RYE, N.H. — Year-round residents are scarce, but the Isles of Shoals come alive in summer with a rich blend of history, science and scenic beauty that has long inspired artists and writers.
Since the English explorer Captain John Smith spotted them just under 400 years ago, the cluster of nine small islands — five in Maine, four in New Hampshire — evolved from a rough-and-tumble 17th century fishing outpost to a posh Victorian-era vacation destination. Today, a cutting-edge marine research lab run by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire overlooks the stone foundation of 19th century poet Celia Thaxter’s cottage and her restored flower garden on Appledore Island. Across the harbor on Star Island, the island grouping’s last remaining hotel beckons with its wide wooden porch and rocking chairs arranged to take full advantage of the ocean view.
The 140-year-old Oceanic Hotel is owned by the Star Island Corporation, which was founded by members of the Universalist Unitarian Church and Congregational churches and has been hosting summer conferences on the island since 1915. This summer’s offerings include everything from photography and painting to international affairs. There’s a “paranormal adventure weekend,” a conference on “the mysterious and misunderstood world of mushrooms,” and a host of family, adult and youth conferences, several focused on religion or spirituality.
Until a few years ago, only conference participants could stay overnight at the hotel, but it’s now open to individuals and families for “personal retreats” if space allows. But don’t expect to be whisked back to the golden age of grand hotels — the furnishings are sparse and shabby, bathrooms are down the hall, and showers, allowed on alternating days, are in the basement. There are no locks on the door and some rooms lack electrical outlets, though you can charge your cellphone at the front desk.
The fact that my family’s recent stay coincided with a youth conference — think slamming doors, pounding feet and yelling in the hallways late into the night — further contributed to what my husband called the “bad dorm” atmosphere. But others take a kinder view.
“I sort of look at it as faded glory, because you go up the staircase and you can see how grand it was, and how a person could make an entrance. But there’s a faded part,” said Ann Beattie, of Stratham, N.H. “It’s like camping on the ocean.”
Beattie, who was leading a conference for the Isles of Shoals Historical and Research Association during our stay, had read a bit about islands’ history before making her first trip to Star about 20 years ago and was so enchanted, she’s returned as often as possible ever since.
“It was almost like this magic went up through the ground through my feet. I could imagine people walking around here in Victorian clothing, I could imagine the fishermen out on the rocks in the 1600s,” she said. “Being where it happened made me feel like the history was alive.”
Betty Olivolo, of Kittery, Maine, said she used to pride herself on never vacationing in the same location twice. But after attending a Star Island retreat 15 years, she has come back every year.
“A lot of it’s the people — amazing friends. It’s kind of like going to an adult camp, you want to go back and see your friends,” she said. “And it’s the amazing scenery. I’m a photographer, and no matter how many trillion pictures I’ve taken on Star Island, there’s always another angle, another little corner to peek around.”
The hotel’s sloping lawn dominates one side of the island, while the back features paths that wind through low-growing brush to the ocean, where seagull chicks scurry into crevices and waves crash against the rocks. A small chapel sits on the island’s highest point, surrounded by a handful of stone cottages, one of which houses a tiny museum. There’s a small marine lab with saltwater tanks and terrariums, and guests can rent row-boats to explore some of the other islands.
Aside from a few private homes, Appledore Island also is owned by Star Island Corporation, which leases the property to the Shoals Marine Lab. While marine biology students research the movement of invasive seaweed, changing bird populations and other topics, other students participate in archaeological digs on Appledore and nearby Smuttynose Island, the scene of a grisly 1873 murder that spawned what newspapers at the time called the “trial of the century.”
University of Southern Maine professor Nathan Hamilton, who directs the island archaeology programs, also gives tours of Appledore for guests visiting from Star Island. His next project includes excavating the site of an art studio used by Childe Hassam, one of the foremost American impressionists. Hassam was a close friend of Thaxter, whose father was the lighthouse keeper on White Island when she was a child and who later attracted members of Boston’s literary and artistic societies to her family’s hotel on Appledore Island each summer.
Hassam’s paintings of the Isles of Shoals make up about 10 percent of his nearly 4,000 works. Hamilton said plans are in the works for a 2016 art exhibit from Maine to North Carolina featuring walking tours of the various places Hassam painted, including Appledore Island.
IF YOU GO
ISLES OF SHOALS: The Isles of Shoals are a group of nine islands straddling the Maine-New Hampshire border, 10 miles off the coast of Portsmouth, N.H.
• University of New Hampshire Isles of Shoals Discovery Cruises from the UNH pier in New Castle, N.H., to Appledore Island. Tickets are $40 per person and include a guided tour of the island; http://seagrant.unh.edu/islesofshoalscruises.
• Star Island can be reached via the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company in Portsmouth, N.H. Adult tickets for day trips are $35 for adults, $25 for children 4-12; www.islesofshoals.com or (800) 441-4620.
• Island Cruises in Rye, N.H., also offers service to Star Island; www.uncleoscar.com or (603) 964-6446.
• Smuttynose Island can only be reached by rowboat or dinghy.
STAYING OVERNIGHT: Star Island Corporation offers conferences and personal retreats from mid-June to mid-September. A seven-night conference costs $850 per person/double occupancy and includes all meals and ferry transportation. Personal retreats cost $175 for one night, per person/double occupancy, including meals; www.starisland.org or (603) 430-6272.