Travel Destinations

The Isle of Shoals


A Classic New England Day Tripper

Straddling the border between Maine and New Hampshire a little more than six miles off the coast, this group of nine small islands has been home to fishermen, lobstermen and other hearty types for more than 400 years.

In the mid-1800s, resort hotels were built on the three largest islands: Star, Appledore and Smuttynose, which was named by fishermen who thought the clog of seaweed at one end made it look like the “smutty nose” of a huge sea animal. These vast Victorian-style retreats attracted vacationers looking for clean, salt air and rugged coastline views.

Volunteers disembarking from the John M. Kingsbury at the low tide dock on Appledore Island

Only one, the Oceanic on Star Island on the New Hampshire side, is still standing, operating as a meeting and conference retreat for family and youth groups. In recent years, the hotel has also allowed what it calls “personal retreats” where guests not participating in a conference can stay on the island for up to a week.
Day-trippers can take the ferry from Rye or Portsmouth on the mainland for a summer “walkabout” on Star Island (along with Appledore, Star is the only publicity-accessible island). For visiting boaters, Gosport Harbor is deep and protected, and moorings are available. Dinghies can tie up at the town dock.

Nearby Gosport Grill serves lunch and dinner, and although the dining room at the Oceanic Hotel is for guests only, a small snack bar is open to the public. Additional dining options can be found in Kittery, ME, and Portsmouth, NH, on the mainland. Check out the local foodie scene at Cure, Massimo’s, Botanica Restaurant & Gin Bar and Bridge Street Bistro in Portsmouth, or Anneke Jans and The Black Birch in Kittery — all highly rated and well-reviewed.

Other attractions on Star Island include Vaughn Cottage, which contains a small library and museum, and Gosport Chapel, built in the 1800s and still in use today. The Star Island website offers this picturesque description: “At the close of each day, [locals] gather at the foot of the hill and form a procession, carrying candle lanterns as the villagers of long ago carried their whale-oil lamps up the same winding path. Inside the chapel, the candle lanterns are hung on brackets from the walls, providing the only source of light.”


On the Maine side of the Isles, Smuttynose Island’s chief claim to fame is a bit less family-friendly — it was the site of a famous and grisly murder back in 1873. The story: Norwegian immigrants Maren and John Hontvet lived on the island, and on the night of March 6, they were entertaining overnight guests: Maren’s sister, Karen Christensen, and their brother’s wife, Anethe Christensen. The three women were alone in the house when they were awakened by an intruder who beat and strangled Karen and then used one of the Hontvet’s axes to kill Anethe.

Maren somehow escaped the carnage and hid among the rocks on the island’s edge until first light, when she crossed a breakwater to a neighboring island and summoned help. Maren Hontvet told authorities that a local fisherman named Louis Wagner had attacked them. Wagner had worked on John Hontvet’s fishing boat and was a boarder at their home at one point.

WikiMedia Commons

In addition to Maren’s eyewitness identification, other evidence against Wagner included the fact that his boots matched a bloody footprint found on Smuttynose Island, and a bloody shirt was found in the outhouse of the boarding house in Portsmouth where he was then staying. His landlady, Mrs. Johnson, and her daughter both testified they’d seen Wagner carrying a bundle to the outhouse, and Mrs. Johnson identified the bloody shirt as one she’d often laundered and ironed for Wagner.

Wagner was tried and convicted for the murders, and was hanged on June 25, 1875. The actual scene of the crime isn’t accessible to the public these days. Smuttynose is in private hands, so the closest you can get is to check out the axe (purported to be the one that Wagner used to kill Anethe Christensen) on display at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, a local library, gallery and archive located on Market Square.


The last of the three biggest islands, 95-acre Appledore, is home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory (SML), jointly run by Cornell University and University of New Hampshire (UNH). This residential marine field station is occupied from May through August by undergraduate students doing off-campus study and research in marine science. The restored gardens of longtime resident and famed 19th century poet Celia Thaxter at Kittery Point are worth a visit, and the admission fee helps generate revenue for SML.

The lab also hosts an artist-in-residence program each summer, with five or six artists each staying at SML for two or three weeks. While on Appledore, artists are free to pursue their art, but they’re also involved in an arts program that’s integrated with the courses offered by Cornell and UNH.

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