With the age of sailing ships only a whisper of memory and waterfront high-rises blocking sea views, we easily forget that Boston was once a haven for salty sailors with tales to tell.
These days, you don't even need a ship to experience the allure of Boston Harbor. In fact, you can visit some of its so-called islands without setting foot on a boat. Landfill and development have connected these once and former islands to the mainland along Boston Harbor, Quincy Bay, and Hingham Bay, so, like a Gilligan on wheels, you can set sail in your car for a three-hour - or all-day - tour.
These islands-that-are-not-islands have stunning sea views and lovely picnic sites, not to mention unusual features ranging from a Revolutionary fort to a former missile site to a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed forest. And unless you run out of gas, you won't run the risk of being marooned.
Except for Castle Island, these five "islands" have been incorporated into the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area, which in 1996 brought together more than 30 islands in Boston Harbor. (The park's Moon and Long islands are connected by causeway and viaduct to the mainland but are off-limits to the public.)
We suggest riding the concrete swells of I-93 and Route 3A from north to south, starting at Deer Island in the morning and making your way to World's End by sunset. By the end of the day, you'll feel like a regular salty tar of the shore.
Don't hold your nose at the first port. After a tragic history as a site for a Native American internment camp, quarantine station, and prison, Deer Island may be best known today for its mammoth sewage plant constructed in the mid-1990s. Now about 60 acres of parkland surround the 150-foot-tall bulbous "digesters," and the views of the Boston skyline, Grave's Light, and the outer islands will blow a landlubber's mind.
On a recent early morning, Joe Maddox, a retired Everett firefighter who often walks the pathway here, says he feels like "a ship coming out of a harbor" when he rounds the island's tip and sees nothing but ocean ahead. For many, the 2 1/2 miles of trails are a revelation; Theodore Kechris of Brookline, who recently ventured here on a whim, was surprised by what he found. "It's really gorgeous out there," he says, still amazed.
Yes, there's an odor in some places, but not enough to discourage the visitors from all over the world who come to tour the plant, considered an engineering marvel. Arrange a tour in advance to get an insider's view of the technology that has cleaned up the once much-maligned Boston Harbor.
Castle Island, now connected by landfill to South Boston, still feels like an island: Coney Island, that is. On sunny weekends, its 22 acres are awash with kids, families, dog walkers, and sun worshippers. You can enjoy the sea breeze, picnic on the grass, or line up for ice cream at Sullivan's, a fixture at Castle Island for decades.
Volunteers from the Castle Island Association lead free tours (weekends and Thursday nights) of Fort Independence, the five-sided granite fort that is the eighth military fort built on this spot since Revolutionary times. Ninety different flags flap in the breeze at the top of the fort, including a replica of the 15-stars-and-15-stripes banner that inspired Francis Scott Key - and so many off-tune renditions of our national anthem. The tour leads into an inner powder magazine. "How crazy is this!" says one youngster, amazed at being deep inside the narrow confines of the magazine. "Imagine being back here in the day when they had cannons," says an awestruck Davis Laich, 10, of Chelmsford.
Nut Island is small but serene, the sound of wind and water broken only by a mockingbird's call. Once used as a site for artillery manufacturing and then for processing sewage, the island now houses a sewage pump facility connected via underground tunnel to Deer Island. The once odorous surroundings have been landscaped into a park with pathways snaking among aspen and evergreen streets. Park benches are strategically set for ocean spying or a snack by the water's edge.
Cuddled on one of them on a recent afternoon were Barry Crawford of Newton and Carolyn Skowronski of Quincy, who marveled that few know about this gem. "There's always a beautiful breeze out here," says Crawford. And yet "we're in Quincy," Skowronski adds.
On a nearby pier, Alan Smith of Avon and a buddy - who have tattoos that would make a pirate's mother weep with pride - fish for striped bass, skate, and bluefish. Does he have much success? "Not very often, but there's fish to be caught," Smith insists.
Webb Memorial State Park
The call of the sea - or at least of Route 3A as it ferries you to this park - can't be ignored. (From 3A, turn on Neck Street and follow it to River Street.) While never an island, the 36-acre park is part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Park. This former site for a fertilizer factory and
Once farmland, then a potential Frederick Law Olmsted-designed development and a possible site for the United Nations, World's End encompasses two former islands now connected by landfill. There are more than 4 miles of woodland trails through shade and sun; keep an eye out for bluebirds, red tail hawks, bobolinks, and herons.
A tidal salt pond has been reestablished near the entrance, and volunteers are developing a self-guided tour of the unusual stone walls that crisscross the park. New guided kayak tours around World's End are also being offered, and on June 21, the annual Summer Solstice will be celebrated with bluegrass music from 6 p.m. to sunset.
Red sky at night over World's End is more than a sailor's delight. It's a fitting ending for an islands-that-aren't-really-islands adventure.
Stephanie Schorow's book "East of Boston: Notes From the Harbor Islands" will be published in July.
Deer Island Winthrop. For tours call 617-660-7607. mwra.com/03sewer/html/sewdi_access.htm
Castle Island Day Boulevard, South Boston. 617-727-5290. mass.gov/dcr/parks/metroboston/castle.htm
Nut Island Sea Avenue, Hingham. 617-660-7972. mwra.state.ma.us/03sewer/html/sewnitp.htm
Webb Memorial State Park River Street, Weymouth. 781-740-1605. mass.gov/dcr/parks/metroboston/webb.htm
World's End $5 admission. 250 Martin's Lane, Hingham. 781-740-6665. thetrustees.org/pages/393_world_s_end.cfm