Year-round residents are scarce, but the Isles of Shoals come alive in summer with a rich blend of history, science and scenic beauty that has long inspired artists and writers.
Since the English explorer Captain John Smith spotted them just under 400 years ago, the cluster of nine small islands — five in Maine, four in New Hampshire — evolved from a rough-and-tumble 17th-century fishing outpost to a posh Victorian-era vacation destination. Today, a cutting-edge marine research lab run by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire overlooks the stone foundation of 19th-century poet Celia Thaxter’s cottage and her restored flower garden on Appledore Island. Across the harbor on Star Island, the island grouping’s last remaining hotel beckons with its wide wooden porch and rocking chairs arranged to take full advantage of the ocean view.
The 140-year-old Oceanic Hotel is owned by Star Island Corp., which was founded by members of the Universalist Unitarian Church and Congregational churches and has been hosting summer conferences on the island since 1915. This summer’s offerings include everything from photography and painting to international affairs. There’s a “paranormal adventure weekend,” a conference on “the mysterious and misunderstood world of mushrooms,” and a host of family, adult and youth conferences, several focused on religion or spirituality.
Until a few years ago, only conference participants could stay overnight at the hotel, but it’s now open to individuals and families for “personal retreats” if space allows. But don’t expect to be whisked back to the golden age of grand hotels — the furnishings are sparse and shabby, bathrooms are down the hall, and showers, allowed on alternating days, are in the basement. There are no locks on the door, and some rooms lack electrical outlets, though you can charge your cellphone at the front desk.