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Destination The Isles of Shoals

Whether you’re a day-tripper from Portsmouth or picking up White Island Light after an ocean crossing, the low, wind-swept Isles of Shoals six miles off New Hampshire offer a welcome respite from modern urban life.

Whether you’re a day-tripper from Portsmouth or picking up White Island Light after an ocean crossing, the low, wind-swept Isles of Shoals six miles off New Hampshire offer a welcome respite from modern urban life.

With their 600 acres (total) of surf-dashed ledges, rocky headlands and scrubby vegetation, the islands seem only pinpricks in the vast, surrounding ocean. The waters that once teemed with prodigious shoals (schools) of cod still support a wide diversity of whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds. Herring gulls, terns and eider ducks nest here, while another 120-plus species of birds migrate through.

Of the nine islands that comprise the Isles of Shoals, five are in Maine waters: Duck, Appledore, Malaga, Smuttynose and Cedar. New Hampshire claims Star, Lunging, White and Seavey. All are privately owned, but cruisers can land in daytime on Star, Appledore, Smuttynose and Malaga. (Only on Malaga can you take pets ashore.)

“The Isles of Shoals make a good stop for us between Cape Ann [Mass.] and Casco Bay [Maine],” says Dick Danzinger of Amherst, N.H., who with his wife, Nancy, sails a 42-foot Morgan sloop out of Salem, Mass. Like many cruisers, the Danzingers sight White Island Light, then head for GosportHarbor, protected by Star, Cedar and Smuttynose islands. “We hear the harbor’s very crowded in summer, but we haven’t had a problem finding a mooring on a weekday off-season. From there we go ashore and hike all over StarIsland.”

European fishermen began harvesting cod from these waters before the first settlement in 1615. Others followed — lighthouse keepers, shipwreck victims, pirates, murderers, debauchers, entrepreneurs and vacationers. By 1645 historians say 600 people lived here; only a handful do today. Thomas Laighton, former WhiteIsland lighthouse keeper, built the Isles of Shoals’ first grand hotel in 1847, on AppledoreIsland. The hospitality, fame and poems of his daughter, Celia Thaxter — celebrating the islands’ serene beauty — drew New England’s elite, from Nathaniel Bowditch to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The rival four-story, 262-room Oceanic Hotel dominates on StarIsland. Built in 1873, it has been a religious and educational conference center for more than 100 years. Dockhands distribute a map showing trails, as well as natural and prominent historic sites. You may visit the chapel, Vaughn-Thaxter Cottage (Celia Thaxter memorabilia), and the hotel snack bar, bookstore and restrooms. A monument memorializes Capt. John Smith, who named these islands the Smith Isles in 1614. Betty Moody’s Cave is where the distraught Colonial woman killed her two babies to stop their crying from revealing their hiding place to marauding Indians.

Some claim Vikings built a cairn on Smuttynose around the year 1000, and visitors may land at Haley’s Cove, protected by the breakwater to MalagaIsland, where a volunteer ranger offers trail maps. Legends abound about buried treasure and pirates. For example, Blackbeard’s supposedly abandoned wife is said to haunt the beach. No one’s found any gold, but Capt. Samuel Haley discovered four bars of silver in the 1700s that financed his breakwater. He also built a 270-foot ropewalk, wind-powered grist mills, salt works for curing fish, and a smithy, cooperage, bakery, brewery and distillery. Nothing remained by 1873, when an itinerant boarder viciously murdered two women with an axe. Today some 3,000 pairs of seagulls nest on the island.

Visitors hiking the trails on Appledore may encounter researchers or students attending summer classes at CornellUniversity’s Shoals Marine Laboratory, which leases the island. A re-creation of Celia Thaxter’s 1893 garden, which she described in “An Island Garden,” draws annual sold-out tours. The tower is a World War II observation post.

TinyCedarIsland, connected to Star by a breakwater, is inhabited by two seventh- generation fishermen families. Landing is prohibited, but you may be able to buy lobsters and lobster rolls at the pier.

Lunging Island — originally called “Londoners” for its London-based post that traded fur, timber and cod — and Duck Island, a wildlife refuge for nesting birds, are off-limits. Neither Seavey nor White has docks or beaches, so landing isn’t advised. The 1865 lighthouse stands 85 feet above sea level.

Though you can only land on Star, Appledore, Smuttynose and Malaga, exploring them will give you a taste of the Isles of Shoals and their isolation, a place where you can forget the modern world.