnight. They required a lot of hard work and long hours. They were not called ‘intensive’ courses for nothing! The rigorous class time I spent at the Shoals only intensified my longing to stay there under different circumstances.
The islands beckon one to leave all life’s cares on the dock, shore-side. There is minimal electricity and fresh water available at the Isles making all who spend time there appreciate natural resources very acutely. Seemingly endless wraparound porches offer open-ocean or harbor views and Shaker-style rocking chairs. White Island light lies nearby as well as several other key historic islands and buildings. A few other boats come and go from the dock during the day.
To say that these islands are loaded with natural and cultural history is a gross understatement. And rustic elegance abounds in the architecture… Generations of people have experienced these islands in so many ways. Evidence of native peoples, pirates, shipwreck survivors, foreign cod fisherman, soldiers and tourists, living and visiting here abounds. New discoveries continue to evolve.
The number of books written about and inspired by these islands is amazing. The art created here is astonishing.
The long abandoned fishing village of Gosport, a collection of stone and wood cottages, has vanished, leaving only cellar holes and artifacts. A collection of newer stone cottages has been erected, some on the old cellar holes. This romantic looking group of inner island buildings are so unexpectedly inviting with their perennial gardens and small-paned windows. It’s like a bit of the British Isles dropped from the sky to land perfectly placed here. A few old clapboard capes remain, centuries after being built. This island cluster is a truly unique corner of New England.
I wanted to spend downtime on the island and I wanted to share that time with my mother. She loves the ocean and really needed to spend some quality time relaxing with no distractions. There is no better choice, I am convinced. Years of planning, culminated this year in our chance. She was celebrating a significant birthday and we cleared our schedules and headed for Star Island for the week!
There are no televisions in the Oceanic Hotel. You leave the boat at the pier and climb the hill to the very wide steps leading to the famous porch. You stop and look back at the harbor and take in the amazing view of the enclosure and beyond. No obvious signs of modern civilization greet your gaze. The only sound is an occasional buoy chiming in the surf. Then you turn and enter the obviously very old and sturdy double doors into the hotel lobby. For a moment your eyes adjust and you wonder if you have stepped through a time portal by mistake.
Inside the lobby, time has apparently stood still. You know this hotel is well over 100 years old; it replaced an earlier one in the same location, destroyed by fire. The original enormous hotel desk curves on your left and a grand piano, vintage woodwork and dark old furniture cluster in the center and near the elegant fireplace before you. After a moment, you get your bearings, check in at the desk and proceed to the grand staircase which rises seemingly forever. It has a landing 2/3 of the way up with a great view of White Island light through the open window, lacy curtains blowing in the breeze.
The guest rooms are refreshingly rustic and straight forward. Simple wooden beds, an antique bureau with a beveled mirror, a nightstand, bowl and pitcher stand and a caned rocker complete the ensemble with antique coat hooks to hang your clothes on. There’s a window with a lacy curtain and a breath-taking view. Ours, I noted, overlooked the harbor and we could see both sunset and sunrise from there if we happened to spend those special times in our room. Oh, and one more thing, none of the rooms have locks. In fact, many people chose to just leave their doors open all the time and let the sea air breathe through from windows to hallways.
We attended the mandatory program in a nearby vintage building’s auditorium. We were reminded about the ever-present danger of fire on an island and asked to be extra vigilant. We were given a bit of the history and asked to leave cell phones on vibrate and only to take and make calls out of hearing of other island guests. We were briefed on local gull nesting sites to respect along walking trails and given suggestions for things to see and do. It was explained that meals were at specific times and served family style with no reserved seating. A large brass bell on the porch would be rung at meal times and in the case of fire. Both very important! Water restrictions were explained being that all island water is collected in rooftop cisterns during rain showers, brought in by boat and/or produced in the on-island reverse osmosis, desalination process. Star Island is largely self-sustaining.
Next, we headed off to do what I’d been waiting many years to do, sit on the porch with a book to absorb the ambiance and wait for the dinner bell!
The week we were there, a number of programs were offered. These vary over the course of the summer and a complete list can be found at starisland.com Some weeks the programs are specialized with a focus on a single topic like marine bird identification or water-color painting. The week we chose included programs on Shoals history, archeology, nature-inspired crafts, outdoor digital photography and tours of other islands. We were under no obligation to attend any of the programs and were free to attend them all if we chose. This easy-going attitude on Star makes it very easy to fall into ‘Island Time.’
My mother and I attended many events together and some on our own. One day we chose to spend a couple of hours with our watercolors in the stone village, until we lost our shade advantage and had to leave. We never finished our paintings but had fun working on them! Just one more excuse to go back!
Another day we rowed across Gosport Harbor to Smuttynose Island to visit the site of a famous unsolved murder that took place there long ago. We revisited the facts and retraced the steps of the murderer and victims. We also viewed some archeology sites that revealed thousands of artifacts dating back to prehistoric time!
We participated in a candlelit procession and poetry reading in the Star Island Chapel. This stone building is dark initially (we waited until after sunset) and with each person entering and carrying a candle lantern, it radiated with a stronger, warmer glow. In the dark, from a distance, the chapel appears like a luminous lantern on its rocky promontory.
The Isles of Shoals have been a haven for artists and writers for generations. Many well-known expressionists have found solace and inspiration there. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine anyone not being spiritually moved by a place covered in wild sea roses and surf smoothed stone. The predominant sounds are the gulls and terns soaring overhead and channel markers chiming in the distance. Even the dozens of porch rockers, barely make a sound. Occasionally, a boat horn, the dinner bell or a talented musician are heard, poetically breaking the silence. If you cannot relax here, you must be hopeless!
We met many like-minded visitors, dual peace and adventure seekers. They were all down-to-earth and interesting. Likewise all the staff on island were warm, accommodating and welcoming. Meals were wonderful; homemade breads and salads every day, with lots of perfectly cooked and seasoned vegetables, fresh fruit and other nourishing and soul satisfying foods.
I made a point of being up to capture each sunrise on film and in my memory and caught as many sunsets as possible during our stay. We arrived on the first full day of summer which was accompanied by the lowest tide and closest to the earth (largest) full moon of the year. All wonderfully awesome events to witness… It does not take long to become accustomed to living by the tide levels, storm potential and sun positioning. What a natural and rhythmic way to order one’s days.
Two of the evenings we watched lightning dance along the far horizon, wondering if the storm would find its way to sea. Air currents are constantly shifting on an island and you become very alert to barometric pressure and cloud development. The first evening, even though electricity filled the air, the storm missed us after wreaking havoc inland. We realized we’d been holding our collective breaths for hours. It’s a very humbling experience, feeling adrift and at the mercy of the sea!
The second night of storm watching, all the island visitors seemed to sense at one time, just how vulnerable we were ten miles out. After hours of lightning spasms along the shore, we were startled by a thunder-clap nearly overhead. Then another and another while the dark sky blazed suddenly with bolt upon bolt of fiery lightning for hours. It rained all night and I heard several nearby boats seeking hasty shelter from wild seas, in the protection of Gosport Harbor. Sunrise the next morning was fresh, breezy and uneventful except for the large number of fishing vessels and sailboats encircled within the strong arms of the harbor.
Our week was interesting, inspiring and still very relaxing. Thank you Mom for sharing this very special adventure with me!
I have only scratched the surface of what a visit to the Isles of Shoals is like; all the magic and wonder to be found there. If you can spend a week or more there, I can’t recommend it enough. If you can only spend a day or part of one, you should. I know you will be enchanted! When I wished upon that Star, I wished to return again and again. The slogan for Star Island, and rightly so, is “You Will Come Back, You Will Come Back!”
Yes, I will.