Visit Star Island and the Oceanic Hotel
After getting a guided “boats-eye-view” of Appledore, Smuttynose, White, and Seavey islands that make up part of the Isles of Shoals, it was finally time to visit Star Island and the Oceanic Hotel! Star is the largest of the New Hampshire isles, and the only one of the nine Isles of Shoals openly accessible to visitors.
The Oceanic Hotel was built during the “island hotel” tourist boom of the mid 19th century, but by the 1890s, mountain hotels were gaining in popularity and the Oceanic was in trouble. Then, in 1896, Thomas Elliott and his wife Lilla visited Star and stayed at the hotel. The Elliotts were members of the Unitarian church and thought the picturesque Oceanic would make the ideal spot for church conferences. Thomas made a deal with the manager to fill the rooms the following year, and stayed true to his word. The Oceanic overflowed, and the conferences haven’t stopped since.
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 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).
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 a Washington Monument-esque structure, so we headed that way to check them out.
The cottage was Vaughn Cottage, and 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 Tuck Monument, a large granite obelisk built to honor Shoals minister Rev. John Tuck. 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 Tuck Monument, we took a loop around the back of the Oceanic, past the bustle of machinery that keeps the island running, then headed inside to check out the lobby and grab a drink at the snack bar before making our way back to the boat.
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 3 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 are required at the Oceanic, the snack bar is perfect for a quick ice cream cone, hot dog, or soda.
Family-style meals in the dining room are included for conference attendees and personal retreaters, with Pelicans doing the cooking, serving, and cleaning. The dining room had the upbeat, chatty din of a summer camp mess hall, and I kicked myself for not making a reservation.
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 before it was time to head back to the boat — the clean, crisp ocean air working on me like a tonic.
I even observed a plucky seagull
stealing enjoying the contents of a glass of peanuts left behind by another guest. See the video here.
Then it was time to head back to Rye Harbor.
Did you spot 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? Have you ever visited Appledore or Smuttynose islands? Share your experiences with us!
Check out Part 1 of this “Explore New England” installment, Visit the Isles of Shoals!