Summer fun abounds on the Boston Harbor Islands
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For many, a vacation in the islands involves a plane ride, with a connecting flight in Miami. If you live south of Boston though, you can forget the trip to the airport. The islands and peninsulas of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area lie within shouting distance of our shores.
Managed by a unique partnership formed by groups ranging from the city of Boston, the National Park Service, the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the United States Coast Guard, these 34 islands feature spoon-shaped eruptions of land called drumlins that were formed by early glaciers. Several islands are open to the public either year-round or seasonally and are accessible by car or a short ferry ride from Hingham, Hull, Quincy and Boston.
Al Hebb, a supervisory ranger for the National Park Service stationed at the Harbor Islands Pavilion in Boston, calls the islands unique among all national parks.
“They are loaded with cultural, navigational, and military history, not to mention beauty. And, it’s all a short distance from the city,” he says. “Once you get out there though, you could be in Montana.”
On the islands, visitors can encounter Civil War architecture or views of historic lighthouses. Search for shells, observe playful harbor seals, hike remote trails, camp, fish, picnic or swim. No matter which island you visit, you’ll discover an astonishing contrast. Across the water, views of South Shore development, and stunning panoramas of the Boston skyline will belie that you’ve stepped onto a land abundant with natural splendor. Turn from the mainland and you’ll witness landscapes reminiscent of the 1600s and earlier, when Native Americans spent summers there, fishing and planting crops.
Six if by Sea
Perhaps the most visited of the harbor islands is Georges Island, home to Fort Warren, a Civil War prison for Confederate prisoners. The island comes with a ghost story; legend has it the “Lady in Black,” the wife of a Civil War captive who was executed for trying to free her husband, appears periodically. This 30-acre island offers guided tours plus an island museum. Visitors can view the surrounding islands and Boston Light. Enjoy the seasonal snack shack, visitor center and picnic venues. Georges Island is a central stop for island ferries and a connecting location to other islands.
Getting there: Ferries are available from Fore River Ship Yard in Quincy and Long Warf, Boston.
An amazing reclamation project, Spectacle Island shows no evidence of its past use as a dump for the city of Boston. The immaculate land offers five miles of walking trails through panoramic vistas, and a lifeguard-staffed beach. A visitor center portrays island history, day or night slips are available for boaters and a snack shack is open seasonally. Visit Spectacle Island for summer Sunday afternoon jazz performances, Thursday evening clambakes sponsored by Jasper White’s Summer Shack, or Saturday kite flying outings.
Getting there: Take a ferry to Georges Island from Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, or Long Warf Boston.
Across from the town of Hull, Peddocks Island was once the home of Fort Andrews, a military training ground and World War II prisoner of war camp. In a shout out from Hollywood, scenes for the 2010 Martin Scorsese film “Shutter Island,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, were filmed on Peddocks Island. Recently, an island visitor center was constructed. Over 200 acres in size, this island offers swimming, fishing, camping and extensive trails for hiking. Future plans entail the development of yurt camping facilities; semi-permanent structures with running water and electricity.
Getting there: Ferries are available from Hewitt’s Cove in Hingham, Pemberton Pier in Hull and from Georges Island.
Lovells, Bumpkin and Grape Islands
With spectacular views of Boston Light, Lovells Island hosts a limited number of rustic campsites. Legend has it that a French man-of-war ship called the Magnifique, with a bounty of gold coins, sank off Lovell’s in the 18th century. To enjoy today’s treasures, take a swim, tour the remains of Fort Standish, hike or enjoy a picnic.
The slate and shell beaches and open spaces on Bumpkin Island are tailor-made for relaxed hiking. This small but beautiful island was once home to a fish-drying operation, tenant farmers, and a naval training camp. Deteriorating ruins are all that are left of a former hospital on the site. Now Bumpkin is a quiet camping destination, with wonderful views of Hingham Bay.
Grape Island almost doubles in size (to 101 acres) at low tide and is known for its natural beauty. During the Revolutionary War, South Shore minutemen stopped loyalists from delivering hay harvested from Grape Island for British horses quartered in Boston. Today, Grape is ideal for sea kayaking or for those interested in exploring a pristine setting.
Campers should beware that while Lovells, Bumpkin and Grape offer composting toilets, there is no fresh water available. For weekend camping make your reservations well in advance.
Getting there: Ferry service to Lovells is available via a connecting ferry from Georges Island. Both Bumpkin and Grape Islands are accessible via ferry from Hewitt’s Cove in Hingham, Pemberton Pier in Hull, or through connection from Georges Island.
Three if by Land
If traveling by boat is not your thing, three South Shore peninsulas, World’s End, Webb Memorial State Park and Nut Island, are also included as part of the national park area and all are accessible by car. In 1890, renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed the layout for World’s End, located on 251 acres in Hingham. Hike the unpaved carriage roads remaining from his plan—wide avenues lined with ancient maples and cart tracks twisting by waving grasslands. This unspoiled landscape looks the way it did 100 years ago, and from high points Hingham Bay and Boston Harbor spread out below amidst dimpled green waters. Parts of the Weir River Estuary border World’s End, providing scenic kayaking routes.
A few miles north in Weymouth, at Webb Memorial State Park, walking trails circle the area. Strategically situated benches take advantage of optimum views of the surrounding islands and the city skyline. The scenic vistas are close enough to hear a dog barking across the bay in Quincy, far enough away to allow a visitor to embrace the lap of the water, the call of sea birds and the hum of distant motor boats.
Continue north to Sea Street in Quincy to tour the revitalized Nut Island. In the late 1700s, a pathway was built through the Hough’s Neck section of Quincy so cows could graze on the island. Later, a permanent causeway was built. In the late 1800s the area was used as an artillery testing ground. This small peninsula is now home to a wastewater pumping station, which fades in the background as you traverse the paved paths featuring extensive views of the Boston skyline, Long Island, Peddocks Island, Hingham and Quincy Bays. Picnic, walk a dog, ride a bike or explore the rocky beaches.
The Harbor Islands are home to three historic lighthouses, Graves Light, Long Island Head Lighthouse and Boston Light, the oldest lighthouse station in the United States. For a magnificent view of these landmarks, visit Fort Revere at the tip of Hull (not a part of the island park) or take a three-hour lighthouse tour, which disembarks at Little Brewster Island for a close-up of Boston Light. Purchase tickets online or at the Harbor Island Pavilion in Boston, across from the Blue Line Aquarium stop. Tours begin there.
Whether you want to climb a lighthouse, tour historic sites, hike a pristine trail, swim at a quiet beach, fish or camp overnight—skip the plane reservations. Take your car, a private boat or ride a ferry, knowing that however you travel, a visit to the islands is only a daytrip across the bay.