A Tour of New England’s Isles of Shoals from Portsmouth’s AC Marriott Hotel
By Bart Beeson
From the rooftop restaurant at Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s AC Marriott Hotel, it’s easy to appreciate how the city was born and continues to thrive as a bustling commercial maritime hub. Ships from all over the world ease down the Piscataqua River to deliver their cargo, passing under the iconic bridges that connect New Hampshire to Maine. Fittingly, the hotel is an homage to both Portsmouth’s rich naval history and the AC brand’s European origins.
Its restaurant is named the Rooftop at the Envio, “envio” being the Spanish word for “shipment,” and its Raynes Boardroom is named after the shipyard that once operated where the hotel now stands. The hotel is also located just a few minutes walk from the river and the embarkation dock for a tour of the Isles of Shoals – one of the highlights of our recent visit.
We started our day with a filling breakfast at the AC – enjoying the fresh fruit, juices and made-to-order toast with scrambled eggs, Manchego cheese, prosciutto and arugula. We then took a stroll to downtown Portsmouth – an easy 10-minute walk from the hotel. Meandering along the shore of the old harbor and past the downtown shops, we ended up at the stunning gardens at Prescott Park. A testament to the character and beauty of the town, there seemed to be artists at work on every corner, setting up their easels to paint scenes of the picturesque buildings lining the river or the historic houses at the Strawbery Banke Museum – an outdoor museum that has preserved an entire 300-year-old neighborhood.
While waiting for our boat tour, we took advantage of the time to explore the AC Marriott, located just a few minutes walk from the embarkation point for our Isles of Shoals tour. The 157-room hotel opened in late 2019 and boasts 8 king rooms and 8 view rooms with views of the Piscataqua. The hotel has a streamlined, modern look, decorated with art from Portsmouth and New England-based artists – our floor featured a series of framed antique keys found around the city. We also scouted out our digs for that night’s dinner at the Envio – the only public rooftop dining in the city. After checking out the hotel and enjoying the river views from our room, we headed out for our main activity of the day – a tour of the Isle of Shoals, a group of islands with a fascinating history located roughly seven miles offshore.
We had booked a trip with the Isle of Shoals Steamship Company, a three-hour tour (yes, a three-hour tour!), which included a trip out to the islands with a walking tour of Star Island. Our transport for the day was the M/V Thomas Laighton, a 90-foot, 300-person capacity boat with three decks, indoor and outdoor seating, and several fully stocked bars (the company also hosts a weekly “party ship”, aka “booze-cruise”, during the summer).
As the boat navigated through Portsmouth Harbor, the guide kept up a steady patter, describing the history of the area, telling stories, and pointing out landmarks. We passed by the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the U.S. Navy’s oldest continuously operating shipyard dating back to 1800, and the guide pointed out the scaffolding around the conning towers of nuclear submarines undergoing repairs. Further on, we spotted the hulking concrete structure of the Portsmouth Naval Prison, abandoned for nearly 50 years, which now looks like it would serve as the perfect setting for a horror movie.
Approaching the Isles of Shoals, the guide filled us in on their history – from the time they were first used by Indigenous populations as fishing camps to when they were later settled by European fishermen who would go on to become the founding fathers of Portsmouth. He also pointed out Appledore Island, where Thomas Leighton, for whom our ship was named, opened what is often considered the first resort hotel. His daughter, Celia Thaxter, was raised on the islands and went on to become a renowned poet, and hosted the likes of Hawthorne, Emerson, and Longfellow at her father’s hotel. She also wrote an account of an infamous axe murder that occurred on neighboring Smuttynose Island (a story that was absent from our guide’s narrative, perhaps to keep the tour more family-friendly).
On reaching Star Island, we disembarked and were free to roam the scenic island for an hour or follow along on an included guided walking tour. The centerpiece of the island is the sprawling Ocean Hotel, which sits on lush green lawns that are a contrast to some of the other nearby barren rock islands. The island is owned by the Star Island Corporation, an organization founded on liberal religious traditions, which now hosts various retreats and conferences at the hotel. After a quick tour, with our guide recounting more of the islands’ history and lore – including the legend of Blackbeard’s treasure – we settled in on some rocking chairs on the expansive hotel deck, savoring the cool ocean breezes that were a welcome respite from the hot, muggy day on the mainland. Our time to explore passed quickly, and we reboarded the Thomas Leighton for the hour-long ride back home, learning more about the islands and surrounding landmarks while enjoying a cold drink from the bar.
Back in Portsmouth, after a long day of exploring, dinner at the Rooftop at the Envio was the perfect way to wind down. We took in the views of the Piscataqua, enjoying a fresh lobster roll and a signature cocktail, watching the ships roll in a la Otis Redding with a newfound appreciation of the local history.
Bart Beeson is a Plymouth, New Hampshire-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.