GEORGES ISLAND isn't the largest in Boston Harbor, nor is it the closest to the city.
With 80,000 visitors a year, though, the 39-acre Georges is the most visited outpost of the Boston Harbor Islands park. It's been a model for how people can use and enjoy the jewels just off the mainland.
The island's role may be changing. For years, Georges has been the transit point for the shuttles to other islands -- the boating equivalent of Park Street Station. Spectacle Island, which opened to the public just this year, attracted slightly more visitors last weekend than Georges did. If that pattern persists, expect to see more direct service to Spectacle and less of a need to use Georges as a way station.
That may be for the better. The dock on the island dates back to World War I and is in need of repair. So is Fort Warren, the former military installation that was begun in 1833 and dominates the island's landscape. A shift in traffic toward other islands will give park authorities the chance -- though not necessarily the money -- to fix both structures.
Getting to Georges is a cinch. On weekend days, ferries leave Long Wharf about every half hour, and there are nine more ferries a day from Quincy.
By midafternoon last Saturday a few hundred people were making the most of Georges. Families with little children congregated in picnic areas. Not far from the ferry landing, a sailboat and three motorboats had pulled up just off a short beach covered with shells and smooth, flat pebbles. Children splashed about in the water in between, though swimming off the beach itself is officially forbidden.
Whether by design or by happenstance, the island is delightfully unmediated. Sure, park rangers offer guided tours through the fort. Placards here and there describe where 15-inch cannons were once mounted and where Confederate prisoners were held. Here and there, signs warn visitors against dangerous terrain. By and large, though, visitors to the island are free to sit and read, to wander through dimly lit passageways unsupervised, to ponder the soldiers who lived there, or to think about nothing at all.
Though it attracts tens of thousands of visitors, Georges looks well-tended; a person can spend two hours there without spotting a single piece of litter. And if it ever loses its place as a hub for ferry traffic, fine. Georges has plenty of charms of its own.