Scenic Ferry Rides & Lighthouse Cruises | New England from the Water

Hit the water without getting soaked on these superbly scenic (and affordable) New England ferries. Then, try seeing lighthouses the way sailors do: from the water.

By Yankee Magazine

Apr 06 2020


Youngsters crowd the rail on a Boston Harbor Islands ferry as it passes South Boston’s Castle Island.

Photo Credit : Courtesy of Boston Harbor Cruises
A note from the editors: This story was published before travel operators began adjusting their plans in light of COVID-19. Please contact businesses directly for the most up-to-date information on offerings and schedules.
Youngsters crowd the rail on a Boston Harbor Islands ferry as it passes South Boston’s Castle Island.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Boston Harbor Cruises

A ferry can be more than a way to get from point A to point B if you add C: creativity. Hop a ride on one of New England’s trusty water buses, and you can explore places that few realize are open to day-trippers, or simply sit back and savor the change of perspective that being on the water provides. With a fresh breeze tousling your hair, a cool drink in your hand, and sparkling blue water all around, you can imagine yourself on a cruise vacation for a few hours—and your wallet will barely notice.  —Kim Knox Beckius

New England Scenic Ferry Rides & Lighthouse Cruises

Boston Harbor Islands Ferry Boston, MA

Think of the ferry boats departing from Boston’s Long Wharf on summer and fall days as your command ships for an island-hopping escapade. Six of the 34 islands and peninsulas that make up Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park are accessible via Boston Harbor Cruises ferry service. In 20 minutes, you can be hiking, picnicking, or swimming on Spectacle Island; in 45 minutes, you’re exploring Georges Island and the intriguing ruins of Fort Warren. Inter-island ferries connect to Peddocks, Lovells, Grape, and Bumpkin Islands, each with historic character and the kind of natural beauty that’s so rare in an urban setting. 617-227-4321;

Burlington–Port Kent Crossing Burlington, VT

The best reason to hop a Lake Champlain Ferries vessel in Burlington isn’t to shave a half hour off the drive time to Port Kent, New York. It’s to spend an hour (or two, if you go round-trip) on New England’s largest lake, admiring the graceful maneuvers of birds and boats as well as the natural skyscrapers of two mountain ranges. The Adirondacks will magnetize your gaze, particularly if you time your westward voyage for sunset, but remember to pivot or you’ll miss equally enchanting Green Mountain views. Train your eyes on the lake surface, too: Snap a photo of rumored lake monster Champ, and you’ll earn lifelong fame. Tip: If you’re crunched for cash or time, opt for the Charlotte-to-Essex option a half-hour south. The shorter crossing costs about half as much. 802-864-9804;

Casco Bay Mailboat Run Portland, ME

Pack lobster rolls, whoopie pies, and Maine-brewed beers in a cooler, and park your worries on land. For the next three hours you can be a carefree “stowaway” on one of Casco Bay Lines’ daily, year-round voyages to deliver mail, freight, and residents to five major islands. In the summer (or any time there’s an ample crowd aboard), you’ll get a narrated tour as you pass lighthouses, watch lobstermen haul traps, and edge up to islands where communities seem from another century. Chat up the captain and crew: Most have deep ties to these islands and wilder stories than your average mail carrier. 207-774-7871;

Providence-Newport Ferry Providence, RI

Operated by the private ferry company Seastreak, the Rhode Island–built catamaran Ocean State glides beneath the Providence River Bridge and out into Narragansett Bay three or four times daily in summer and fall. Some passengers have firm plans in Newport, but many do not, since free parking opens the door to spontaneity and the allure of an exhilarating boat ride on a sun-kissed day is irresistible. For a true mini vacation, take a cocktail from the bar up to the deck for the best views of lighthouses, islands, and the stunning array of sailboats and yachts that is Newport’s signature. The ferry deposits you in the midst of waterfront shopping and dining, so you can chart your own adventure until the hourlong return trip. 800-262-8743;

The view while heading in toward the pier on New Hampshire’s Star Island.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Star Island Ferry Rye, NH

The staff and summer guests at the Isles of Shoals’ last remaining hotel, the Victorian-era Oceanic, arrive on Star Island viathe passenger ferry Uncle Oscar—and it can whisk you there, too. Take a three-hour “walkabout” trip for a guided tour of these 43 ruggedly fetching acres, or opt instead to catch the first ferry out and the last back, allowing whim and wonder to guide your exploration in between. Discover the island museum in a wee cottage, let kids pat scallops in the marine lab’s touch tank, have a lobster roll or burger at the Gosport Grill. Some serenity seekers find rocking in chairs on the hotel’s vast porch diversion enough. 603-964-5545;

Thimble Islands Ferry Branford, CT

The Thimble Islands Ferry Service is both Uber and U-Haul for residents of these almost exclusively private pink-granite islands—which means that when you board with a dozen locals and their particular cargo, you’re in for some interesting conversations as well as a close-up look at tony island digs. The ferry also provides seasonal passage to the only Thimble open to the public, southernmost Outer Island. At this wildlife refuge, volunteers greet picnic-toting passengers and guide them toward the five-acre island’s interactive features: tide pools, enormous glacial boulders, and an education center with microscopes for examining teeny creatures and binoculars for observing shorebirds. If you’ve asked the captain to pick you up in two hours, you may find that’s too soon. 203-889-8365;

Beacon Seekin’New England Lighthouse Cruises

Nothing captures the romance of the coast quite like lighthouses, and New England is home to some of the world’s most picturesque. But if you’re trying to rack up multiple sightings, going by land can be a tedious undertaking (drive-park-walk-repeat). To get the most bang for your buck, try seeing lighthouses the way sailors do: from the water.

Illustration by Martin Haake

Book the two-and-a-half-hour trip offered by Cape Ann Harbor Tours and you’ll wend your way past no fewer than six Gloucester-area lighthouses, from the lighthouse on stilts that marks the Dog Bar Breakwater to Ten Pound Island Light, which briefly hosted landscape painter Winslow Homer. You’ll also see the Cape Ann Light Station, whose twin lights are the only active examples of their kind in the nation. Tours are available on weekends in the spring and fall and daily during the summer.

Up north, Maine’s Isle au Haut Boat Servicesoperates a four-hour, six-lighthouse tour of its own on select summer dates. On Maine Open Lighthouse Day (September 12 this year), it ups the ante by offering a second cruise hitting four additional lighthouses. 

In southern New England, the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut, has a six-lighthouse cruise, while Rhode Island Fast Ferry offers a Narragansett Bay cruise that promises a whopping 10 lighthouses in an hour and a half—that’s one every nine minutes, on average! —Joe Bills