New Hampshire’s Star Island, the only one of the nine Isles of Shoals openly accessible to visitors, is famous for its stunning scenery, history, commitment to sustainability, and (last but not least) one of the best porches in New England.
The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive on Star island (how could you not?) is the Oceanic Hotel. Large and rambling (though not exactly grand) on the relatively small island, it was built during the “island hotel” tourist boom of the mid 19th century, and sure looks the part. In the 1600s, the island was the busiest fishing port on the East coast, but the 1800s ushered in an era of creative artists, writers, and intellectuals.
By the end of the 19th century, mountain hotels were becoming more popular than coastal ones, so the Oceanic was fortunate to have Thomas Elliott and his wife Lilla as guests in 1896. The Elliotts were Unitarians, and thought the picturesque Oceanic would make the ideal spot for church conferences, so they made a deal with the manager to fill the rooms the following year. They did, and the Oceanic held on.
In 1915, the Isles of Shoals Summer Meeting Association bought the hotel and the island, forming the nonprofit Star Island Corporation. Though the island maintains close ties to the Unitarian church, the many conferences still held each year are based around a variety of family, youth, and individual themes, including faith, music, art, yoga, and history. In 2008 “personal retreats” were introduced, allowing guests not participating in a conference to stay on Star for up to one week.
Of course, Star also welcomes daytrippers. As we docked for our hour-long “walkabout,” the captain gave us a brief rundown of the island, its facilities, and a few suggestions on what to see (the view from the gazebo) and what to avoid (the poison ivy on the walking paths).
DAYTRIP TO STAR ISLAND
I can’t imagine the Oceanic looks much different today than it did a century ago, and in truth, it doesn’t. As we strolled closer I could see the vast front porch was scattered with large wooden rocking chairs, most of them holding guests with books in their laps.
To the right of the hotel lies the old burial ground and gazebo with (it was true) stunning Atlantic views — a perfect spot for a picnic lunch.
After checking these out we headed to the other side of the hotel and back towards Gosport Church. Along the way were charming little sea-air scrubbed cottages, like something right out of Anne of Green Gables.
Gosport Church, as the sign inside says, was built twice out of wood, beginning in 1685, before the current stone version was constructed in 1800. Perched on the highest point of the island, the church serves as a chapel and meetinghouse. The Star Island website paints a pretty picture of the building’s role on the island:
“At the close of each day, Shoalers gather at the foot of the hill and form a procession, carrying candle lanterns as the villagers of long ago carried their 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.”
Outside of Gosport Church I looked to my right and saw the roof of a little stone cottage and some sort of tower, so we headed that way to check them out.
The cottage was Vaughn Cottage. It serves as a small library, museum, and archives for the island. We didn’t go inside, but it’s open to the public during the summer months if you’re interested.
The monument proved to be Tucke Monument, a large granite obelisk built to honor Shoals minister Rev. John Tucke. You get to the monument by passing through a wooden turnstile, and follow a path bordered high with flowering hedges until you reach the base.
After seeing the monument, we took a loop around the back of the Oceanic, past the bustle of machinery (a lot of it solar-powered) that keeps the island running, then headed inside to check out the lobby and grab some refreshments at the snack bar before making our way back to the boat that would return us to the mainland.
The gleaming lobby had a parlor-meets-classroom look, with daily schedules on display and the permeating aroma of home-cooked food, ocean air, sunscreen, and the faint whiff of grade-school chalkboard.
Since the emphasis for visitors is on the conference seminars, outdoor activities, and an unplugged peace-of-mind, the rooms and amenities at the Oceanic are simple. The only public television is in the front lobby, power is produced by three large generators, and showering is only available every other day to conserve water (which comes from rain runoff). Star is magnificently self-sufficient, but not without a lot of organization and hard work from its staff.
Special kudos is given to the Pelicans, a Yankee pick for “one of the top ten summer jobs in New England.” The Pelicans are a crew of 100 or so young adults (mostly college students) that spend the summer on the island and do everything from housekeeping, maintenance, gardening, and cooking. It’s a job, but it’s also an opportunity to be part of a unique and close-knit community, and form lifelong friendships. Former Pelicans even have their own website, Pelicans are Pelicans, to keep in touch and plan reunions.
Beyond the lobby was the snack bar and dining room. While lunch reservations for meals are required at the Oceanic, the snack bar is perfect for a quick ice cream cone, hot dog, or raspberry lime rickey.
Family-style meals in the dining room are included for conference attendees and personal retreaters, with Pelicans doing the cooking, serving, and cleaning.
Thankfully, no reservations were needed for the hotel’s front porch, so I settled into a rocker with my book and enjoyed a few chapters (plus the view of a determined seagull eating peanuts out of a neglected drinking glass further down the porch) before it was time to head back to the boat — the clean, crisp ocean air working on me like a tonic.
Sooner than I would have liked, it was time to head back to the mainland. Until next time, Star Island.
As you sail away, keep an eye out for the island’s very own dinosaur…
I’ve found myself thinking about the simplistic beauty of the Star Island often in the weeks since, its pull going to work on me, urging me back for a longer stay, offering what so few collectively can — community, solitude, nature, mediation, nourishment, peace…and yes, the chance to see seagulls eating peanuts from the view of a comfy rocking chair.
Who could resist?
Would you like to visit Star Island as a daytripper, on a personal retreat, or as part of a conference?