Here's a half- or full-day kidscursion: A trip to the Boston Harbor islands! They are close to shore, have lots of fun activities, are perfect for a picnic, and the ferries are frequent and leave from a convenient location. There's a bunch of the islands open to the public, but Borderline will only review Spectacle and Georges, which seem best suited to outings with the kids. Spectacle Island
: Spectacle Island was just opened to the public a few weeks ago, and is now part of the Boston Harbor Island parks and recreation system. It's very close to Boston proper, just off Logan airport.
Old-timers may remember Spectacle Island as the site of giant garbage dump; in elementary school I can recall seeing a film about how filthy the harbor was and the actual presence of an island made of garbarge. That was a bit of an exaggeration, because Spectacle was a land mass -- or two separate masses -- before its dump status. Indians used it for a while to dry fish or gather plants, then the English settlers used it for pasture. From the late 1790s the two little islands were the site of two summer resort hotels that were famous for gambling and other "undesirable activities." This got to be a big enough problem that the hotels were shut down just before the Civil War. Grease rendering plants opened later in the 1800s on each one of the islets, and these evolved in the dump. Families lived on the islands from 1912 to the 1940s. The dump closed in 1959, and then after the Boston Harbor cleanup, the politicians and government organizations decided to turn it into a park using landfill from the Williams Tunnel. All of this information is available in the excellent little museum they've set up in the visitor's center, right by the new ferry pier.
When you visit Spectacle now, there's no garbage or earlier structures to be seen now, with the exception of old stone pilings which probably supported the dock for one of the old grease rendering plants. The two hillocks (or drumlins) on Spectacle are covered with meadows and light brush, and a few wooden pavilions. If you're there on a sunny day, be prepared to slather on the sunscreen because it can get really hot, and there's very little shelter. On the other hand, there are some really nice breezes cutting across the island. There're tons of places for picnics, either on the meadows, or at the picnic tables they've scattered across various points. Any trash you create, you have to bring out. There are no trash barrels. Even the toilets in the visitors' center use some type of new-age recycling system.
And then there are the beaches. They've set up a swimming beach right next to the pier, but unfortunately it's pretty bad. The water is cloudy, and there's too much unpleasant debris on the sand to really relax and run around -- on our trip Canadian Geese poop and scores of dead jellyfish. They have lifeguards but I don't think they'll last -- it's just not the right type of place for a fun family beach outing.
The highlights of Spectacle are the views from the high points, and the rockier beaches on some sides, which are good for beachcombing and walking. The eastern end of the island has some spectacular views of Logan airport, and one of the main shipping channels -- you can see these giant freighters passing right below the vantage point, not to mention dozens of pleasure boats.
So in summary, I'd say Spectacle is good for a few hours with the kids. Bring water, sunscreen, and binoculars. Start with the visitor's center, which has historical and nature exhibits, then walk around one of the drumlins or the beach to collect shells and talk about the things out in the harbor, and then have a picnic, or a snack back at the visitor's center. The swimming beach isn't anything special, but that may change if the water and jellyfish situation clears up, and officials realize that Canadian Geese are health hazards to children and do not deserve the protections that allow them to crap freely all over our parks and beaches. George's Island
: George's Island is the granddaddy of kids field trips. I must have gone there a half-dozen times as a kid. And no wonder -- a boat trip, a giant, castle-like structure, and lots of places to run around and have fun are appealing to kids of all ages.
Georges Island hasn't changed since the last time I was there, in the 1980s. Fort Warren is still standing, hulking and empty and covered with grass and trees. There are lots of tunnels and mysterious stairways leading up into dark places, and you can walk along the ramparts. There's even a little prison (the guardhouse). They've set up little explanatory plaques in key places, and there's also a visitor's center. It's an impressive historical site, and one of the few in Massachusetts that doesn't have luxury condos or commercial developments next door.
There are beaches, too. I am not sure they are good for swimming. The ones I briefly checked out were dark sand and shell bits, but I didn't see any geese or jellyfish. There were no lifeguards.
However, unlike Spectacle Island, George's has much better opportunities for cooling off. The tunnels and areas near the walls have this damp, stony coolness about them. In the center of the star-shaped fort, they have these giant trees of some species I have never seen scattered all over the place, probably planted when the fort was built back in the 1800s. They give great shade, and are perfect for picnics. Getting to the Islands
: The ferries to the islands leave from Long Wharf, on the north side of the Marriott, not
on the south side/New England Aquarium, which is where the whale watch and Cape Cod ferries leave from. If you park at the garage next to the Aquarium, just cut through the Marriott lobby to reach the Harbor Island ferries dock. You can buy tickets at the booth, or on board.
There are other ferry lines servicing the islands, too. We saw the T ferry to Quincy at Georges. Inter-island ferries come at regular intervals. The ferries to and from Long Wharf depart every hour or two, but this might change depending on the weather.
We got a family pass to Spectacle for $32 (two adults, two kids). Once on the islands, you can take inter-island ferries for free to other islands, so it's possible to hit Spectacle and Georges in six hours or so. The slow ferry to Spectacle is about 25 minutes from the wharf, but the small catamaran is just 15 minutes. Georges is about twice as far.
If you go on a weekend or holiday, consider parking on the street, because many meters in that area (especially in the financial district) are only Monday through Friday. The parking garage next to the Aquarium is a ripoff. $30 if you are there more than 80 minutes.
Lastly, be aware that the Big Dig tunnel collapse has totally altered commuter driving patterns in Boston, and the streets between South Station and North Station -- not to mention I-93 in both directions -- are experiencing a huge amount of extra traffic as a result
. Take the subway if you can -- there are several Blue Line and Green Line stops within walking distance of the ferry terminal and the Aquarium. Links: Boston Harbor Islands partnership