Yvonne Abraham

Treasured islands

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / July 17, 2011

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The new Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion had been beckoning me for weeks.

Before its lovely wave canopies were unveiled in June, I hadn’t thought of the islands in years. Now I was intrigued.

Which is just the effect island fans had in mind when they built the $6 million kiosks, staffing them with sweet National Park rangers who are eager to tell of the joys to be had minutes from shore.

They’re right - mostly.

On Thursday, I paid a visit to the pavilion, where a ranger recommended Georges and Spectacle Islands, and directed me to the ferry center at Long Wharf.

I picked my way through the crowds, following the not very prominent signs to the dock where, compared to the serenity of the Greenway, the scene was chaos. Teenagers in loud Margaritaville shirts seemed to be running the show. The ferry was 15 minutes late, one said. Another quietly led a group to the gangway. Confused, the rest of us followed.

We stood there in the sun, the stench from nearby dumpsters wafting over us, and waited. Antsy children busied themselves climbing the railings as parents tried to keep them from tumbling to the decks below. Families downgraded their days, deciding to see just one island to avoid late returns.

Later, an apologetic Bill Walker, president of Boston’s Best Cruises, which runs the ferry, told me that it got off schedule earlier in the day when a large group of passengers in wheelchairs visited Georges Island.

OK - but 45 minutes late? And would it be too much for the Jimmy Buffett boys to tell customers what is going on?

One family beat an angry retreat.

“We can’t wait all day!’’ the mother huffed. As the minutes dragged on, I wondered how many others would be turned off, perhaps for good.

I realized what a pity that would be when we were finally on the water, surrounded by bobbing sailboats. The city’s growing skyline passed in all its glory. Above us, airplanes descended to Logan. The beautiful digester eggs of Deer Island appeared.

And Georges Island had fried clams. I slammed a basket of them before heading in to explore Fort Warren - the former prison for Confederate soldiers that takes up most of the island. From its grass-covered ramparts you get breathtaking views. And below, the fort’s cavernous halls and cool, dark corridors are spooky fun.

Spectacle Island is rich in history too, much of it skeevy. It once hosted a quarantine station, and a rendering plant where dead horses became baseballs and glue. Until 1959, it was a landfill, the stench of which sometimes traveled as far as Swampscott.

But that’s all gone now, buried under 3.7 million cubic yards of Big Dig dirt, and new vegetation. Standing on the island’s north drumlin, you really get to the beauty of these islands. For me, the pull of them isn’t that they’re remote. It’s that they’re of the city, like big, natural grandstands from which you can see how the pieces of the miraculous urban organism fit together.

The low hum of the planes, the dinging bells on the buoys in the sparkling channel, the chirping of the birds, the sounds of the water and wind - they all combine to lend the place its own brand of serenity.

If this isn’t enough to float your ferry, the Boston Harbor Island Alliance and its partners also offer tours, kayaking, concerts, clambakes, yoga classes, and vintage baseball tournaments.

Reclining on the porch at Spectacle’s visitors center at the end of the day, I felt like a ninny for not coming sooner.

It had been such a delightful visit, I almost didn’t mind that the boat back to Long Wharf was 40 minutes late. Almost.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at