date published: August 7, 2000

Fantasy Islands
Journey to the newly-revived Boston Harbor Islands and bring a little of the great outdoors to your urban vacation
by Suzanne Scribner

When visiting Boston on business or pleasure, visitors anticipate experiencing the city's history, enjoying the charm of its many neighborhoods, getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of urban life, and trekking carefully across the traffic-laden roads of the Big Dig. But, how about throwing a little fishing, kayaking, berry picking and bird watching into the mix? 

Believe it or not, there are 30 islands full of history, myth and summer fun located right in Boston's backyard that are slowly closing the gap between the great outdoors and the big city. Ever since the major clean-up of Boston Harbor, a push has been underway by the Harbor Islands Partnership-a 13 member organization representing federal, state, local, private and non-profit interests-to revive the islands, entice tourists and Bostonians to visit them and create a park overflowing with educational and recreational opportunity. 

In 1996, Congress granted the islands National Park status, bringing them into America's historic National Park System. The islands now boast three National Historic Landmarks, extensive outdoor activities and an all-around great escape from urban life. "We offer an eco-tourism experience in an urban environment. Visitors can enjoy shopping on chic Newbury Street one day and camping, swimming or fishing the next," explains Robert Durand, Massachusetts secretary of environmental affairs and chairman of the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership. 

No farther than four miles off Boston's coastline, most of these islands are less than an hour away from downtown by ferry. Departing daily from Long Wharf, the ferries transport visitors to and from George's Island. Once you've landed on George's Island, you can hop aboard free water shuttles to five other islands. Ferries also depart from Hingham, Hull and Quincy on the South Shore and from Salem on the North Shore. Many of the other islands don't yet have boat docks, but kayaks and rowboats have been known to beach themselves onshore, allowing passengers access to picnic lunches and hikes unavailable to the ferry traveler. 

Although the islands are becoming increasingly popular and more people are being encouraged to visit them, both the National Park Service and the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership want to sustain the beauty they've worked so hard to resurrect. They've taken into account both wildlife safety and the overall preservation of the islands. "We want to protect the ecosystem for future generations and allow a place for future Bostonians and visitors to enjoy," says Bruce Jacobson of the Boston Harbor Island National Park Service. 

Once you land on the islands, you can enjoy historic tours, swimming, camping, hiking, bird watching and kayaking, depending upon which island you decide to visit. Currently, there are eight islands that are readily accessible to visitors-George's, Little Brewster, Thompson, Bumpkin, Gallop's, Grape, Lovell's and Peddock's-and each is packed with activities, ranging from sports to history. 

If you're under the impression that the Freedom Trail is the end-all-and-be-all of Boston history, think again. The first of the three National Historic Landmarks located within the Harbor Island system is Long Wharf, the oldest continuously-operating wharf in U.S. history and also the launching point for ferry service to the island. The second landmark, Fort Warren on George's Island, was built to protect the mouth of the Harbor from invading ships and was later used as a prison to house Confederate soldiers captured during the Civil War. But beware! It is said that the Lady in Black, the ghost of a prisoner's wife who was supposedly killed on the island, still haunts its shores. Guided tours are offered throughout the day, and the island boasts fresh drinking water and a snack bar. Also, be sure to catch the spectacular view from the fort's watch tower. Last but not least is Little Brewster's Boston Light, located at the mouth of Boston Harbor. The oldest manned lighthouse in North America is staffed by the Coast Guard and its dog Sam. While you're there, make sure you climb up the 76 steps and two ladders to view the Harbor from the lighthouse pinnacle. Rumor has it that this island is also haunted, so be careful. Tours are offered Friday through Sunday, with ferry service departing at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. For reservations and more information, call (617) 223-8666. 

If you've had enough history for one vacation or if you're just looking for fun in the sun, then the other Harbor Islands offer a wealth of activities. Obtain a permit and you can camp out on Bumpkin, Grape, Lovell's or Peddock's islands. Call (877) 422-6762 for reservations on Bumpkin and Grape, or (617) 727-7676 for Lovell's and Peddock's. Besides camping, swimming, bird watching, fishing and just plain relaxing, each island boasts its own unique characteristics. 

Grape Island is known as a bird and wildlife haven, complete with roses and wild berries lining its pathways. You can let your curious side loose on Bumpkin Island by searching for wild raspberries and exploring a 19th century children's hospital and an old stone farmhouse. Bumpkin was also used as a holding area for German prisoners captured in the Harbor during World War I. Lovell's Island is an ideal spot to take a quick dip, since it sports a beautiful beach and sandy dunes. Peddock's Island is the one for families with differing tastes. It quells the thirst for adventure and war stories by housing the remains of Fort Andrews while at the same time welcoming walkers down the many paths and trails surrounding its picturesque pond and salt marsh. More than a few jaws have dropped after learning that a 4,100-year-old skeleton-the oldest found in New England to this day-was dug up on Peddock's in the 1960s. Thompson Island offers the perfect landing for a picnic lunch. However, you must make special arrangements to gain access to this island. Tours are offered on Saturdays departing from Fan Pier at the South Boston waterfront at noon. Finally, Gallop's Island, also accessible by ferry, offers a beautiful beach with phenomenal views of the city. 

Some of the other islands that you'll see on your journey out to George's and beyond include Deer Island, which houses the waste water treatment plant that sanitizes the water and sends the clean stuff back into the Harbor. Tours of the treatment plant are available as well. Finally, there's Long Island, which contains the Harbor's inner-most lighthouse, and Spectacle Island, which has been rebuilt using dirt from the Big Dig. 

So if you need a break from your visit to our urban jungle, then take a jaunt out to the oft-overlooked Harbor Islands, where you'll feel like you've traveled miles away to a natural paradise. That is, until you're reminded of how close you really are to the city, as you set down your fishing rod or kayak paddle, look over your shoulder and catch a glimpse of the shimmering Boston skyline on the horizon. 

Boston Harbor Cruises operates all ferry service to the islands. Call (617) 227-4321 for schedules, ticket prices or more information.

Deciding which island to visit and when can be a bit overwhelming. So, whether you're heading out for a day of picnicking or night of camping, here are some more enticing activities that may help you plan where and when you should go. On August 8, Bob the Paleontologist visits Gallop's Island at 1:30 p.m. to find and reconstruct fossils. For children ages 3-9. Call (617) 223-8666. On August 12 on Lovell's Island, Shipwrecks, Pirates and Lighthouses unravels pirate legend and tells of shipwrecks in Boston Harbor. Or take part in To Build a Fort on George's Island at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. where you'll learn all about what goes into building a fort from a knowledgeable park ranger. Next, check out the Children's Festival at George's Island on August 13, featuring face painting and storytelling. Discover the birds that make Peddock's Island their summertime home at Peddock's Naturally on August 19 at 11:45 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. For more information on all these events, call (617) 727-7676. While you're on Peddock's for this program, check out the Rock and Row Festival beginning at 1 p.m. where everyone over the age of 11 can learn to row a boat. Call (781) 925-5433. While bird watching and rowing, you should be able to catch a glimpse of the largest floating live blues concert off the Peddock's shoreline, featuring performances by the region's best blues bands. The music runs for five hours and will continue on August 20. Call (617) 451-2860. Last but not least, island-goers say goodbye to August by celebrating Edward Rowe Snow Day on August 20. Snow helped to bring the myth and wonder of the islands' history to life through books, newspaper articles and tours. This event is a celebration of Snow's birthday. Call (617) 727-7676.

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