Shoaler Voices

“Strange and Remarkable Creatures” or Finding Inspiration on the Isles of Shoals

By Allegra Hyde

It’s getting toward evening on Star Island and I’m struggling to do anything but watch the sky change. The sheer blue of a July day slides into pinks and oranges, the horizon going ember bright. I’m not alone in my fixation. Shoalers gather along the Oceanic Hotel’s front porch or in the Summer House. Pelicans pause their chores to peer out windows. A sunset is a slow form of entertainment. Also a simple one. And yet we can’t look away.

Though I now live many miles from Star Island, I often think about those sunsets. I think, too, of how close I came to never seeing them. When I was twenty, scrambling for work, I had a choice between taking a cushy tech internship in a familiar setting—or becoming a waitress in a place I’d never been. A friend had encouraged me to apply to be a Pelican, though he had trouble explaining what that meant. After rambling vaguely about a hotel and a worker-run talent show, he said finally, “Living on Star Island is just…different.”

Some months later—having thankfully opted for the unfamiliar—I understood why a precise explanation of Star Island had been difficult. After making my first boat ride out of Portsmouth Harbor, after sweating and singing in the communal effort of a luggage line, after reveling in the rocky splendor of the New England coast, I understood that the full Star Island experience can’t quite be described. You can only see it, live it, soak it up. Then miss it terribly once you’ve left.

I’m a writer now (no longer a waitress, bellhop, or baker). My first book comes out this October. My path as a writer is one I feel lucky to have taken and one I owe, in many ways, to my time on Star Island. There’s a reason so many artist-types have been drawn to the Isles of Shoals over the years. The geography is made of inspiration. Beyond the aesthetics—the raw wind and sea spray, the pink blossoms of beach roses and the stately weathered architecture—there’s the gift of stepping away from the mainland. An island like Star, with its view of the New England coastline, grants perspective. It offers another way of seeing: a chance to reflect on our ordinary lives. Separating from the mainland also comes with risk—there’s a reason fire safety is endlessly emphasized to new arrivals—but risk can also go hand in hand with creativity. It can be what pushes someone to put a brush to canvas, a pen to paper. To try something new. To experiment. To create.

“All kinds of strange and remarkable creatures find their way here,” wrote Celia Thaxter of the Isles of Shoals. She was speaking about an unusual white bat flapping around one summer, but the sentiment holds true for people as well. Star Island is plentiful with sites for solitude—the nooks between boulders and ledges jutting out towards the sea—but it also offers community. All kinds of strange and remarkable people make their way to the Shoals. I write this in the most loving sense and with the utmost gratitude. Creativity is often discussed in terms of a singular vision or a bolt of inspiration, but I would argue that creativity is equally derived from the exchange of ideas and the presence of supportive peers. As I prepare to release my first book into the world, I can’t help but reflect on the friendships I made on Star Island, the wisdom and support those individuals have shown me over the years. The true magic of Star Island is that its gifts—the memories, the community, the courage to be your truest self—stay with you even long after you’ve left.

Allegra Hyde will read from her award-winning story collection,
Of This New World, at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth on
November 18 at 7PM

For more about Allegra, visit



Childe Hassam Exhibit Closes Soon

By Lois Williams

There’s only a month left to see the “Childe Hassam at the Isles of Shoals” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts – it closes November 6.  Many Shoalers have seen it, and there are even a couple of instances of Shoalers meeting other Shoalers at the exhibit.

Not to fret if you miss the exhibit – there is a copy of the exhibition catalogue in the Vaughn Cottage Library, and next summer while you are at Star you can spend time with the book’s 44 plates of exhibition paintings.

Hassam painted at Appledore for 30 years, and his 300 Appledore pictures represented ten percent of his lifetime art.  Hassam painted his popular pictures of Celia Thaxter, Celia’s parlor and Celia’s garden and its poppies before her death.  Afterward, Hassam’s interest turned to scenes of Appledore’s rocks, and these paintings constitute most of the Peabody Essex exhibit.

Even those who have seen the exhibit will appreciate the exhibition catalogue.  There is a map showing the spot from which Hassam painted each of the exhibition pictures as well as the site that he was painting.  And, for each painting, there is a photograph of the scene – showing, as the books says, that within Hassam’s exuberance of color and brush strokes, “He gets his rocks right.”

Peabody Essex Museum
East India Square (161 Essex St)
Salem, Massachusetts 01970
(978) 745-9500

C.H 2
All photos courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.


Historic Gosport Regatta

Originally reported by Ryan Alan

Sail racing history opened a new chapter with the revival of the Gosport Regatta seven years ago. When racers and spectators gather for this year’s event, they will be part of helping write additional pages in the modern history of the event. The Regatta certainly had a colorful start in July of 1874, when it was organized by John Poor, President of the Stickney & Poor Spice Trading Co., to celebrate the grand opening of his Star Island Oceanic Hotel. It attracted more than 50 boats, among them America — the yacht for which the legendary America’s Cup is named. It was America’s first race under the ownership of the most colorful General Benjamin Franklin Butler of Ipswich, Mass. who had served as a top-ranking general through most of the Civil War. Butler captained the yacht to victory in the Regatta’s second year on August 2, 1875. Reports indicate that he had stiff competition from the Resolute, under the command of Rufus Hatch, which crossed the finish line first but behind the time allowance of America.

Hotels on both Appledore and Star Islands were booked to capacity for the event—John Poor’s “sweepstakes race for the Oceanic Cup.” The New York Times reported that special trains and excursion steamers brought thousands to the region to watch. In their historical overview, “The Isles of Shoals Regattas,” Lois Williams and Sarah O’Connor wrote that Poor offered a “large solid silver punch bowl” as the prize. They reported that after his victory “General Butler sailed across to Bay View in triumph with the silver punch bowl on the America’s cabin table.”

Be sure to check out the 7th Annual Gosport Regatta
September 24, 2016! 

For more information visit


regatta EDITED_LS

Shoaler Voices

A Break-Up with Technology: The Star Island Phenomenon

Written by Liz MacLean

A Much Needed Technology Break-Up (For the Day, Anyway)

Once the boat had docked and the masses of people unloaded, I walked up the front lawn and checked my phone. No service. For many of my friends, this would lead to heart palpitations and a minor anxiety attack. Going without a phone for the whole afternoon? It was nearly unthinkable. But I simply placed my phone on airplane mode, shoved it in the bottom of my bag  (away from my water bottle), and set off toward the snack bar.

After working for two summers in Star Island’s Portsmouth office, I finally got the chance to go out to the island. My dad joined me for the trip, and equipped with sunscreen and a camera, we explored the island I had heard so much about.

I had seen pictures on the website, learned almost everything about the conferences and programs, and delivered hundreds of packages to the Portsmouth dock, but had yet to experience Star Island and discover why so many people called it their summer home away from home.

As I headed up the path toward the iconic Star gazebo, I noticed a group of kids sitting on benches and rocks, painting the landscape around them. I quickly got out my camera and began snapping pictures. Completely focused on their paintings with an intensity I hadn’t seen before, these eight- and ten-year-olds studied the ocean, lighthouse, and hotel while they used watercolors to recreate the images on small canvases.

Some of the kids chatted quietly and others sat alone, bent over their paintings, unaware of the flies buzzing around their heads or me aiming my camera lens. As I reached into my bag to capture this moment on my phone camera too, I realized why the scene was so strange to me: none of these kids were fixated to a phone or staring at an iPad screen. Instead, they held beautiful paintings of the island and memories they put to paper themselves. I quickly stashed my phone in my bag and proceeded along the path toward a small beach to see if this strange occurrence could be found on other parts of the island.

Below a cluster of boulders, on the beach, a child ate a bagel while his parents stuck their feet in the water. A girl drew in the sand with her toes and a boy clambered across the rocks. No technology here.

Even in the hotel lobby, where I thought people would go to take a break from the intense sun and check their email or Facebook notifications, there was a lack of electronics. Two teenagers played chess while a group of kids started a game of Bananagrams. On the front porch, a little girl colored a picture of a boat while her older sister made a bracelet out of colored yarn.

As the day went on, I felt more and more relaxed. I had no desire to check my phone for texts or contribute a picture on social media. I just wanted to explore the trails that lead around the island, take pictures of the ocean that was so incredibly blue, and sit in a rocking chair, watching families tie dye t-shirts on the front lawn.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had been without my phone for five hours during the day. This may seem absurd for many people, but young adults today seem to be spending more time looking at a screen than looking at their friends’ faces. At college, I’ve noticed everyone has their phone on them at all times and is constantly checking their email and social media pages. We live in a keep-moving-don’t-stop-always-know-what’s-happening society, and when you can’t get a break from the endless stream of information, it can be physically and mentally exhausting.

That’s when I understood the Star phenomenon. It’s not another vacation spot with unlimited wifi and free movie streaming and social media contests. It’s a place to get away from those tiny white screens that are a distraction from the surrounding people and natural beauty.

As I took some final pictures of the grand Oceanic Hotel and tried to imprint the island on my memory, I studied the faces of the other Shoalers. Their eyes were not squinting at a screen, but instead, wide open in amazement as they discussed that day’s lecture, squeezed shut in laughter as they played a board game in the grass, and relaxed as they sipped lime rickeys on the porch, studying the sailboats that drifted through the harbor.

Whether Star Island is a time-honored tradition or a new experience, it offers one thing among many that everyone can benefit from: a much-needed break from the electronic world, a place where reflection and discovery is cultivated, and a chance to reconnect with nature.

Photo by Norman MacLean

Shoaler Voices


A hymn for Star Island

Music from Finlandia by Jean Sibelius
New lyric by Steven Ratiner

This is our time, the chapel bell is ringing.
Our way is lit by lantern and the moon.
This is our time, this night, this island-hour.
The path is old – our passing makes it new.
This is our song, the ocean strums the rhythm.
I feel so blessed to share this time with you.

When time has past, like fog dissolved by sunlight –
when we are gone, and others claim this view –
we leave behind no tears to stain this chapel,
no telltale cries which others misconstrue.
This is our home, our memory wets the sea rose –
the bell, our voice – the path, our gratitude.
–  Steven Ratiner


Steven’s Star Story

“My introduction to Star Island came in 1980 when I was invited to teach poetry at the Arts Conference.  I attended that first morning’s chapel – out of politeness – but I fully expected it to be my one and only island service.  Now, after more than 35 summers on Star, I doubt if I’ve missed more than a couple of the morning gatherings in all those years.  I fell in love with the chapel itself, its rough features and resonant space – but loved as well the great enthusiasm people brought to the morning worship – especially the hymns.  Since most were new to me, I’d hum along and watch how the faces would brighten with the song.

One hymn especially captivated me – and, in the island hymnal, they had two versions linked to this same tune: “We Would Be One” and “This Is My Song”.  Once I saw that the melody was taken from Finlandia –  a symphonic poem by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius – I understood why, upon each hearing, it would not leave me for the rest of the morning.  But to be honest: I didn’t love the words.  I’m not saying they were  terrible – and I mean no disrespect if these are among your favorite in the hymnal.  But they just didn’t feel, to my ear, like they were in accord with the emotional climate of the Finnish original.  As a poet, though, I realized that composing a lyric for a hymn is no easy task; still I hoped that one day. . .

After fifteen years at Arts, now I attend Midweek II each September – and in all the time I’ve been on Star, I’ve never had a week where the island didn’t coax new poems onto my notebook pages.  I feel honored that our conference leader often pencils me in to lead an evening chapel service, where I can share some of the summer’s new poems.  Two years ago, out of no where, a lyric to the Finlandia melody erupted for me on the page.  I taught it to our gathering and, since I had only a single verse, we sang it twice together.  But my spine rippled with pleasure to hear my verse given such full-throated spirit.

The next morning, the moment my alarm woke me in Cottage A, I sat up in bed and the second verse of the hymn was being spoken quietly in my head.  I had to wait until the following September, but then I experienced the utter delight of hearing our little conference launch the completed poem – my rickety craft –  riding on the waves of Sibelius’ gorgeous melody.  I’ll come right out and say it: my poem is likely no better than either of the earlier Finlandia lyrics in Star’s  hymnal (not to mention the dozen other hymns, anthems, and fight songs which have, in earlier years, latched on to this melody) – but it does have one thing going for it: its imagery and its heartfelt mood are inextricably linked to our little loved island – to all those who return to it gratefully every year, and feel as if they’ve left something of their very beings behind when they ferry home.

Above is my lyric, in case you’d like to see if it will carry you.  And if not, perhaps you should choose a melody which is anchored in your heart and compose your own.  Such words serve as a map and help you to navigate – especially when storms erupt and you are far away from a safe harbor.  Travel well!”

A bit about the author…

Steven Ratiner is a poet and educator, and his work has appeared in dozens of literary journals in America and abroad.  He was also the poetry critic for The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post and, for thirty five years, as taught as a poet-in-residence in programs throughout New England.  But of special interest to Shoalers: his poem written on Star Island on 9/11 was recorded in Gosport Chapel on the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy by WBUR in Boston.  Here is a link to the video:


Photo courtesy of Dennis O’Keefe