Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands: A Guide to the City's Hidden Shores, by Christopher Klein. Published 2008 by Union Park Press. Nonfiction. Travel.

Live in the Boston area? Planning a trip to New England this summer or fall? Or just curious about a group of islands with some historical and natural interest? Then you might enjoy Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands.

This brief volume is somewhere between a travelogue and a coffee table book. Smaller than the latter and not as detailed as the former, it's filled with beautiful photographs and interesting historical information and trivia about the group of islands in Boston and nearby Hingham harbor. Did you know that World's End, a reservation area in tony Hingham, was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead and once considered as the site of the United Nations? Driving through that quiet, upscale community recently it's a little strange to think of how different it would be if it had been chosen over the Rockefeller land in New York City! Or that Spectacle Island was once home to a horse-rendering plant? Author Christopher Klein fills the book with just these kinds of details about each island. Now, I've been to two of the islands in the past- George's Island in high school, to visit Fort Warren, and Thompson Island for a corporate retreat, but this book opened up all kinds of possibilities.

First of all the presentation is beautiful. The book features dozens of color photographs, pictures of historical artifacts and a few basic maps. It's divided up into sections based on groupings of islands- islands in Boston Harbor, Hingham Harbor and "islands for landlubbers"- like beautiful Worlds End in Hingham, a property comprising several miles of lovely trails and seaside vistas, perfect for dogwalking, hiking or picnicking. Each section is rich with legend and lore, like the myth of buried treasure in Boston Harbor, and less glamorous (but equally interesting) information like how Boston's wastewater treatment system works, and how the islands figure into the plan.

The book covers two and a half dozen or so islands and includes several features designed to help the reader plan a trip- a key indicating what activities and services are available on each island, an appendix of web resources for travel, information on accessibility, and features on the flora and fauna of the islands. I wish the book included more maps though- for example, a highway map showing the route from Boston to Hingham would be helpful for tourists unfamiliar with the area, as would some indication of the relative distance and travel time between the two cities. They're not far apart, but tourists might be unaware that driving from Boston to Hingham will require them to set aside some time and take traffic conditions into consideration. Klein tells us that visits to several of the islands are discouraged during the nesting season of resident birds; it would be helpful to know approximately when those nesting seasons are- say, a range of months. As it is this information, which would be very helpful, is not included. Nor is an index, which would be nice as well.

A caveat- as interesting and beautifully presented as the material in Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands is, be aware that Klein's emphasis is on general features and historical and background details. There are no detailed trail maps or other specific information on the terrain of specific islands. He leaves that up to individual properties, and that's fine, but the reader should know not to expect it here. As I learned when I visited World's End as part of my research on the book, some of the hikes can be demanding and if you're planning a visit to any of the sites in the book, check with the property beforehand so you're prepared appropriately. The key Klein provides is helpful but doesn't provide complete information. As much as I enjoyed reading the book as I chose a destination and prepared for my visit, the book was not as helpful when I was actually on the ground.

Overall though I'd say that Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands serves as a very good introduction and source of general information about natural spaces that are little-known even to local Bostonians. I learned a lot about the history of the islands, their general features and how they're used today. If you live in eastern Massachusetts (or plan to visit) and are looking for a fun daytrip, picnic or hike with friends or family, the Boston Harbor Islands have a lot to offer and this book is a great place to start.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.


Serena said...

Wow, have you read my mind or what. I'm heading to boston the first week in august. What a great book to grab to learn about the history of the islands. I've never been to the islands, nor do I know much about them, but maybe I should consider these islands for a portion of our trip.

Anonymous said...

another great review, Marie! I, too, have been to George's Island and Thompson's Island (for the same reasons as you!) ... It's nice to have this one source as a starting point when planning a trip. You're right - always check with the individual property for up-to-date info and details.

Anonymous said...

Marie, I just saw that Christopher Klein will be at the Wellesley Booksmith on 9/25 at 7pm promoting this book.