Nix’s Mate, Little Brewster and Spectacle might sound like nifty microbrew handles, but those are just three of several islands dotting Boston’s harbor.
These islands were a part of city life and commerce, but are now a section of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, the largest recreational open space in eastern Massachusetts. Numbering 34 islands in all, 13 lie in Boston’s Inner and Outer Harbor, and there’s no better way to catch a sea breeze and cool down in the summer than heading out on the water.
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Little Brewster houses the nation’s oldest light station. However, it’s not the oldest lighthouse because, thanks to the enthusiasm of the Boston militia fighting the British during the War of Independence, the original lighthouse – America’s first, built in 1716 – was destroyed. The current one was constructed in 1783.
Boston Light’s first female lighthouse keeper Dr. Sally Snowman will tell you all about the building’s history on the guided tour. You can climb to the top, but the 76 steps and confined space isn’t for everybody. The 3.5-hour round-trip tour to Little Brewster Island via ferry is available for $41 with the climb, or for $30 without it.
Fort Warren on Georges Island was constructed between 1833 and 1860 to guard Boston Harbor. It also served as a prison during the Civil War, as well as World War II, due to fears over German U-boat attacks. Since 1947, the fort has been in civilian hands as a tourist attraction. There’s a visitor center and museum, plus a café and gift store. Georges Island is on the regular, seasonal ferry service route from Long Wharf, available between May and October.
Berklee College of Music’s free Summer in the City concert series extends to Castle, Georges and Spectacle islands this year. Mostly jazz, but with some pop, world and folk artists too, concerts on Georges Island are on Saturdays through Aug. 19; on Spectacle Island during a few Sundays in July; and on Castle Island on Saturdays throughout August. Check out the school’s website for a complete schedule.
Most cruises around the Harbor Islands do not include any stop-offs, but you do get an up close and personal history of the islands. The Boston Harbor Islands cruise on Northern Lights is a two-hour sail aboard a 1920s style vintage yacht. There is a narrated guide that covers the area’s history and some stories about pirates and ghosts that supposedly haunt the islands. Cruises are available through August 19 at $40 for adults and $25 for children. boston-sailing.com
The Adirondack III Day Sail is also a two-hour cruise, but aboard an 80-foot all-wooden vessel modeled after 1890s style pilot schooners. The narrated tour covers the Inner Harbor Islands - Castle Island, Spectacle Island and Long Island, as well as Fort Independence. Trips are available through August at $48 and $28 for children.
Lovells and Peddocks Island have campgrounds, but don’t expect glamping amenities. There are composting toilets only, no showers, no supplies and access to fresh water is only available on Peddocks, which also has yurts with cots. Campfires are not permitted on campsites, but are allowed below the high tide mark. Campers must bring one gallon of water per person per day. Plan to carry it all in and carry it all out. Reservations are required, so plan ahead.
The Harbor Islands are among few places where the journey really is as fun as the destination. Most islands with any attractions are accessible by public ferry service from Long Wharf North in Boston. For more info on getting there and what to do, check out bostonharborislands.org.