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Star Island: Open for business, waiting to enthrall

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The Oceanic Hotel and adjacent buildings stand against a clear blue sky. The wooden structures get a lot of weather and are getting a fresh coat of paint this summer. (Lebanon Voice/Harrison Thorp photos)

STAR ISLAND - As you head downstairs to the front porch of the Oceanic Hotel to sip that first cup of morning coffee while you look out on quaint Gosport Harbor and a sparkling blue sea, be ready to say, “Good Morning” about a dozen times en route.

When you stay on Star Island, you’re family, and when you’re family, you say, “Good morning!”

During your visit, you’ll talk a lot to your new family, former strangers who have become friends.

You can also do the following: go kayaking in Gosport Harbor, visit the history- and gull-filled island of Smuttynose, clamber about the rocky shoreline searching for crabs, swim in 60-degree water and get your name in the Sandpiper (the islands newspaper), eat sumptuous meals family style with about 300 people at 40 tables in the hotel’s main dining room, watch a talent show put on by Pelicans (the lovable youngsters who wait on tables, clean guest rooms and keep the hotel running), eat s’mores in front of a roaring fire as the sun sets over a glassy sea, sing and dance during an impromptu piano concert, and sleep to the sound of waves crashing defiantly off resolute rock.

 Cairns and monuments serve as seagull thrones at the Shoals.

 

Most folks think Star Island and the Oceanic are off limits to the public, a place where churchfolk hold private conferences and regular folk aren’t welcomed, but Kyle M. Belmont, Star Island Corp. Program and Outreach Coordinator, says that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Oceanic Hotel and Star Island are run under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, but the groups are open and inviting to all who want to learn about and enjoy this spectacularly beautiful group of islands.

 “We want the public to come out here, for the day, for a night, for the week to enjoy all that Star has to offer,” he said earlier this week. “We are open for business.” 

 Shrubbery and trees encircle a Star Island path.

Belmont said the island and the hotel’s facilities have been available to the public for some time, but that now the Star Island Corporation is outreaching even more to try to let people know there’s a lot to enjoy on Star Island and the Isles of Shoals, a group of nine islands about six miles off the New Hampshire coast that are steeped in history, including murders, pirates and buried treasure.

While Star Island is the major island today with its hotel and chapel, museum and other buildings, Smuttynose has the most history. Known as the site of the notorious pirate Blackbeard’s honeymoon, it was also the site of the wreck of a Spanish galleon and the infamous 1873 murders of two Scandinavian women made into a book and movie The Weight of Water.

But all these islands have a tale to tell, from Lunging, with its deep harbor and “honeymoon” cottage to Appledore, the largest island, which formerly housed a grand hotel of its own that competed with the Oceanic back in the 19th century.

 Afternoon sun sparkles a calming sea.

The Oceanic, meanwhile, for all its modern conveniences, still has the look of a grand hotel from the 1800s.

While the lobby is warm and inviting, the rooms are small and Spartan by today’s standards. There are no locks on guest room doors and very few with private bathrooms. Each floor has several unisex bathrooms to accommodate guests, who often find themselves brushing teeth en masse at day’s end before going to bed.

And bedtime comes early for most at the Oceanic, but even though there is no nightlife like bars and nightclubs, there are things to do when the sun goes down. Usually, at least once a week, the Pelicans put on a talent show that besides giving islanders some good laughs, also spotlights some of the incredible talent these youngsters have, from songwriting to poetry to pianists.

 

 An impromptu singalong and dancealong in the hotel lobby.

It’s also not unusual to have someone break out a guitar in a gazebo or sit down at the lobby’s piano for an impromptu singalong.

Sunsets often come with a campfire on the rocks and s’mores all around followed by a longtime tradition of a candle-lit procession from the hotel’s front porch to the island chapel for a brief nighttime service.

Morning activity begins around 6:30 a.m. back on the hotel’s front porch with coffee and conversation. There’s usually a handful of intrepid souls who walk down the long sloping hill to the docks to take a dip in the frigid water. Here at the end of July it was barely 60 degrees. A lifeguard writes down the names of all who jump in to put them in the Sandpiper.

The great bell at the head of the diningroom rings the start of breakfast (you can sign up to a meal bellringer at the front desk), on this day pancakes, sausage and plenty of fruit.

The cooks at the Oceanic are dedicated to providing sumptuous meals to all, including those with gluten and other dietary issues. They brought me some of the best scrambled eggs I’d ever had, and gluten-free toast and jelly.

 As sunset nears a campfire is started and s'mores fixins' are handed out to guests.

 

At a lunch of Greek and tossed salads and mac ‘n’ cheese, they brought me gluten free pasta with pesto. Exquisite.

The conference this week was on International Affairs and the plight of Pakistan.

While conference weeks have plenty of speakers and workshops, guests can opt out as they choose and simply relax or take advantage of dozens of activities around the islands.

And for daytrippers, or individuals or families out for a night or several nights (called personal retreats), there are tons of activities to enjoy. 

 A small sailboat crosses in front of a setting sun a half mile north of Star Island.

Single or tandem kayaks or rowboats can be rented for just $4 an hour, and it’s just a 10-minute row or paddle to Smuttynose. Grab a stick before you walk too far down the trail as the gulls have been known to attack. Hikers are advised to hold the stick high so the gulls attack it, not them.

Back on Star, there’s also a Marine laboratory with a touch tank, softball, frisbee, frisbee golf, hiking, running and fishing. Or you could just sit on the porch and look out at an endless sea, or even get a massage.

For those who have to stay connected there’s a Wi-Fi hut, and most phones get some coverage.

For those who smoke there’s a couple of designated areas, not much. Alcohol isn’t allowed in the dining hall during meals and there is no bar, however, visitors are welcomed to bring their own.

A snack bar is open during the day for those who haven’t signed up for a meal in the dining room, where it’s $10 for an all-you-can-eat breakfast, $15 for lunch and $18 for dinner.

 

 Visitors should make reservations for meals through the Front Desk (603) 601-0832 at least one day prior to your visit. Lunch is not available to day guests on Saturdays.

You can call the same number to arrange an individual or family personal retreat (overnight stay).

Room rates include all three meals.

For more information and rates go to http://starisland.org.

Transportation to the Isles of Shoals and Star Island is serviced by the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company out of Portsmouth and the Uncle Oscar out of  Rye Harbor, your shortest route.

Here are the links:

https://islesofshoals.com/

http://www.uncleoscar.com/

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