Every resident of New Hampshire, and any summer visitor to the New Hampshire Seacoast with an interest in history and natural beauty, and a half or a full day or more to spare, should find a way to spend a morning or afternoon or a day or an overnight at Star Island!
The Isles of Shoals is a cluster of nine small islands and tidal shoals, four in New Hampshire and five in Maine, five miles off the coast of Rye, New Hampshire.
Star Island, the second-largest, pictured above, is the home of the Oceanic Hotel, a century-old, seasonal hotel and conference center, and is accessible during the summer months by a twice-daily, five-mile ferry ride from Rye Harbor or via a ten-mile ferry ride from downtown Portsmouth. The islands have been occupied for more than 400 years, originally as fishing villages, and today, they remain the home of several of the oldest houses in New England, some of which date to the early 1600s.
A brief History of Star Island and the Isles of Shoals.
The rocky Isles of Shoals, inhabited by indigenous people for centuries before Captain John Smith discovered them and named them “Smith’s Isles” for himself in 1614, are bathed in history. The nine islands were eventually renamed the Isles of Shoals, but British explorer John Smith’s name for the “New England” region did endure, and 400 momentous years later, Star Island, one of the nine islands in the archipelago, is the home of the Oceanic Hotel and its summer-long Unitarian and Congregationalist nondenominational conferences.
The islands were populated in the early 1600s by European settlers, many of whom fled the mainland to escape the vicious battles with the indigenous people there. Eventually, a cod fishing community of as many as 600 to 800 formed on Star Island, and by the mid-1600s, the islands together made up one of the busiest fishing ports on the East Coast.
In the mid-1800s, a colony of writers, poets, artists and intellectuals, lured by the new Oceanic Hotel, was established on Star Island. Most prominent among them was poet, Celia Thaxter, but the group also included American Impressionist Childe Hassam, who produced 300 paintings on the islands, as well as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier, among others.
Just before the turn of the twentieth century, the organizers of a summertime series of religious conferences brought their annual conference to the then 20-year-old Oceanic hotel by happenstance. The conference was so successful that in 1915, Star Island and the hotel were sold to the Unitarian and Congregational Association (for $16,000!), and these nondenominational conferences have continued to fill the hotel for more than 100 years.
Getting to Star Island is easy.
Transportation to the Island is provided by two public ferry services, the M/V Thomas Laighton and the M/V Uncle Oscar. The former departs from downtown Portsmouth, from which it is about a ten-mile and one-hour ride.
The Uncle Oscar departs from picturesque Rye Harbor twice daily on a five-and-a-half-mile, 30-minute trip, nicely narrated by Captain Tom Davis, a mariner’s mariner who has been coming to Star Island for a half-century; Captain Tom also leads a must-take walking tour of the island upon arrival.
Although the hotel is usually quite full of conferees, it is possible to make a reservation for overnight accommodations. Guestrooms are basic, bathroom facilities are shared, and there are no locks on the guestroom doors, but there is a strong cell phone signal on the island, and wifi in the hotel. Though reservations in the early years were requested and confirmed by carrier pigeons (which apparently was pretty reliable), twenty-first-century visitors can call the reservations office at 603-498-2780.
Visitors, to the extent possible, should watch the weather forecasts and pick sunny, warm days for their trips to the Islands. Photographic opportunities (even with a cell phone), of some of the oldest stone buildings in New England, with the North Atlantic and/or other islands or a lighthouse as a backdrop, are just limitless.
But, as the four photographs above, taken of the same subjects several years apart will attest, sunshine is the key.