My family and I have rented a beachfront house in Salisbury, Massachusetts since I was in high school, and ever since we have been looking at the Isles of Shoals thru binoculars, wondering what was there. We’ve done our google searches to satiate our curiosity, but every year we would sit on the shore and say “someday we’ll visit”. As the world started to right itself, I started a list of places I wanted to visit that I had to cross off my list in 2021, and the Isles of Shoals was on top. I bought tickets for my family for Father’s Day and off we went!
- There are a total of 9 islands that make up the Isles of Shoals, which is located seven miles off the coast of New Hampshire & Maine. The state boundary line of New Hampshire & Maine actually splits up the nine islands, with Appledore, Cedar, Duck, Malaga and Smuttynose islands belonging to Maine and Lunging, Seavey, Star and White islands are within New Hampshire’s boundary.
- The history of these islands starts back in the early 1600’s, where early European settlers witnessed indigenous people living in seasonal fishing camps on the islands. We all know what happened next, as the islands were re-named “Smyth’s Iles” as in Captain John Smith, who spotted them while charting the New England seacost. However, the first recorded landfall on these islands was Captain Christopher Levett, who arrived with 300 fishermen in six ships in 1623. With this European arrival, these islands became the busiest commercial port on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. The fish market on these islands was unrivaled for over 150 years.
- By 1665, the name had officially changed to “Isles of Shoals”, which is likely derived from the term “shoaling” or schooling of fish. A general migration of people started to Star Island, and in 1715 the township of Gosport was established. Gosport was a bustling community until the Revolutionary War went into full swing, as islanders were evacuated to nearby Rye, New Hampshire, and the island lay mostly abandoned until the early 19th century.
- Thomas Laighton and Levi Thaxter are credited for a return to the islands, opening a large hotel on Appledore Island, the largest of the islands, which was sadly lost to a fire in 1914. However their hotel allowed them to create an art community that drew inspiration from the gorgeous scenery, and they welcomed famous authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne (check out my post on The House of Seven Gables), Sarah Orne Jewett (her historic home in Berwick, Maine is not to be missed!) and famous Boston painter William Morris Hunt, who sadly drowned there in 1879.
- The popularity of Laighton’s hotel on Appledore Island inspired the building of the Oceanic Hotel, which is still in use today on Star Island. It is the largest structure on the 46-acre island, and is over 100 years old. The Star Island Corporation purchased the island in 1916, and focuses on hosting all different types of retreats and conferences.
- Star Island is the only island that has a ferry service, and we took the Thomas Laighton out of Portsmouth, NH, but due to COVID the time you have to spend on the island was only an hour – bummer – and we could not go inside the Oceanic Hotel – double bummer. But, it was amazing to be out on the ocean and to enjoy a picnic lunch with the family with the most incredible backdrop!
As I said, we couldn’t go inside, but even just admiring from the outside was amazing. And while it is much simpler in design you can still sense the Grand Hotel eras influence. The giant porch with the rocking chairs must be an amazing place to sit and simply watch the day go by. And, the approach from the water is simply stunning.
This is certainly a highlight in your ‘walkabout’ the island. It was originally constructed of the timbers from a wreck of a Spanish ship in 1685, was rebuilt in 1720, and then burned in 1790. The chapel that we see today was built in 1800, and still hosts daily services. A cherished tradition takes place at the close of each day, where islanders gather at the foot of the hill and form a procession, carrying candle lanterns as they would have long ago carried whale-oil lamps up the same winding path. Inside the chapel, the candle lanterns are hung on brackets from the walls, providing the only source of light. It truly must be an amazing tradition to be a part of!
Vaughn Cottage is the resident ‘historical society’ and offers different types of exhibits and displays. I was too enamored with the landscape of the island to wander in, but they also have a pretty awesome online exhibits if you’re interested!
It is truly just a beautiful place. I really wish that we had more time to enjoy – and I can imagine that after just a few days here you must feel a different sense of self. There really isn’t much to do except enjoy the beauty of the island and your company, and honestly that sounds like a dream these days.
- I don’t know what they are used for, but there are many stone cottages that are similar looking to Vaughn and they are absolutely adorable. One of them had the most beautiful flowers and landscaping, I felt transported to the English countryside. So cute!
- The navy prison that you see on the way out of Portsmouth is quite unexpected – it looks like a castle. The narrator on the boat had quite some stories about it – including a visit from Walt Disney?
- The obelisk monument is another unexpected moment on the island – but definitely worth a wander over! Plus you get to gawk at the solar field that powers 60% of the island.
- The boat ride here is half the fun – round trip, including the hour you have on Star Island, its a 4 hour commitment which is perfect!
- We went on the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company, which was really great. They gave an awesome history & narration as we left & returned to Portsmouth and headed out to sea, and had snacks and even a tiki bar on the top deck.
- Utilize the rest of your day in Portsmouth – there are so many cute little shops and it really holds it’s own in terms of breweries and delicious food.
- There are also so many historic homes in Portsmouth, including the Rundlett-May House (which I have visited and is so amazing!), the Governor John Langdon House & the Jackson House, all owned by Historic New England (and I’m sure there are many others). Enjoy the day soaking in some New Hampshire history!