The pungent smell of diesel exhaust wafts up from the docks to street level, carried by a fresh breeze off the ocean. At wharf's edge a stubby, steel-hulled police boat called Protector growls, belching gray exhaust as it warms up on a cool Saturday morning.
It's a good day for a trip to the islands - not Bermuda or the Bahamas, but Boston's own Harbor Islands.
Police officer Paul Demaio of the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) waves to come on down the gangplank and climb aboard. The police boat pulls away and out into the inner harbor. Twenty minutes later, it is plowing through the heavy wake of a larger and faster cruise ship.
Up ahead, the cruise ship, too, is headed for the islands - probably George's Island, the most popular of the 30 islands in the harbor, says Officer Demaio.
Finally, the police boat butts up to the dock on George's Island where, from the island's peak, loom the gray clifflike walls of Fort Warren.
Construction of this pentagonal stronghold began in 1833 and continued for nearly two decades. Nearly 12 acres of ground are enclosed within its 69 -foot-high walls, built of massive granite blocks.
More than 150,000 people flocked to George's Island last year, many more than visited the other islands, according to estimates by the MDC, a state-funded metropolitan agency. Children, in particular, like to clamber about the fortress's nooks and crannies, says Mark Primack, MDC islands coordinator.
Some geologists think the Harbor Islands are mounds of glacial debris left in low, rounded hills as the glaciers melted, retreating to the arctic north during the last Ice Age. Others disagree about the islands' origin.
However they were formed, the Harbor Islands are one of Boston's hidden playgrounds, where relatively few Bostonians venture. But the islands help make the harbor one of the richest yet relatively untapped recreational resources in New England, says Suzanne Gall, founder of the nonprofit service organization Friends of the Harbor Islands.
Each day during the summer, three harbor-cruise lines dock at George's Island pier. With so many people arriving, Mr. Primack admits conditions on George's on some weekends can be as crowded as the city, with as many as 8,000 people crammed onto its 28 acres.
''We'd like to see visitors using the free water taxi to visit the other islands. Visitation has been increasing every year, and George's Island is at its limit.''
Primack says he would like to see some visitors make the short trip by water taxi (operated by the state Department of Environmental Management) to Peddock's Island to relieve the pressure on George's. The water taxi also travels to Gallop's, Lovell's, Bumpkin, and Grape Islands. Despite free service, it's likely that George's will be overwhelmed again by a torrent of visitors from mid-June to Labor Day, says the MDC.
A related problem, one that has been around since Boston began to spring up around the harbor, is trash. Several islands have been used as city garbage dumps over the years, but, more recently, visitors are leaving their trash on the islands.
There is no easy way to cart it off, Primack says, except for people to take their own trash back to the mainland. Island visitors are supposed to take their trash home with them. But with larger numbers of people visiting, even secluded islands like Rainsford, Lovell's, and the Brewsters are accumulating cans, bottles, paper, plastic, and Styrofoam, says Dick Doucette, a Lovell's Island supervisor who will spend the summer living on the island.
Peddock's Island is the biggest of the islands and has the most diverse terrain, wildlife, and plant life. Primack says plans are being laid to open Peddock's to more cruise lines - which carry visitors to the islands - by the mid-1990s.
cc16p6 But even with plans for a $600,000 renovation of the Peddock's Island dock, potential legal problems with summertime island residents and the cost of rehabilitating the decaying buildings of Fort Andrews present long-term problems , according to Primack.
The 28 buildings of Fort Andrews are expected to be ''renovated over the course of the next 40 years - and I mean that - I'm not kidding,'' he says. The buildings of Fort Andrews each will have a sponsor, who will lease the property with the requirement to raise funds and renovate the building, Primack explains. Some of the buildings have sponsors lined up, but others do not.
The MDC purchased Peddock's Island in 1968 with funds from the state and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The MDC was sued by former owners for additional land value. The case was settled last year, costing the state more than $3 million.
On Peddock's, there are about 40 privately owned summer cottages situated on land now owned by the MDC. Some of those cottage owners, Primack says, have protested for years the island's transition to MDC ownership.
Still, visitors to Peddock's are expected to increase as more people learn that Peddock's Island is open. Last year a single cruise line, Bay State Spray & Provincetown Steamship Company, served the island.
Primack says his staff has been doubled from 7 to 14 to include island managers on the MDC-owned islands: George's, Lovell's, and Peddock's. In addition, the MDC operates sewage-treatment facilities on Deer Island and Nut Island.
Primack says a number of MDC sub-agencies - including the MDC police - contribute their services to managing the islands. The funding - which ranges in the millions - is readily available because Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has made sprucing up and publicizing the islands a priority, he says.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management (DEM) manages Grape, Bumpkin, Great Brewster, Gallop's, and several other small islands.
Boston owns Spectacle, Rainsford, and Long islands. The DEM is reportedly negotiating to purchase the latter. Thompson's Island is privately owned by the Thompson Island Education Center.
Like the other Harbor Islands, Long Island is indisputably a chunk of Americana. For centuries it played a variety of roles in Boston and even American history.
Home to the harbor fortress Fort Strong, Long Island has also served less glamorously as the site of a hospital, a hotel, numerous cottages, a lighthouse, and, in the late 1800s, a poorhouse.
A dubious distinction of the islands is that they have often played host to institutions Bostonians didn't want on the mainland. During the mid-1800s, illegal prizefights were held on Long Island and some others. Moon Island was the site of Boston's sewage-treatment facility in the late 19th century. (Deer Island and Nut Island serve in that capacity today.)
The 30 Harbor Islands - sporting colorful names like Bumpkin, Peddock's, Gallop's, Spectacle, Grape, and Hangman - are draped in a fabric woven of both fact and folklore.
For instance, Mr. Doucette on Lovell's Island tells the tale of a French man-of-war, the Magnifique, that was accidentally run aground off Lovell's by a Boston Harbor pilot in 1786.
''There might have been a treasure on board, but one thing's for sure, the French were so angry over the incident that the US decided to give them a new ship in return.
''And the ship they gave them, the America, was supposed to have been John Paul Jones's new ship. He was so angry with the US government, he nearly quit the Navy.
''Can you imagine if he had quit?'' Doucette asks. ''We wouldn't have 'I have not yet begun to fight!' ''