Block Island, Rhode Island
Published: May 2009
By Jessica Dineen
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.
Surf Hotel Dodge and Water Sts.; 401/466-2241, fax 401/466-5686; doubles $99. A wild, wild world unto itself, the family-run Surf rents 47 rooms (with shared baths) by the week, a year in advance. The entrance and lobby are alive with chirping parakeets and all manner of guests playing games. At the busy intersection of Dodge and Water, this is probably the only place in town where you might see a guest resting his bare feet on the porch railing so passers-by can enjoy the smiley faces painted on his heels.
Eli's Restaurant Chapel St.; 401/466-5230; dinner for two $58. This is the most frenetic, exciting place on the island. The energy is contagious, so it's easy to forget you're on a quiet island — until you realize that you've been at your table for an hour and a half working your way through lobster tails baked with scallop, shrimp, bacon, and apple stuffing, served with a mound of wild rice and vegetables, and nobody's rushing you. Much has been made of the portions here: thrifty islanders recommend that you get dinner at Eli's your first night, then eat the leftovers for the duration of your stay.
Atlantic Inn High St.; 800/224-7422 or 401/466-5883; dinner for two $85. The restaurant at this venerable inn ties with Eli's for best on the island. Atlantic's dining room is the kind of elegant space that makes everyone in it feel serene. The dishes, such as roasted tilapia with quinoa and an orange vanilla reduction, are rich and interesting yet usually subtly flavored.
Hotel Manisses Spring St.; 800/626-4773 or 401/466-2836; dinner for two $70. Part of the dining room is reminiscent of an old stone tavern, and part is a conservatory looking out on beautiful gardens and a patio with additional tables. The restaurant is not as consistent as it was a few years ago, but it is a gem nonetheless. Try the sautéed striped bass over couscous with a Grand Marnier beurre blanc.
Beachead Restaurant Corn Neck Rd.; 401/466-2249; dinner for two $58. Ever since new owners remodeled this Block Island fixture last summer, it has become the best spot to go when you must satisfy an urge for a juicy sirloin steak or burger. The dining room is cozy, with a gas fireplace, and it looks out over Crescent Beach. The bar has some of the best beach and harbor views in town. As local food lovers will tell you, chef Norman Ward cooked at another island fixture, Dead Eye Dick's, "when it was still great."
The top seafood takeout joints are Finn's Seafood Restaurant (Water St.; 401/466-2473) and Old Harbor Takeout (Water St.; 401/466-2935), both in Old Harbor. At Finn's, try the 11/4-pound lobster with corn on the cob ($17.95) and a great old-fashioned "cabinet" (New England milk shake with ice cream, for those who need translation; $2.95), and sample the oyster bar.
Froozies (on the back porch of the National Hotel; 401/466-2230) sells vegetarian sandwiches as well as its namesake: pure fruit juice mixed with frozen fruit. It seems an odd concept until you try one.
The sweetest fudge on the island is at Blocks of Fudge (Chapel St.; 401/466-5196). Try the pistachio, penuche, amaretto swirl, or cookies-and-cream varieties (all $8.50 per pound). You'll also find a giddying selection of candy that includes penny candy, saltwater taffy, rock candy, and other things you just can't go without, such as Mega Warheads, Raven's Revenge Stingers, Fantasy Ball gum lollipops, and Alien pops.
The Ice Cream Place (Weldon's Way; 401/466-2145) — with an emphasis on the — is aptly named. This shop would hold its own anywhere. The ice cream sundae, with excellent freshly whipped cream, is so good you probably won't be able to resist having one every day you're on the island.
Everyone feels like an islander at the busy Ernie's Old Harbor Restaurant (Water St.; 401/466-2473), whose back porch faces the harbor. On the front porch, you'll encounter a mixed crowd of tourists and regulars standing around for a table. The pancakes and eggs — even the muffins — are worth every second of the wait.
Trails at Clay Head, off Corn Neck Road, wind through grassy fields where delicate flowers bloom, under canopies of trees, and along a bluff covered with heather and wild roses. The shortest trail, Clay Head, opens onto a well-protected, sandy bay punctuated by large rocks. Snorkeling is good here, or you can lay down your towel behind a rock and imagine that you've washed up on a deserted island.
Both the Narragansett Inn (New Harbor; 401/466-2626) and Highview Inn (Connecticut Ave.; 401/466-2800) are weathered old summer hotels that have found a niche with the youth-hostel set. But at five o'clock, their bars are a favorite hangout for seasoned Block Islanders. Under the camp lights at the Narragansett's long, dark, oak bar and wraparound porch, you'll find fishermen and other harbor workers letting off steam or, if they're lucky, enjoying the dry wit of the hotel's elderly owner, Eleanor Mott; the bar's western exposure makes it the place to watch the sunset. And while most of the Highview's guests opt for the ribs at Club Soda, a small, more discerning group sip cocktails in a sumptuous Victorian bar with mural-bedecked walls.
OUTDOORS All things natural are revered on Block Island, and the Nature Conservancy supplies a detailed map and booklet outlining every species and plant you could hope to observe during your trip. You can pick up the information from Elva Derby at either the Block Island Chamber of Commerce (800/383-2474 or 401/466-2474) or the conservancy's office (High St.; 401/466-2129). One of the nicest walks is at Mohegan Bluffs, which has a lookout point and more than 150 steps leading down to a dramatically beautiful, rocky beach. Along the way, watch for belted kingfishers, oystercatchers, sanderlings, and Canada geese.
BIKING This is the primary pastime on Block Island. Heavy competition among rental outfits (though close inspection reveals that several of them are in fact run by members of the Aldo family) means there will always be a bicycle available somewhere, and nearly all are of the same sturdy quality and style. During high season a day's rental will cost about $20. Aldo (Weldon's Way; 401/466-5018) has a location at both harbors. Another option: Beach Rose Bicycles (behind the Rose Farm Inn, accessible via Roslyn Road or the Spring House Hotel driveway; 401/466-2034). The Old Harbor Bike Shop (401/466-2029) rents bikes, mopeds, and cars. The chamber of commerce, which has an office in the parking lot across from the Block Island ferries, publishes a biking guide with a beautiful map and descriptions of the most scenic routes.
PARASAILING The best way to appreciate how unspoiled Block Island really is may be to see it from 1,200 feet up. Only one company, Block Island Parasail (401/864-2474; $55 for a half-hour), offers parasailing. It also rents out jet boats by the half-hour ($55).
SNORKELING AND DIVING Snorkel equipment is available at a good price from Oceans & Ponds (Ocean and Connecticut Aves.; 800/678-4701 or 401/466-5131). The best diving outfitter is Island Outfitters & Dive Shop (Ocean Ave.; 401/466-5502). Daily dive charters include a tour of nine island wrecks.
KAYAKING Roadside at the Great Salt Pond near Champlin's Marina, the Aldo family rears its head again. This time it's to offer kayak, bumper boat, and paddleboat rentals on the pond, by the hour (reservations are recommended; 401/466-5811). The price is good, but the clerk is likely to be a teenager who doesn't have a lot to say about where you should go. If you're more serious about kayaking, and would like a full-service rental with all the advice and help you may need, try Block Island's Orvis dealer, Oceans & Ponds (see above). As the name implies, this shop will facilitate both ocean and pond kayaking or canoeing for you, by the half-day ($35 for two people) or longer. It also offers private, one-day fly-fishing instruction and charter fishing trips.
HORSEBACK RIDING Rustic Rides Farm (West Side Rd.; 401/466-5060; $30) is the real deal. If you didn't grow up on a farm, you might experience a little culture shock. You sign up for your trip beside the paddock, amid freely wandering peacocks, and then pick out your horse with the staff. (The farm's widely distributed coupon reads BUCK OFF!) One guided ride follows a nature trail, and another takes you to a beach. If your guide happens to show up riding bareback and shirtless, wearing surfer shorts that reveal the word Tennessee tattooed across his lower back, consider yourself lucky: he's very friendly and well-informed, and his tour is excellent. (FYI, Tennessee is the name of his horse back home.)
PILING ROCKS No matter how remote the beach you find yourself on, you'll discover pillars of carefully stacked round rocks. Your role: Add one to the top without toppling the masterpiece — and sometimes it really is a masterpiece.
LEMONADE STANDS Throughout the island, there are self-serve stands for visiting walkers and bikers. Your role: Decide which has the most beautiful sign and which has the best-tasting lemonade. Our vote for best sign is the one across from Eastgate House (see Where to Stay).
PAINTED ROCK In the middle of the T-junction of Mohegan Trail and Lakeside Drive, there is a large rock on which a new painted message and decoration mysteriously appear almost every day or night. You might find WELCOME HOME DANNY, SUE LOVES JIM, or a polka-dot-adorned PAINT THIS AND DIE. Your role: Take note and move on.
There's no shortage of tourist-inspired clothing and knickknacks on the island's main shopping drags, Dodge and Water Streets. But there are also a number of shops that would be standouts anywhere. If you want to write home on Papier Vergé de France stationery, or would consider wearing your new Kaminski hat back on the ferry, the only place to get it is the Glass Onion (241 Water St.; 401/466-5161). The store also stocks a variety of handled baskets that make great beach bags.
Boatworks (Corn Neck Rd.; 401/466-2033) is the place for all the essentials of island life — sandals, bathing suits, hammocks, Adirondack chairs, and beach umbrellas.
The two-story Red Herring (232 Water St.; 401/466-2541) sells everything from blank books to furniture, and delivers. It stocks Maine Cottage Furniture's full line — a surprising number of travelers seem to buy Maine-style furniture here — as well as Silas Hall pine tables and wall cabinets, made in Rhode Island.
Among the large and varied selection of gift items at Watercolors (Dodge St.; 401/466-2538) are glass-tiled canisters and apothecary jars, engraved copper frames, and jewelry made with local sea glass. The shelves at Scarlett Begonia (Dodge St.; 401/466-5024) are packed with objects that betray a deep nostalgia for the Victorian era, including reasonably priced dolls made of patterned chenille bedspreads. There are local finds here, too, such as tiles by Melinda Kelley, who has a studio on the west side of the island; and resident Pat Doyle's scone and bread mixes. Another good place to see islanders' creative work is the Spring Street Gallery (Spring St.; 401/466-5374).