There’s something intangible about how it feels to be on Block Island, but if you’ve been there, you know what it is, even if you can’t exactly describe it.
But it’s that feeling, something akin to bliss, coupled with unparalleled scenery, that inspires countless enthusiasts to display the island’s signature B.I. decals on their cars, and arrive by the ferry-load along its shores.
Located a dozen miles off the coast of Rhode Island, the tiny island was initially dubbed “Manisses” or “Little Island of God” by the Narragansett Native Americans, who were said to have inhabited it as far back as 1300 BC.
Two thousand years later, Dutch explorer, Adriaen Block, arrived in 1614, “re-discovering” the island, and becoming its namesake. Measuring a mere 3 by 7 miles, what Block Island lacks in size it makes up for in sanguine charm and endless, unspoiled beaches, making it an ideal destination for an easy day trip or extended vacation.
A fleet of various ferries provide seasonal transportation to and from the island, originating from several different points including Newport, Rhode Island; Fall River, Massachusetts, and Montauk, New York. Operating out of New London, and running from late May through the beginning of October, the Block Island Express (www.goblockisland.com) is the closest and most expedient option for a majority of Connecticut residents.
Shuttling passengers to the island in just over 60 minutes, the ferry costs around $48 for adults and $24 for children, round-trip (bikes, wagons, and surfboards incur an additional fee).
Point Judith, Rhode Island, is the other commonly used departure point (www.blockislandferry.com), offering a seasonal high-speed ferry that arrives in under 30 minutes for about $38 round-trip for adults, $22 for children.
The traditional Block Island Ferry also offers service out of Point Judith and is the only ferry that operates year-round, with same-day, round-trip passenger tickets costing $23.75 for adults, $11.50 for children.
Of all the ferries, it’s also the only vessel that accommodates vehicles, which require advance reservations, and cost between $80 and $100 round-trip.
Unless you’re planning an extended stay, bringing a car is more hassle than it’s worth and largely unnecessary.
While passenger tickets aboard the ferries can be purchased the same day as travel, it’s best to buy them in advance as window lines are often long during the busy months, and tickets can sell out, especially on the smaller, high-speed ferries.
On holidays and weekends, ferry parking lots, which can cost anywhere from $10 to $25 per day, fill up early, making it imperative to arrive well in advance of your departure time to secure a spot and get to the boat launch.
Finally, those wishing to skip the sea can fly the friendly skies instead. New England Airlines (www.blockislandsairline.com) offers year-round, daily flights to and from the island out of the Westerly, Rhode Island, airport.
Costing $99 round-trip per person, or $59 one-way for adults ($52 one-way for seniors and children), it’s a quick, 12-minute ride to the island aboard a commuter prop plane.
Beyond convenience, the flight also offers spectacular views of the island and Atlantic Ocean; reason alone to make the trip. And parking at the airport is free, no matter how long you stay on the island.
Visitors hoping to find a Starbucks or shopping mall will be sorely
disappointed as there’s not a single chain retailer, restaurant or hotel on the island.
Instead, much of Block Island’s appeal comes from its rejection of commercialism in favor of maintaining its historic, Victorian-style inns and individually-owned stores and eateries, many of which are on the east side of the island in Old Harbor .
The arrival and departure point for all the ferries, as well as the center of town, Old Harbor boasts a lovely collection of quaint shops and restaurants, as well as the Visitor’s Center, where island guests can find island information, an ATM, small lockers and restrooms, along with self-guided tour and walking maps (www.blockislandinfo.com).
Bikes and mopeds are available for rent at a variety of places in Old Harbor, including Aldo’s Mopeds and Island Moped and Bike Rental (www.blockislandinfo.com/ what-to-do/bicycle-and-mopedrental). Mopeds start at about $45 for two hours, and bikes are available for the whole day for $30.
There are pros and cons to each.
Though bikes are the cheapest option, Block Island’s hilly terrain can make cycling a serious workout, depending on where you decide to go. Mopeds, on the other hand, make quick work of getting from one end of the island to the other (and most attractions in between), but for the novice operator , they can be tricky to drive, especially in island traffic.
The next best thing to getting around on your own is to hail a Block Island taxi. They are plentiful on the island, even if they aren’t exactly inexpensive. The upside is that almost all the drivers are locals, and they can often provide valuable insight on places to go and things to see.
Tours of the island are also available from most of the taxi services (www.blockislandinfo.com/ what-to-do/taxi-tours). Lasting about an hour, they bring guests around the island, and most points of interest, for around $60 for two people, and $5 for each additional.
What To See
A trip to Block Island isn’t complete without visiting at least one of its two well-known lighthouses.
Built in 1875, the Southeast Light, with its red-brick exterior and 52-foot tower, is the easiest to get to, and is a designated National Historic Landmark. From its perch high atop the island, the Southeast Light (www.blockislandinfo.com/ island-events/southeast-light) seemingly rises into the sky and arguably provides some of the best views on the entire island.
Located on Sandy Point on the north end of the island, the Block Island North Light is constructed with light brown granite and is the more modest of the two structures, but no less impressive.
Built in 1867, it’s the fourth lighthouse built on the site to warn mariners away from the island’s craggy coastline, the site of numerous shipwrecks.
Among the most legendary is that of the Princess Augusta, or the “Palatine,” as it’s become known; a British merchant ship carrying 340 passengers from Germany to America.
In 1738, after a perilous voyage on which many passengers died from extreme conditions and illness, the ship ran aground on Sandy Point, eventually becoming consumed in a fiery blaze.
Accounts of what really happened on the ill-fated voyage, which include suggestions of mutiny by the crew and nefarious intent by Block Islanders, have long been the subject of controversy, with books, poems and anecdotes dedicated to the controversy.
Adding to the folklore are the innumerable witness reports, both past and present, of a ghost ship burning off the coast of Block Island, especially in the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the anniversary of its wreck.
The Mohegan Bluffs (www.blockislandinfo.com/ island-events/mohegan-bluffs) are another must-do on Block Island.
Named for the Mohegans, who were said to have been driven off the 200-foot cliffs to their death by island natives during a Native American battle, the bluffs offer dramatic ocean views and striking vistas.
Ambitious visitors can reach the beach below by trekking down a 141-step, staircase. The challenge, of course, is making the trip back up, which is infinity more difficult, but worth it if you’re up to the task.
The bluffs are also an ideal place to get a good look at the Block Island Wind Farm 3 miles out in the Atlantic.
The first offshore wind farm in America, the five massive turbines are undeniably impressive and span more than 600 feet above sea level.
On Wednesdays from June 27 through Aug. 29 (excluding July 4), the Block Island Ferry will offer one-hour, narrated tours departing from Old Harbor, ferrying visitors out to the turbines for an up-close viewing. Tours leave at 3:45 p.m. and cost $25 for adults, $15 for children (www.biwindfarmtours.com).
Not surprisingly, what many people come to Block Island for is the 17 miles of beach, which run the gamut from rocky to sandy, busy to relaxed.
Easily accessible from Old Harbor are Surf Beach, named for the hotel (www.thesurfhotelbi.com) situated above it, and Ballard’s Beach (www.ballardsbi.com), similarly named after its ocean-front resort and restaurant.
While the crowd at Ballard’s can occasionally be boisterous, it’s still a fun place to hang out, get a drink or burger, and enjoy live music performed most afternoons and evenings during the summer season.
Regardless of location, all beaches are free and open to the public and there are more than 25 access points around the island (www.blockisland info.com/17-miles-of-beaches).
Where To Stay
On the island are two dozen inns, seven hotels and a number of B&Bs, guesthouses, cottages and vacation rentals (www.blockislandinfo.com/ where-to-stay).
Set high atop a hill, the Spring House (www.springhouse blockisland.com) is the oldest and largest of the hotels and a perennial favorite among travelers.
Built in 1852, the hotel has hosted notable guests like Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant and Billy Joel, and it’s not hard to see why.
It’s unmistakable with its elegant white exterior, red roof and giant wraparound veranda, and its sprawling view of the Atlantic Ocean is unrivaled.
Adirondack chairs scattered around the Spring House’s expansive lawn are simply too inviting to pass up. Even if you don’t plan on staying overnight, a stop at the Spring House for a drink, meal or just to admire its understated beauty is mandatory .
Up the road is the Atlantic Inn (www.atlanticinn.com), another stately retreat with resplendent views.
Built in 1879, its veranda is a lovely contemplative spot to nibble on cheese and crackers, while sipping on a late afternoon glass of wine. Though there’s not a single bad spot on the island to view the sunset, the Atlantic’s veranda just might be the best, so plan on arriving early enough to secure a spot.
Regardless of where you stay, keep in mind that many of the hotels and inns have minimum stays on summer weekends. Better flexibility and prices can often be found on weekdays, and during the shoulder seasons (April, May, September and October), along with reduced crowds and a more relaxed vibe.
What To Bring
If you’re staying longer than just a day, pack the usual sundries and clothes, while remembering that out in the middle of the ocean it can get chilly, especially at night.
Also be mindful to not overpack; from the ferry to the harbor and lodging, you’ll be carting your luggage around a fair amount.
Day trips also require some thought, especially if they include time on the beach.
There are a handful of changing rooms on the island, including one in Old Harbor , but they can be crowded and tight. Your best bet is to wear your suit under your clothes, and change before coming back on the ferry, as well as packing some flip flops, and a towel or two in a backpack or beach bag.
Towels can be purchased at various gift shops on the island, along with sunscreen, and other beach items, but they come at a premium, so it’s best to bring your own, along with a few plastic bags to stow wet items for the trip home.
And if you’re planning to rent a moped or bike, comfortable, closed-toe shoes are essential.
While all the ferries offer indoor seating, many people enjoy sitting outside for the crossing, especially on the traditional ferry, as seagulls often flank the boat, hoping for scraps of food from the passengers.
Sitting outside, however, usually requires a sweatshirt, jacket or sweater, because midway through the trip, it gets windy and cold. Finally, while most ferry crossings are relatively smooth, folks with a low threshold for seasickness might want to pack a box of Dramamine to have on hand, just in case.