A five-year, $180 million project buried the waste dump under 6 million tons of dirt and gravel from Boston's Big Dig highway project to create a 105-acre oasis. Easily accessible via a 10-minute ferry ride from the city, it's now advertised as the harbor's jewel and touted as a "green" park for its solar-powered facilities and compost toilet system.
"It was an eyesore in Boston Harbor that has been turned into something beautiful," said Beth Jackendoff, a park ranger who lives on the island part-time. "Not only does it have some of the best views you're gonna get in Boston, but it's something that we're going to be able to learn from. It has a theme of reclaiming something."
Wes Austin, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thought it would be the perfect place to bring his mother and sister visiting from San Diego.
"It's different, it's close, and there's more nature than you can find in the city," said Austin, 26, of Boston. "And, it's a nice getaway for just a couple of hours."
The family sat recently in the grass atop the island's north drumlin, the highest point in the harbor, and admired the scene of cargo ships floating by as planes dipped in and out of nearby Logan Airport. At 157 feet above sea level, the spot towers over neighboring islands and boasts a view spanning Boston's skyline and the 40 miles between Salem to the north and the Blue Hills Reservation to the south.
"It's just so gorgeous," said Janis Austin, 56. "It just gives such a different perspective of the skyline. I've never seen the city like this."
Fishing, hiking, swimming and bird watching are common at one of Boston's best-kept secrets. But most people are there to appreciate Spectacle Island's spectacular views.
One of the harbor's 34 islands, Spectacle has a curious history. Colonists named it for the pair of eyeglass spectacles they saw shaped by its hills, which have housed a quarantined hospital and a factory where horse carcasses were rendered to glue.
It is perhaps best remembered as a dump for more than 100 years. The growing accumulation of garbage eventually forced out the handful of families who lived there, and it became a glaring example of Boston Harbor's pollution.
But the island's filthy reputation is lost in the new park, which opened last summer.
"You'd never know it was a landfill without reading about it," said Judy Wishloff, 43, of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who visited while vacationing in Boston. "As a tourist, this kind of attraction really resonates because there are cool things to do, and the visit has history and substance."
Down in the island's valley is the visitor center, powered by solar panels and packed with exhibits and information on the island's history, wildlife, vegetation and environmentally friendly usage.
With articles on file that date back to the 1800s, visitors can learn about the island's old schoolhouse, or the layers of the five-year restoration project that involved more than 4,400 barge-loads of dirt. Rangers and park employees refer to the project as the "mini-dig."
This summer, the island features jazz concerts every Sunday. Park rangers also organize events including kite flying, guided tours and scavenger hunts for children. Bird watchers can enjoy rare sightings of bobolinks, warblers and savannah sparrows, among the park's 100 bird species, and fishermen can borrow polls or nets from the visitor center to catch stripers, cod, flounder or lobster.
The visitor center also features a cafe that sells burgers and chowder, and lounge chairs in the shade of the verandah.
Starting June 23, free shuttles will give visitors an opportunity to island-hop in the harbor. Popular sites include a fort at Georges Island, America's first lighthouse at Little Brewster Island, and campgrounds at Lovells Island, Grape Island and Bumpkin Island. Spectacle Island's 38-slip marina also allows private boats to dock overnight for a fee.
With a little imagination, the novelty of being on an island could in itself provide enough entertainment for the day. Jeffrey Frankel, a 54-year-old economics professor at Harvard University, wore a long plastic sword slung through his pant belt when he visited.
"We came to play pirates," Frankel said, his 5-year-old son Evan clutching a green net of mussel shells, assorted stones and sea glass. "It's a great beach to relax and cool off. You couldn't ask for more. It's perfect."
GETTING THERE: http://www.bostonislands.org/isle-spectacle.asp or 617-223-8666. The park is open daily from dawn to dusk, May 5 through Labor Day. Ferries depart the Long Wharf in Boston every half hour between 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from June 23 to Sept. 3, and every hour between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the offseason. Fares are $12 Thursday through Sunday, and $10 Monday through Wednesday; children ages 3 to 11 are $7, and children under 3 are free. The day rate for the marina is $15 for vessels less than 30 feet, and $25 for vessels 30 feet and larger. For overnight stays, between 5 p.m. and 10:30 a.m., the rate is $1.50 per foot.