Adventures: Power Trip

Do the Boston Harbor Islands at your own speed: by powerboat.



We’re all for ferries and duck tours and sailboats and such, but looking at all this lovely water that surrounds the city, sometimes we want to get out there on our own terms and explore as much as we can as fast as we can. We rented a 17-foot powerboat and within a single morning skimmed the placid Charles River, studied colonies of harbor jellyfish, and had the freedom to stop for an up-close gawk at the visiting Juan Sebastián de Elcano; the Spanish Navy’s historic training schooner had four massive masts, 20 sails, and — here’s the most important part — Spanish sailors. By now, that ship has literally sailed, but the harbor’s best attraction is permanent: its scattered and oft-overlooked islands, lush buttons of history, nature, and quick-access camping.


Snag a rental from Don Symington, the genial owner of Boston Harbor Boat Rentals (617-240-2900, His fleet ranges from 17-foot whalers to family-size charter cruisers (which he’ll happily captain for those who’d rather sit back with a cocktail and let someone else steer). Do-it-yourself prices range from $55 for two hours to $900 per day; if you plan to go out solo, Symington can tell you where to drop anchor and snorkel, scuba dive, or swim.

If you’ve never piloted a boat, a busy working harbor and shipping channels are not the place to start, but if you’ve had experience, Symington’s refresher will keep you safe and out of the drink. Before going out, make sure to study harbor charts — Symington keeps copies onboard his vessels — and learn which islands allow private tie-up (others will let you grab a dinghy, drop anchor, and row in). The Boston Harbor Islands Alliance (617-223-8672, and the National Park Service will house such information, plus sell ferry tickets and host events and environmental exhibits, at the new Harbor Islands visitor pavilion, scheduled to open next year on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

Cruise around and get a feel for the layout of the 34 islands, 17 of which make up Boston Harbor Islands State Park. There are larger ones like Spectacle — with a marina, a visitor center, sand beaches, and walking trails — and wee ones like Nixes Mate, where in the 1700s authorities gibbeted executed pirates as a warning to any evildoers who might be eyeing Boston ships. As you’re skirting the northwest end of Lovells, consider what lies beneath: vestiges of a notorious shipwreck. In August 1782 the French warship Magnifique, with 74 guns and a crew of 750, ran aground and sank there. On Peddocks (which you may recognize from the opening scenes of Shutter Island), the Boston Harbor Islands Alliance and the state will begin restoring some historical buildings this fall, with plans to open them to the public next year.

Lovells, Grape, and Bumpkin offer year-round camping for $8 to $10 per night. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, reserve individual or group sites via or by calling 877-422-6762. After September 5, you can get permits from the state at 781-740-1605, ext. 205. Private boaters can unload and anchor, then row in by dinghy.

Just past the dock, on the northwest side of Georges, you’ll find picnic tables, grills, and plenty of areas perfect for spreading a blanket and admiring the city skyline seven miles away. The island is open through mid-October (it’s also reachable by ferry and offers a free interisland water taxi). Our favorite thing about Georges, though, is Fort Warren, an 1847 fort that served as a Confederate prison. Park rangers give tours, but you’ll also want to wander around on your own. Don’t miss the military parade ground, the grassy ramparts, and the plaques that mark the quarters of the Union officers known for making Fort Warren one of the most humane war prisons of the era. There’s a good ghost story, too, but we’ll leave that telling to the rangers.

For more information, call the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area’s ranger line at 617-223-8666, or go to to learn about free programs and events.