Block Island is an anachronism. As you bike or walk its narrow roads, past lemonade stands and beach roses, you feel jarred by the occasional passing of a car. The birds you see—northern harriers, Savannah sparrows, barn owls—have all but disappeared from the Rhode Island mainland, just 12 miles away. There are more than 300 seemingly untouched ponds, and vast, hilly grasslands sectioned off by stone fences built by settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since the 1960's, much of the land has been sold to conservation groups for a small fraction of its worth by islanders who would rather savor the shadbush than make millions on development. This no-nonsense attitude is typical here. The 850 year-round residents give Block Island—along with its well-cared-for inns and restaurants and shops—the kind of down-home air that its stylish neighbors to the east, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, devote themselves to re-creating. The difference is that Block Island is not exclusive; there's something here for everyone. And, there's nothing "of the moment"—unless the moment you're referring to is sometime in the 1600's.
Several ferry services make daily crossings to and from the island in high season. The Viking Fleet (516/668-5700) travels between Montauk on New York's Long Island and Block Island's New Harbor. By night the boat is a casino; by day it's chastened, with green tarps thrown over the casino tables. If you want to bring a car, you'll have to travel from New London, Connecticut, or Point Judith, Rhode Island, with the Interstate Navigation Co. (401/783-4613).
New England Airlines (800/243-2460 or 401/596-2460) flies hourly to the island from Westerly, Rhode Island; the flight takes 13 minutes.
Block Island is only seven miles long and 3 1/2 miles wide, so nearly everyone bikes or walks. Rental cars are expensive and parking space is scarce. See What to Do for information on bike rentals, but be warned: the island is hilly. If you're not prepared for a workout, rent a car or moped for at least one day during your trip. Try Old Harbor Bike Shop (401/466-2029) for moped rentals. If you prefer to see the far reaches of the island by taxi, or would like a tour given by a charismatic insider, try Nat's Taxi (401/932-4165).
Many of the island's inns and hotels rent at least six months in advance. If you're planning a last-minute trip, or want to extend your stay once you're on the island, check out the chamber of commerce's list of cancellations (401/466-2982).
Atlantic Inn High St.; 800/224-7422 or 401/466-5883, fax 401/466-5678; doubles $140. The lobby, bar, and dining rooms here make you feel as if you could step out the front door and call for your horse and carriage. The 21 pleasant guest rooms are decorated with an eclectic range of antiques, and the restaurant is fabulous. From the veranda, you get an unbeatable view of the six-acre grounds (with tennis courts and a croquet lawn) and the ocean.
Seabreeze Inn Spring St.; 800/786-2276 or 401/466-2275; doubles $100, cottages $210. Staying in a room in one of the four guest houses here, you can live the New England seaside fantasy: you're in a simple cottage overlooking a wildflower meadow and within earshot of the ocean's waves. There are a lot of sun-bleached wooden steps meandering among flowering shrubs. Inside, you walk barefoot on painted wood floors and braided rugs. As the evening falls, you turn on your antique lamp and settle down to a book. Wake-up call: half the inn's 10 rooms share baths; they're best suited to groups or families. Among the three suites, the best is No. 10.
Eastgate House Spring St.; 401/466-2164; doubles $250. Here's where to stay if you want to live like a very fortunate Block Islander, in one of three tastefully designed and decorated guest rooms, each a mixture of modern convenience and antique style, in a rambling Cape-style house. The view from the Captain's Room — as well as from its private porch and Jacuzzi tub — is perfect. And whether you decide on eggs, pastries, or pancakes, breakfast will be one of the tastiest meals you eat on the island. Nancy Harris, who owns the inn with her husband Richard, will either leave you alone (if that's what you'd like) or give you priceless advice on how best to enjoy the island.
Hygeia House Beach Ave.; 401/466-9616; doubles $215, including continental breakfast. This house, with its stately mansard roof, was built in the late 1880's as the office and residence of the island physician. After a 20-year abandonment, it was rescued by new owners just last fall. The inn is almost a mile from downtown, on a hill overlooking New Harbor. The 10 well-renovated rooms are Victorian without being the slightest bit froufrou. Each of the rooms has original dressers and bed frames, a private bath, and an ocean view. In the main hallway the doctor's 90-year-old medical bag is displayed, with vials of elixirs, ointments, and various instruments.
Spring House Hotel Spring St.; 800/234-9263 or 401/466-5844, fax 401/466-2633; doubles $175. A throwback to another era, this grand place has rested on its laurels for many years. The food in the dining room, for example, is merely good, on an island that has some great restaurants. But the hotel makes up for it with vast, wonderfully old-world bars and sitting areas. The 49 guest rooms, studios, and suites were redecorated in the 1980's with wall-to-wall carpeting that hardly matches the reproduction Victorian light fixtures and furniture. But that's the price you pay for the feeling that you're a part of history, and for the chance to have your cocktail on a beautiful covered porch that can accommodate 100 without seeming the least bit crowded.
Hotel Manisses Spring St.; 800/626-4773 or 401/466-2836, fax 401/466-3162; doubles $165. The 17 Victorian rooms in this rambling 1872 manor on the edge of town are slightly stuffy. But the hotel has a nice spirit about it, and great service. Four of the guest rooms have whirlpools. The restaurant is excellent, and the bar is the place to be for cocktails. Take your drink and explore the grounds; it won't be long before you find the exotic animal farm, which includes llamas, emus, fainting goats, and a zebu.
1661 Spring Street; 800/626-4773 or 401/466-2836, fax 401/466-3162; doubles $165. Something between an inn and a hotel, this white Colonial inn and adjacent clapboard guesthouse are owned and run by Hotel Manisses. The nine rooms are decorated in a somewhat haphazard manner, but the staff is friendly and professional, and the hillside ocean views are breathtaking.