Viewed from above or on a map, Block Island looks like a pork chop with a big bite taken out of the middle. Only 7 miles long and 3 miles wide, it is edged with long stretches of beach lifting at points into dramatic bluffs. The interior is dimpled with undulating hills, only rarely reaching above 150 feet in elevation. Its hollows and clefts cradle over 300 sweet-water ponds, some no larger than a backyard swimming pool. That "bite" out of the western edge of the "chop" is Great Salt Pond, which almost succeeds in cutting the island in two but, as it is, serves as a fine protected harbor for fleets of pleasure boats.
The only significant concentration of houses, businesses, hotels, and people is at Old Harbor, on the lower eastern shore, where most of the ferries from the mainland arrive and most of the remaining fishing boats moor.
Named for Adrian Block, a Dutch explorer who briefly stepped ashore in 1641, the island's earliest European settlement was in 1661, and it has since attracted the kinds of people who nurture fierce convictions of independence, fueled in part by the streaks of paranoia that led them to live on a speck of land with no physical connection to the mainland. In the past, that has meant farmers, pirates, fishermen, smugglers, scavengers, and entrepreneurs, all of them willing to deal with the realities of isolation, lonely winters, and occasional killer hurricanes. Today there are about 1,000 permanent residents of similar pluck and enterprise who tough it out 9 months a year waiting for the sun to stay awhile.
Vacationers are wont to describe this as paradise -- and they are correct, at least if sun and sea and zephyrs are paramount considerations. Those elements transformed the island from an offshore afterthought into an accessible summer retreat for the urban middle class after the Civil War, in America's first taste of mass tourism.
Unlike other such regions throughout the country that have lost their sprawling Victorian hotels to fire or demolition, Block Island has preserved many of its buildings from that time. They crowd around Old Harbor, providing most of the lodging base. Smaller inns and B&Bs add more tourist rooms, most in converted houses built at the same time as the great hotels. There are only a few establishments that even resemble motels, and building stock is marked, with few exceptions, by tasteful Yankee understatement. Despite the ominous presence of a few houses that resemble those plunked down in potato fields in ultrachic precincts of New York's Long Island, development so far remains under control, and there exist no franchised eateries or shops of any kind -- this is not the place to have a Big Mac attack.
Away from the sand and surf, it is an island of peaceful pleasures and gentle observations. Police officers wear Bermuda shorts and ride bikes. Children tend lemonade stands in front of picket fences and low hedges. Clumps of hydrangeas tangle with beach roses and honeysuckle, hiding the foundations of saltboxes and Victorian farmhouses with shingles scoured gray by sea winds. No squirrels, chipmunks, possums, or raccoons live on The Block, but the island is in the middle of a prominent flyway for migratory birds, and egrets, ducks, goldfinches, and kingfishers are seen in abundance. Deer were introduced about 30 years ago, to the islanders' current regret, bringing Lyme disease and the four-hoofed enthusiasm for turning flowerbeds into salad bars.