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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in MA » MASSACHUSETTS (all topics) » Spectacle Island: Something for Everyone
Spectacle Island
Spectacle Island: Something for Everyone

Boston, Massachusetts

By Emily Neeves | June 16, 2011

Thirty-four islands lie just off the coast of New England’s largest metropolis.

The garden outside the visitor's center

Known as the Boston Harbor Islands, they are a part of the National Park System and during the summer, twelve of them are accessible to the public by ferry. Whether you’re looking for a place to swim, sunbathe, watch the birds, take leisurely hikes, tour a Civil War era fort, or climb to the top of one of the country’s oldest lighthouses, the islands have something for everyone.

For my first trip, I chose one of the most popular: Spectacle Island. The name hails from the colonial era, when the island’s shape was different— just two hills connected by a narrow stretch of sand called a tombolo. Colonists were reminded of a pair of eyeglasses, or spectacles, as they were called then. Now, the island is shaped more like a turkey leg, with the wider end facing north.

In addition to being one of the most popular harbor destinations, Spectacle Island is also one of two islands (the other being Georges Island, home to Fort Warren of the Civil War) to which the ferry runs this early in the season. Summer ferries that loop the entire circuit of islands begin June 18 and run through September 5.   To get to any of the islands, just pick up a $14 round-trip ticket from Long Wharf-North, which is less than five minutes from the Aquarium stop on the MBTA blue line, and hop on the ferry for a peaceful, fifteen-minute ride.   There’s a snack bar on board if you get hungry or thirsty and seating both inside and out.

Halfway up the North Drumlin

After disembarking, you’ll come immediately upon the visitor’s center, which sports displays explaining the history of the island. Talk to a park ranger, pick up a free pamphlet, peruse the exhibits, and prepare to explore the island.

The West Beach, to the left of the visitor’s center, is open for swimming, and in the summer, it’s lifeguarded. The sand here is soft and the water sways with the gentle lulls of the harbor.   It does get crowded on hot summer days, so it’s good to purchase your tickets in advance as the ferries can sell out.   For those who think ahead, they can enjoy a lovely beach with calm waters and a fabulous view of the downtown Boston skyline.

Or if you’re more of a hiking spirit, Spectacle’s North Drumlin boasts the highest peak among all of the islands.   Wide, gravel pathways spiral up the north coast of the island, and after about twenty five minutes of leisurely walking, you’ll reach a shaded picnic area and panoramic view of not only downtown Boston, but the other islands as well.

You might even think you’ve found yourself in the Caribbean—certainly all these green, sandy islands can’t be off the coast of New England! But they are, and the view will make you want to explore every one.

For those who lean on history, Spectacle’s got plenty of that as well.   It’s been used by Native Americans, and then colonists, for fishing, hunting, grazing livestock, and recreation. Between 1903 and 1959, the city of Boston used the lowlands of Spectacle Island as a landfill. In these years, people still inhabited the west side of the island, where swimming currently occurs, and beginning in 1992, the landfill was enclosed with over 3.7 million cubic yards of excess earth from the “Big Dig.”

The Boston skyline from just above the West Beach

Now, relics from Spectacle’s history can be spotted along the South Beach.   Pieces of diversely shaped, water-smoothed glass of reds, greens, blues and oranges speckle the beach.   Sometimes, you’ll spot a bit of ceramic where the design is still visible, or perhaps a teaspoon that’s been greened in the same fashion as the Statue of Liberty. If you’re really lucky, you might spot an even older relic, as archaeologists have found artifacts dating from as far back as 535 A.D.

As I walked along the shore, I noticed a small square of ceramic, hardly bigger my thumbnail.   I stooped to get a closer look and could see the blue painted figure of a woman in a dress.   Was this part of a plate? A teacup? How old was this tidbit of the past? A part of me wanted to keep it, but I’d been warned by the park ranger when I’d arrived at Spectacle. Here, finders is not keepers. Unfortunately, scavengers can’t retain their treasures, but they can donate them to the visitor center’s collection. The goal of the National Park policy is to preserve the land and allow all to continue to enjoy it.

With so many islands but so little time, Spectacle Island is a great place to begin.


Ferry service schedules: (617) 223-8666


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