Rhode Island’s Best Kept Secret: The Seaside Escape Called Block Island

by ELYSIAN Magazine

A step back in time, miles away from the ordinary

By Fallon Masterson

Rhode Islanders know summer has arrived when we hear the siren song of a radio jingle: “Sail away on the Block Island ferry; take a trip back to carefree times,” voices sing in island patios over steel drums. “Leave today; Block Island awaits you. Just leave your troubles behind.”

The Caribbean-inspired anthem may seem strange for a 10-square-mile island that’s 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. But the tiny state of Rhode Island/not-an-island is nothing if not aspirational, and the Bermuda of the North is one of our best-kept secrets.

Simply put, Block Island is the real-life rendering of a New England storybook, replete with rolling hills, pastoral stone walls, and tales of buried pirate treasure. Bayberry, moors, coves, wild roses, Victorian inns that housed Kennedy weddings, and 365 ponds—one for each day of the year— fill the landscape.

The island acts as an Atlantic midpoint to its flashier summering cousins, Montauk and Newport. But the T-bone-shaped slice of rock is hardly flyover (or yacht-around) territory.

You can take a plane to Block Island, but the preferred method is the famed ferry. Both 30-minute high-speed ferries and 55-minute traditional ferries routinely leave Point Judith-Galilee, where you can abandon your car on the Rhode Island mainland for $10 per day. It’s not unusual to receive waves of farewell from the fishing port, and the last time I traveled, I spotted a family with a seaside home standing on their deck. The father raised his mug to us all like we were sailors making a courageous journey. In reality, we were two decks stacked with beach furniture, dogs, backpacking adventurers, excited families, and bemused islanders who had traveled to the mainland to pick up a package. A bar on the middle deck serving more than 60 drinks with names like Coco No Loco, Goombay Smash, and BI Beach Cruiser ensures that, for some, vacation will start immediately.

Sailboats moored in Old Harbor on the east side of the island. (Photo credit: Block Island Tourism Council)

Old Harbor is both representative and misleading of what to expect. Adjacent to the docks are the beaches and packed decks of Ballard’s—the bustling seaside venue that will remind you most of your proximity to Long Island. Upon arrival you can also see, peeking over hills, the blades of wind turbines. Block Island has the only offshore wind farm in the country. It’s a move in line with their conservationist spirit (44 percent of Block Island is preserved land) but unexpectedly modern for a place with a movie theater from the 19th century.

At 7 miles long and 3 miles wide, Block Island is meant to be explored by foot, bicycle, or for the more adventurous, mopeds. (Ferries book cars months in advance.) Besides, the magic is in the wandering. A short walk uphill from Old Harbor is the 1661 Inn and Farm. The farm operates a free petting zoo, and the animals range from alpacas to a kangaroo, lemurs, and a one-eyed zedonk named Cindy, all in the most unexpected of landscapes.

Another treasure for those willing to put in the effort is the Mohegan Bluffs. An adventurous friend in search of surf talked me into hiking down the steep trail of 140 steps to the rocky and secluded beach below. The 150-foot bluffs are made of green clay, loose to the touch. “This is a ‘Sailor, you’re home!’ view,” my friend said appreciatively from the bottom, gazing at the bluffs.

Simply put, Block Island is the real-life rendering of a New England storybook, replete with rolling hills, pastoral stone walls and tales of buried pirate treasure.

Even if you don’t descend, the view from the top of Mohegan Bluffs is a showstopper, and with the Southeast Lighthouse looming nearby, it is peak New England. In terms of capturing the island’s essence, the Spring House runs a close second. Block Island is dotted with Victorian lodging, but Spring House is arguably the grandest and most known, with a sprawling porch, excellent outdoor bar, and a guest list that includes Ulysses S. Grant. A large lawn is well-suited for tumbling kids, and Adirondack chairs line the hillside. The vista takes in the still waters of Boiling Spring and, beyond that, the ocean. If you want to go fully blue blood, visit the nearby Atlantic Inn for their croquet courts.

Once you’ve tired of natural majesties and finding the best Mudslide (hint: at The Oar), I suggest ending any day in New Harbor. Mahogany Shoals, located in the heart of Payne’s Dock, is a destination for locals and tourists, with a consistent lineup of live Irish music. On my last visit, I listened to two men argue as one insisted that he’d been flanked by dolphins on his sail into the harbor

“I’ve never heard of that before,” the man replied. “I’ve been sailing 30 years here.”

One gets the sense that no matter how much time you spend on Block Island, despite its size, there’s always something new to unearth.


this was first published on November 5, 2019

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