Travel 2022: New England oasis off the coast at Block Island, R.I.

Block Island North Light, built in 1867, sits at the northern end of the island. It’s made of brown granite and stands 55 feet in height.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Block Island North Light, built in 1867, sits at the northern end of the island. It’s made of brown granite and stands 55 feet in height.

SUMMER TRAVEL 2022 For years, newcomers to this tiny, teardrop-shaped speck of land between Rhode Island and Long Island have been encouraged to keep it a secret.

It was no joke. Though certainly not as well-known as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to its east, Block Island has been attracting vacationers since the middle of the 19th century. An easy drive and ferry ride from the Capital Region, Block Island offers a laid-back experience that is all about the ocean and outdoor activities.

The Dutch explorer Adriaen Block gave the island of just under 10 square miles his name in 1614. It was settled in 1661, and within 100 years most of the indigenous people who had lived there for centuries were gone, replaced by farmers and fishermen. Nowadays, the island is the year-round home to approximately 900 people — the 2022 graduating class at Block Island School is 10 seniors — but there is a dramatic change in the summer. The population explodes to a peak of an estimated 20,000 at times during the high tourist season from late June to early September.

“We go from a sleepy little rural town to a bustling destination center,” said Lars Trodson, executive director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce. Trodson, who was editor of the Block Island Times for eight years before beginning his role with the Chamber in January of 2021, lives year-round on the island.

Much of Block Island’s appeal is its off-the-beaten-path, nature-is-important vibe:

  • It does not have a golf course.
  • Just one public tennis court is available.
  • There are no stoplights on the island.
  • Zero amusement parks.
  • While Block Island has a number of distinctive inns and hotels, including the Spring House built in 1852 and the National Hotel, which opened in 1888, there is nary a national brand to be found.
  • Forget about finding a shopping center or big-box stores.
  • There is one grocery store, one gas station, one pharmacy and one liquor store.
  • America’s first offshore wind farm is located a few miles off the southeast coast.
  • Thanks to its location, spectacular sunrises and sunsets are more the rule than the exception.
  • Cool, old lighthouses with small museums are located on either end of the island and are worth a visit. The Southeast Light, first lit in 1875, was threatened by ongoing erosion of the bluffs. Money was raised, and in 1993 the entire 2,000-ton structure was moved about 300 feet back from the cliffs.

In 1991, the Nature Conservancy named Block Island one of 12 “Last Great Places” in the Western Hemisphere.

Nearly 50% of the island is legally protected from development by conservancy groups. To finance future acquisitions, a 3% surcharge is assessed on all property sales on the island. The Block Island Conservancy was formed in 1972 and has partnered with the Nature Conservancy, the town and state government agencies to preserve and protect land for public use. The first major project was the 230-acre Rodman’s Preserve in the southwest section of the island that features nature trails. It was launched when residents learned of a developer’s plans to build several houses in that area. The protected area of open space stretches from Rodman’s Hollow to the shore at Black Rock and westward across Lewis-Dickens Farm to Southwest Point.

Beaches are very popular with visitors and so are the 28 miles of hiking trails along with the 13 miles of paved roads that are typically busy with people on bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles and cars. Kayaking, sailing and fishing are on the BI menu of activities. New Harbor at the Great Salt Pond has marinas and is home to boats of all sizes, from luxury yachts to far more modest craft. Since Block Island does not have natural harbors, Old Harbor was formed in the 1870s by building breakwaters. New Harbor, a 673-acre boat basin, was created in 1895 when a channel was dug to connect the massive pond to the ocean.

Conservation groups offer a variety of walking tours catering to children and adults. The public library is a hub of activity for people in need of reading material, movies and WiFi. The Block Island Historical Society’s museum tells the story of the island through the centuries and is a good place to visit, especially on a rainy day.

Every year, the Fourth of July celebration is quite lively. It features an extensive fireworks display at the beach and what has to be one of the funkiest, most enthusiastic parades in the nation.

“Block Island has always been, and I think will continue to be, kind of a do-it-yourself place,” Trodson said. “You go to the beach. You hike. You go to a shop. There are bars and restaurants that have music offerings. Ballard’s resort is famous for its concerts. Captain Nick’s has music every night, I think. So, you kind of wander around and find what you feel like doing that day.”

Nine miles south of the Rhode Island coast and 14 miles east of Montauk, Long Island, Block Island is seven miles long and is three miles across at its widest point. The island has 17 miles of coastline and long stretches of lovely beaches, particularly the aptly named Crescent Beach adjacent to Old Harbor on the eastern side of the island.

Old Harbor, and its downtown area of a few blocks of hotels, shops and restaurants, is where the ferry boats from Point Judith and Newport, Rhode Island, and New London, Connecticut, pick up and discharge passengers, vehicles and cargo. During the summer there also is passenger-only ferry service from Montauk to the west side of the island to a dock in the Great Salt Pond.

The Block Island Ferry at Point Judith is the gateway to to the island for most people. It is an easy drive from the Capital Region, approximately 3 1/2 hours to cover the 220 miles from Schenectady. The most direct route is to take the Massachusetts Turnpike to Worcester, head south on Route 146 to I-295, a few miles on I-95, then take Rhode Island Route 4 down to Galilee and Point Judith.

At Point Judith, travelers have the option of sailing as foot passengers on the ferries that can accommodate cars, trucks and motorcycles, or they can take a high-speed ferry. The traditional ferry takes 55 minutes each way with a round-trip fee of $22.45 for adults. The round-trip fee for a bicycle is $7. The high-speed ferry takes approximately half the time of the traditional ferry, 30 minutes, and costs twice as much: $50 round-trip for adults. The bicycle fee is $8.

The high-speed ferry from Newport has a sailing time of 60 minutes with a round-trip fare of $50.50 for adults. The bicycle fee is $12. The Block Island Express trip from New London takes 90 minutes with a round-trip adult fare of approximately $60.

At this time of year it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make weekend ferry reservations for cars. The choice weekends in July and August dates are snapped up early in the year. It is much easier to make reservations for weekdays, and some owners have adjusted their rental weeks accordingly.

It is easy to fill up days and weeks at Block Island. Cottage rentals can be secured through real estate companies. The inns and hotels can be found online.

A good way to sample Block Island is to make a day trip from southern New England. Visitors who do not take their cars can park them in paid lots near the Point Judith dock. They can take their own bikes on the ferry, rent bikes and mopeds on the island, or hire one of the local taxi companies available for tours. Many visitors simply walk around Old Town, cross the narrow part of the island to New Harbor or just stroll up Corn Neck Road to the public beach.

No longer a well-kept secret, Block Island is different … and fiercely protected by the people who love it, just as it is.

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