The Isle of Shoals: Only a Hop, Skip, and a Ferry from Portsmouth
Taking a day trip to the Isle of Shoals or Star Island is easy via ferry from Portsmouth. Star Island is the largest of a group of islands, called the Isle of Shoals, seven miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There, visitors can enjoy “island life” for a day, a night, or even (if you really want to get away from it all) a week.
Getting to Star Island, or the Isle of Shoals, by ferry is part of the experience. Trips include spectacular views of local harbors, the Atlantic Ocean, several islands in the Isle of Shoals, and a lighthouse. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a whale! You can take a ferry from Portsmouth or Rye, both in New Hampshire. We choose the one in Rye because it’s a smaller boat, and therefore, a more intimate experience. For more about how to get to Star Island or the Isle of Shoals, see “locations” below.
Once on the island, it’s all about slowing down the pace and enjoying the natural beauty. To see all of the sites, take the perimeter loop that circles the island. It’s well marked and the island is small that there’s no chance that you’ll get lost! Be sure to wander off the loop onto the side trails to discover the many amazing views of surrounding islands, to marvel at the gorgeous oceanscapes, to check out the monuments scattered throughout the island, and to see Gosport Village from above. In the Oceanic Hotel, there’s a small gift shop, bookstore, restaurant, and restrooms. Cap your visit off by unwinding in a rocking chair on the hotel’s fine front porch, which has lovely views. Imagine what life was like on the island many years ago with fine Victorian ladies and gentlemen taking in the ocean breezes.
John Smith, of Jamestown and Pocahontas fame, mapped the Isle of Shoals way back in 1614, and for all you history buffs, there’s even a monument to commemorate his visit. Star Island was sparsely inhabited, except for fishermen, until the building of the Oceanic Hotel in 1873, when city dwellers began journeying to the island to take advantage of its cooling ocean airs, before the invention of air conditioning. Star Island was, and still is, also a popular spot for religious conferences, many of which are sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church. However, even those of lesser or no faith are most welcome on island.
Star Island is a beautiful location to visit, but honestly, there aren’t a lot of activities. I would, therefore, recommend a short, half-day trip. We were on the island for one hour and twenty minutes, and I thought that was enough time. To lengthen your visit, dine in the hotel’s restaurant, or even better, bring a picnic lunch that you can enjoy in the gazebo, at the picnic tables, or spread out on the lawn. Whatever your plans might be, a visit to Star Island is about slowing down the pace of life, being present, and enjoying the wonders of nature.
Want to Make a Day out of It?
- Check out my blog post on seeing a submarine and abandoned forts in Portsmouth and neighboring New Castle
- Visit Strawberry Banke Museum to see historic homes from across the decades
- Go shopping in Portsmouth; be sure to check out my favorite stores: Off Piste (quirky and fun), Pickwick’s Mercantile (gifts in a unique setting), , Diversions (games), Bull Moose (used & new music & videos), and Macro Polo (gag items)
- Grab coffee and German pastries at Kaffee Vonsolln
- Have dinner in Portsmouth at one of my recommended restaurants: The Friendly Toast or the River House (waterfront dining)
- Head to Rye Beach, located right near one of the ferry points (see below)
Star Island is accessibly only by boat, and two ferry companies provide service to visitors. Of the two, the Isle of Shoals Steamship Company, located in Portsmouth, offers larger boats and more options in terms of the type and length of cruise. If you choose this company, you’re going to get the typical ferry experience with multiple decks, more detailed commentary, and many fellow tourists on board. On the other hand, if you want a more intimate and less touristy experience, go with Island Cruises, located in Rye, New Hampshire. In general, if you’re looking for a cruise that focuses on comfort and variety, go with the Isle of Shoals Steamship Company, but if you’re looking to travel on an authentic New England fishing ship, check out Island Cruises, in Rye.
We chose to leave from Rye and were surprised at how small the boat was and how few other passengers were aboard. We left on the 11:15 boat, were on island at 12:00, departed from Star Island at 1:20, and arrived back in Rye at 2:15, after a short tour of the islands by boat.
Please be advised to check times and cruise availability on the websites below, as they change based on the season.
Isle of Shoals Steamship Company – 315 Market St, Portsmouth, NH – Click on the map for directions.
Island Cruises – 1870 Ocean Blvd, Rye, NH – Click on the map for directions.