On the third day of my trip to Block Island, a guy came up to me on the beach. He said, "what do people do around here?"
"Well, I've been to the beach six times," I said.
In the high-pressure, high-priced New York area, this porkchop-shaped island off the end of Long Island is a flash back to earlier, quieter decades. Less known and a little harder to get to than the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, or Martha's Vineyard, Block Island has largely resisted time. It's still a small-town place, with gorgeous beaches and beautiful nature trails, on a rural island of rolling hills and low stone walls. And it's considerably less expensive in high season than other beach resorts within driving distance of New York City.
Block Island doesn't have much area, but it has a lot of terrain. It's only about six miles long and three miles wide, but in that space you have two very small towns (Old Harbor, otherwise known as "town," and New Harbor), two historic lighthouses, at least half a dozen nature trails, and a dozen beaches of different varieties.
Within a five-mile stretch, you can hit a beach at the bottom of dramatic bluffs, a convenient little beach just around the corner from the ferry dock; a different beach full of toddlers digging holes in the sand; a glossy, broad, white-sand beach with showers and fried food available on demand; and a plain of mud flats full of clams and scurrying fiddler crabs.
One perfect island morning, my wife and I hopped on our bikes and zipped down a country road where we discovered a pond full of ducks and a swing hanging from a tree. Our two-year-old daughter popped out of her little bike trailer to chase the ducks for a while and dangle from the swing.
The next day, we did a little bit of shopping (really, there's only a little bit of shopping), grabbed some ice cream with homemade, chocolate-flavored whipped cream, spent an hour at the stunningly well-stocked local library reading picture books, and rolled down to a playground by the harbor.
We spent a lot of time at the beach. Town Beach, about a 10-minute walk outside of town, is the most popular thanks to its pavilion with showers, changing rooms, and a restaurant; you can also rent chairs, umbrellas and little tents. It's always crowded, though. Quieter beaches are found a few miles north or west of town; on the west side of the island especially, it's easy to hit beaches with nobody else there to see. Andy's Way, about two miles north of town, dead-ends at a beach on a tidal pond which comes alive with crabs and shellfish at low tide.
As you might surmise, this place is great for family getaways. There's a lot to do, it's just not packaged, branded, or structured. There are no chain restaurants, chain hotels or national anything (though there is the National Hotel), and the Islanders like it that way. Instead, there's a little zoo with emus and lemurs; a lighthouse with a spiral staircase; harbors of private boats; twisty trails, and lots of hole-digging, crab-hunting, and beach-running. By day three, our toddler could find her own way to the beach.
During the winter, the island becomes a cozy place for a romantic weekend. I've been there in November, and a few hotels and restaurants are still open. Traffic gets really sparse, and it's easy to find a deserted beach for a peaceful walk.
The Island's budget lodgings pride themselves on staying resolutely 20th (or even 19th) century in an era of 21st-century amenities. The island's best-located, best-priced budget hotel is a complex called the Gables, smack on the small town's main street, with two buildings of hotel rooms with private or shared bath and several small apartments.
The Gables is basically run as a large bed-and-breakfast by its proprietor, Barbara, who keeps prices down by doing way too much work herself. Rooms are spotless and cozy, but don't have air-conditioning, phones or TVs. The best way to get a reservation is to keep calling Barbara on the phone until she eventually picks up. Rates vary room by room and day by day. That's just how Block Island works.
At the Narragansett Inn over in New Harbor, rooms are extremely basic: a bed, a table, a sink. They're also clean and set in a gorgeous Victorian building by a beautiful harbor, where the first-floor TV room has an overflowing shelf of board games and the all-you-can-eat, $11.50 brunch features a killer blueberry cobbler.
For more upscale lodging, the 1661 Inn is a classic Island choice. A short walk up a hill from town, the small hotel's nine rooms have their own decks, fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. Rates start at $120 for weekdays in fall.
For budget eats, we kept returning to Rebecca's, a little takeout place across the street from the ferry dock. Rebecca's is where the island's young workers eat, and the food is basic, fresh and usually fried. Their $9.95 fish and chips is the cheapest on the island, and you get three filets for the price.
Fish, whether it's fried, broiled or baked, is the island staple, and Finn's, a combination fish market and restaurant right by the ferry dock, is the best place to eat fish and shellfish on the island. Sit outside to save money, with $9.95 fish sandwiches and $14.95 fish and chips; duck inside for a meal of market-priced lobster. When we wanted a break from the fish, we turned to Harry's, a cheerful ethnic mashup of a restaurant at the end of the town's main street, with gigantic $9.75 burritos and $12 pad thai.
Bethany's Airport Diner, at the island's tiny but busy airport, serves hearty and reasonably priced breakfasts and lunches; a crab-cake eggs Benedict, with chunky pieces of real crab meat, runs $8.95. My two-year-old daughter announced that she'd eat her "airplane food" in the little wooden airplane set up for children just outside the diner, so she could watch Cessnas take off and land.
As you may have guessed, the island isn't much for nightlife. There are a few bars, but the true Block Island evening experience is a backyard barbecue in a rental house, a small bonfire on the beach (illegal, but often tolerated) or having a few drinks on the gracious veranda of one of the island's Victorian hotels, such as the Spring House, with its sweeping lawns down to the sea.
Block Island's quiet charm tends to attract a very faithful crowd. We met people who'd been coming there eight, ten or 20 years in a row. We know we'll be back next year.
Including the ferry ride, it takes about four and a half hours to get to Block Island from New York City, or around three from Boston.
During high season (Memorial Day-Labor Day), Block Island is served by ferries from New London, CT; Point Judith, RI and Montauk, NY. Through Sept. 28, the New London ferry runs on weekends, and the dock is just across the street from New London's Amtrak station. The Point Judith ferry is the only one that runs year-round. If you don't have a car, the best bet is to take Amtrak to Kingston, RI and then a 20-minute, $30 ride via Wakefield Cab (tel. 401/783-0007) to the ferry dock. The public RIPTA #66 bus makes the trip in 50 minutes for a mere $1.75, but Rhode Island keeps talking about cutting that bus service.
Reserving lodgings is strictly old-school. Most hotels are family-run, and many rates are negotiable. For basic B&B accommodations, pick up the phone and call Barbara at the Gables, tel. 401/466-2213. The Narragansett Inn, in New Harbor about a mile from the ferry dock, has rooms starting at $75; call tel. 401/466-2626. As the season winds down, $99 specials pop up at the more luxurious Manisses Inn near town; call tel. 800/626-4773 for details. The same phone numbers serves the romantic 1661 Inn. Several Island real estate agents, including Sullivan Real Estate (www.blockislandhouses.com) rent out full houses by the week; the Gables also has apartments rented by the week.
As a small island, Block Island is best seen by bicycle or on foot. Taxis are always waiting by the ferry dock, and if you really want to, you can rent a car at the Old Harbor Bike Shop near the ferry dock (www.oldharborbikeshop.com). I don't recommend renting a moped, though. These dorky motorized scooters are popular, but Islanders generally hate them because they're noisy and accident-prone. We got our bikes from Island Moped and Bike (tel. 401/466-2700), just behind the Harborside Inn. They rent trailers for little kids to ride behind their parents' bikes.