A Stellar Vacation

by Betty Jo Riggs /
Betty Jo Riggs's picture
Jan 23, 2009 / 1 comments

Can you imagine paying good money for a tiny room with linoleum floor, a toilet and sink behind a curtain on a rod, two hard beds with flat pillows, two desks, and a dresser straight from a dorm room?  Or taking just two cold showers during the week where you hold the spigot open with one hand while trying to soap up with the other?  Can you imagine that room came with the absolutely incredible experience of living for a week on the Isles of Shoals, seven miles off the coast of New Hampshire?


Well, it was, and we did, and it was a vacation we wouldn't trade for any posh resort you can name.


Our week on Star Island came courtesy of an Elderhostel program which included water color lessons for me and photography class for my husband.  (If you haven't yet tried Elderhostel as retirees, please know these are certainly not typical accommodations, and we knew ahead of time what to expect.  Besides, not everyone had cold showers.)


The Oceana Hotel Welcomes Conferees

Oceana Hotel 


After a short ferry ride from Rye Beach, NH, we stepped on to the dock that straddles the New Hampshire/Maine state line.  Star Island is one of seven islands, nine at low tide, which are included in the Isles of Shoals.  A century-old hotel, the Oceanic which was built in the 1870's complete with a wrap-around porch and inviting rockers, is a reminder of the era in which this island was the summer playground for the elite of the Northeast.  Today, the complex is run by Star Island Corporation which hosts numerous summer conferences and classes for the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian-Universalist churches and are available to anyone.  After Labor Day, Elderhostel and other groups take advantage of this unique space for classes.


The Restored Fishing Village of Gosport (God's Port)


Betty Jo Riggs


The village of Gosport on Star Island was the premier fishing village of the 1600's when cod was king.  The chapel, perched on the highest rocks, features a weathervane with a codfish.  A couple of cottages remain as they were, and others have been reconstructed of native stone.  The hotel and Gosport rest on rock, surroundedd by the splashing waves of the Atlantic, embroidered with wildflowers, and blessed with views that include the lighthouse on White Island or across the picturesque harbor to Appledore or Smuttynose Islands.  After incredible sunsets, a necklace of lights is visible from Cape Ann in Massachusetts to Kittery, Maine, across a darkened sea.


One of the Original Fishing Cottages

fishing cottage, star island


The history of the Shoals is fascinating.  Celia Thaxter, who grew up on the islands and was herself a poet and artist, hosted the greats of the artistic world:  writers like John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russel Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Nathaniel Hawthorne; artists like Childe Hassam and William Morris Hunt; musicians; and even politicians like the soon-to-be President, Franklin Pierce.  Celia helped her parents run their hotel on Appledore, and her company was much sought after because of her beauty, intellect, and talent.  Her well-known flower garden has been restored although the hotel burned in 1914.  Celia was on Appledore when the infamous murders on Smuttynose took place.  Details of the crime are described in The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve.  Island visitors are entranced by the story and gaze across to Smuttynose trying to visualize the crime scene from 1873.  Celia's brother Oscar Laighton, who came to the islands as an infant in 1839, made his first trip to the mainland at sixteen where he saw his first horse.  Uncle Oscar became a permanent fixture of the Shoals welcoming guests until he died at 99 in 1939.


Celia's Garden Above the Atlantic

  Garden flowers, Star Island


Between the two of us, we painted and photographed every inch, it seems, of the forty acres of Star Island as well as a good part of Appledore.  It's what you must do on the island as each scene insists, "Take home this memory." Just when you think the picture is perfect, the light changes, and you see the view in a different way, so out comes the camera or the brush again.  Then, after you're certain you've missed no spot to document, the fog rolls in, and it's time to re-view those beautiful rocks, the crashing waves, the picturesque harbor, the chapel on the hill, or the folks taking naps in the coveted rocking chairs. We were even treated to a visit by Hurricane Anna which, although she was pretty tired by the time she reached the north, certainly gave us a sense of what those native fishermen once braved in their isolation from the mainland.


The Chapel at the Highest Point

  Chapel at the highest point, Star Island


Sure, we could have chosen a plush resort, but we didn't, and Oh the difference our choice made.  Would we go back?  In a New York minute.  As visitors chant when they must leave the island, "We will be back!  We will be back!"


One Incredible Sunset after Another

Betty Jo Riggs


Information on day trips, conferences, and personal retreats as well as a slide show may be found at www.starisland.org.  Elderhostel's programs are described at www.elderhostel.com.



Betty Jo Riggs is a Retiree Travel Editor for Wandering Educators.

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