As soon as I boarded the boat, I set my phone to airplane mode. After all, if you’re going to Rose Island, you want to go off the grid. Granted, the postage stamp-sized plot is just a 10-minute cruise off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island, and its main inhabitable structure, the 1870-established Rose Island Lighthouse, casts its blinking beacon in the shadow of the illuminated Newport Bridge. The lighthouse had long guided ships through Narragansett Bay, but the bridge’s modern construction rendered its faithfully flickering signal moot. So the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1971 and nearly razed by profit-prospecting condo developers. But now—thanks to a volunteer-led preservation foundation—it functions as a historic attraction for day-trippers and unique overnight accommodations for those willing to rough-it-within-reason.
But even if the mainland is never out of sight, Rose Island feels far enough removed to get you out of reach, literally and figuratively—if you allow it. By now the “digital detox” is becoming a hoary getaway cliche, but there’s good reason for it. Even a 24-hour experiment in going technologically untethered reminded me how quickly an addled mind can recalibrate, and how swiftly stress can subside, when we pause and stand apart from the churning sea of distractions that always seems to be slapping at our skulls.
At first, I’ll admit, my fingers itched to go back online. If I cared about Snapchat (I tried, once), I’d have been tempted to send one from aboard the Starfish, the 32-foot lobster boat that property manager Chris Papp uses to usher Rose Island visitors back and forth around 10 am and 3 pm. As we pulled up to the island’s rocky shore, I immediately wanted to Instagram the lighthouse, a lovingly restored yet tenderly weathered white clapboard house with slate shingles and a thimble-like lantern room rising 48 feet above sea level, perched dramatically atop a beach rose-flanked bank leading up from the dock. (I bet it would look great in X-Pro.) I briefly considered a funny tweet about the minefield of Canadian goose poop that litters the grassy grounds of the 18-acre island, nearly all of which was off-limits as a wildlife refuge until mid-August. (#craptrap. Genius.)
I took it all in. On Rose Island, ornery, digestively regular geese and seagulls strut around like they own the place, though from a legal perspective that privilege now belongs to the city of Newport and the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation. The nonprofit foundation formed in 1984 to rescue and rehab (over eight years and $1.2 million) the then-abandoned lighthouse, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Today it supports its conservancy by renting out five rooms that are worlds apart from the famed Newport opulence of those stadium-sized summer cottages that Vanderbilts once built. Only one unit, the keeper’s apartment, has lavish luxuries like a refrigerator (gasp!) and full bathroom (thrill!). If you’re staying elsewhere, it’s limited electricity, solar-powered outdoor showers and meals packed in coolers for you, pleb.
Hardy survivalists that we are, my boyfriend and I brought six-packs of craft beers and ciders, frozen burger patties for the gas grill and gluten- and lactose-free half-pints of pre-prepared potato salad from Whole Foods. Like we were going to a cookout in JP.
Guests change their own linens and take out their own trash. Lodgings include the annexed brick foghorn building, built flush on rocks right above the sea, and the lighthouse’s ground-floor museum, which is outfitted in antiques from the early 1900s, the era of longest-serving keeper Charles Curtis. He is said to haunt the structure, still faithfully tending the lantern reached by narrow iron stairs. Ghost Hunters did an episode about this place, I recalled, resisting the urge to tap my YouTube app.
Instead we did our own spook scouting down by the island’s stone barracks, built after the U.S. infantry established Fort Hamilton here in 1798. At different points the barracks contained stores of Navy explosives and dying cholera victims under quarantine. The latter fact gave rise to separate ghost sightings, which we promptly investigated by pointing into dark corners with flashlights and softly trying to coax a name out of the walls. It was fun, we freaked ourselves out, and we walked (very briskly) back to the beachside fire pit to update Chris and Martha, the only other guests, a very nice married couple from not far away. We really liked them, and they liked creepy stories, so we talked about that and first apartments and how their friends worked for a local distillery I wrote about. Funny!
Occasionally my mind would wander, and I’d wonder if we’d ever talk to Chris and Martha in similar circumstances back home, riding in an empty T car or bored in an office waiting room—anywhere besides this little island, where we’d all mutually decided to look up for a night. But mostly I just enjoyed laughing with them as an orange fire burned against black sky. There was no news ticker in my periphery. I wasn’t worrying whether we were on the brink of World War III.
Rose Island’s small footprint and sense of remove—there are no on-call lifts back to the mainland—forces you to be still in little moments like this. Time goes slower with your phone off, I noticed. You can do a lot! I read more of my book in one afternoon than I had in two weeks. We watched birds together from the lantern room, and I patiently let myself feel lucky. We poked at a vintage record player (I decided to not break it) and nosed through wooden drawers stuffed with old notes and photos, gamely trying to patch together the past. We played Monopoly and checkers, and I kept myself from Googling the rules (yes, really) until we just remembered on our own. We hunted sea glass. We napped. Not once did I update my status. It felt fuller not telegraphing it.
By the time the Starfish delivered us back to the parking lot in the morning, more of nothing was all I wanted. If you like your island getaways to come with Tiki cocktails and hot tubs, stick to the resorts. But off the beaten wake path await some unique opportunities to soothe the over-stimulated brain.
When I turned my phone back on, I had a friend request from Martha. That was nice. We both took something back from the island, besides the goose poop on our shoes.
New England’s waters are speckled with hundreds of islands, and even some of the most remote are able to host peace- and solitude-seeking vacationers—provided, of course, you’re willing to go without some modern conveniences. Here are some excellent island ideas, arranged from most- to least-tethered.
- 1. Plum Island. If you need to take a baby step toward going off the grid, know you can crawl back to the mainland anytime from this island off the North Shore, accessed by car via a bridge from Newburyport. Hoof it by foot to Sandy Point State Reservation on the southern tip, home to spectacular unspoiled beaches (and federally protected piping clover nests); the parking lots fit only 50 autos and fill fast. Then hop on a whale watching tour, ride the waves in a Plum Island Kayak rental and—when hunger hits—check out quaint Newburyport’s strong dining scene, including the refined, seafood-oriented Brine and Ceia, older sibs to Boston’s Oak + Rowan, and the Paddle Inn, serving international coastal cuisines in a midcentury surf shop-style setting. Lay your head at Blue, a recently revamped waterfront hotel with an outdoor hot tub and fire pit-side Adirondack chairs.
Photo by Jeffrey Stevensen
- 2. Chebeague Island. Maine’s Portland-side Casco Bay is dotted with more than 100 islands. The largest (with a year-round population still under 400) is Chebeague, where blueberry-bedecked shorelines and bike paths immerse visitors in the natural beauty of the picturesque Pine Tree State. The classy Chebeague Island Inn, one of the island’s many Greek Revival homes, encourages techno-detox by eliminating in-room TVs and phones (though Wi-Fi is available). That means more time to go fishing off the wharf or visit nearby Bangs Island, where the inn’s farm-to-table restaurant gets its mussels. Mingle with locals at the honkytonk bar, Slow Bell Cafe, chip away at Great Chebeague Island Golf Club and, if you’re feeling adventurous, plan to camp at Little Chebeague, the smaller island neighbor reached by foot via sandbar in low tide. High tide traps you in a state of nature-enforced disconnect. Bliss.
Photo by Sean D. Elliot
- 3. Star Island. You need not be on a religious retreat to visit this privately owned, Unitarian Universalist-affiliated island 10 miles off the New Hampshire coast. Sure, it hosts touchy-feely workshops that could spark up your spiritual side—from a paranormal conference to meditation sessions, reiki lessons and granola-flavored forums on environmental issues that will get you woke, if you weren’t already. But the progressive, earthy-crunchy community (powered largely by New England’s biggest off-grid solar energy facility) welcomes all overnighters sharing its liberal, live-and-let-live ethos. Family meal-inclusive rates place you in a grand hotel-era property now outfitted for rustic getaways: spare rooms, lock-less doors, shared baths. On your own, you can book a massage, rent a rowboat or visit the island’s marine lab. But Star’s main appeal is in unplugging from social media and engaging, IRL, with social justice-minded others to feel relaxed and renewed.
- 4. Cuttyhunk Island. Forgo teeth gnashing and air-kissing with Martha’s Vineyard’s moneyed set and opt for an introspective experience on close-by Cuttyhunk (population: under 50), site of one of America’s first English settlements. Today’s Cuttyhunk operates on its own salty-as-seawater terms: Bring greenbacks, bikes, books and booze, because it’s a dry island with no ATMs or rentals and little Wi-Fi. For sacrificing conveniences, though, you score an old-school, local color-drenched experience worlds apart from the hubbub of MV and ACK. Think quiet beaches (near numerous shipwrecks), a scenic cliff walk and panoramic sunrise-to-sunset views from Lookout Hill. If inspired to wax poetic, apply for artist and writer residency programs launched last year by the Avalon inn, a lovely property with a common kitchen where you’ll even cook for yourself—the island’s few food purveyors, like a local oyster farm-owned raw bar, often keep casual, inconsistent hours.
Photo by Dave Cleaveland
- 5. The Cuckolds. It’s odd that one of the region’s most romantic getaways shares its name with an adultery-related kink (and go-to slur of the alt-right). But in this case, Cuckolds refers to two super-small islets off the coast of Southport, Maine. The easternmost is home to a solitary structure, the Inn at Cuckolds Lighthouse, a luxurious hideaway inside an 1892-built fog station with a light tower. There are only two suites—one facing east, another west—equipped with the plush linens, marble bathrooms and in-room conveniences (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth radios, LED TVs) of a high-end hotel. Book both for a private island experience with on-site multi-course dinners or lobster bakes. This tiny two-acre plot near Boothbay Harbor, where infamously wild waves crash on the rocky crag, is ideal for upscale unwinding—alone or in pairs—though you can charter boat trips to mainland attractions if the mood hits.