I guess you could come up with worse places than Block Island to ride out a tropical storm. That’s what I did back in 1996, when I found myself holed up in Old Harbor, on the island’s east side, after getting caught by a rapidly moving storm while fishing with Point Judith charter skipper Capt. Mitch Chagnon. The next 2 days were kind of a blur, as we camped out in Chagnon’s 31 JC, the Sakarak, and partied with the locals and other boaters who were stranded on the island.
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It was a blast! The rainy, windy days were spent touring the island with a couple of friendly locals, and I began to see why this lump of glacial till some 12 miles off the mainland has such different character than similar lumps of till, namely Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
First sighted by Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524, Block Island lies 12 miles south of Point Judith, Rhode Island, and 14 miles east of Montauk, New York. The 11-square-mile island (5 miles long by 3 miles wide), created by glaciers around 10,000 years ago, has some 850 year-round residents (summertime population is estimated at 20,000), most of whom want to keep the island from becoming overdeveloped. Strict zoning laws prohibit sprawl and commercialization, as evidenced by the island’s “low-profile” houses and buildings and large areas of open land, much of it protected by conservation restrictions.
The island has 2 harbors: Old Harbor and Great Salt Pond, the primary port for visiting boaters. The pond was a landlocked water body until 1898, when a breach was opened in the beach to link it with the ocean, creating what’s officially known as New Harbor. The harbor measures 1 mile long by a 1/2-mile wide, and offers excellent protection from the wind in all directions, although severe storms can cause boats to drag anchor in the pond.
If you’re looking for an easy-access family beach, head for Fred Benson Town Beach, just north of Old Harbor.
Ninety fixed moorings maintained by the town are available to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, and there’s a large anchorage along the east side of the pond where you’re likely to find space to drop the hook, even on busy summer weekends. Old Port Launch offers service to and from the Block Island Boat Basin—a busy place during the summer. The basin is home to a dinghy dock, a marine-supply store, The Oar restaurant, and a grocery store. Bike and moped rentals are available next door. Other New Harbor marinas include the sprawling Champlin’s facility and Payne’s Dock.
If you want to get to know the Great Salt Pond more intimately, consider paddling a kayak or SUP (rentals are available nearby) or taking a small dinghy to explore the pond’s shallow sand and mud flats on the northern and eastern ends. You can also explore Cormorant Cove (just south of the harbor entrance) or poke into the tidal creek on the southwest corner and follow it into Trims Pond and the surrounding saltmarsh. This is a great area for kids to explore.
While the Great Salt Pond may see the majority of boating traffic, the hub of Block Island is Old Harbor, a manmade harbor created in 1870 when stone breakwaters and a dock were built on the southeast side of the island to accommodate ferries from the mainland. There are few options for transient boaters here, although it’s worth a call to the New Shoreham Harbormaster to see if there’s room to anchor or an available slip. The downtown area is home to 3 large Victorian-style hotels—the Harborside, the National and the Surf—as well as numerous restaurants, boutiques, a theatre, ice-cream shops and other small businesses.
Since Block Island is so small, it’s easy to tour the whole island in a day via bicycle or moped. Some 30 miles of hiking trails also wind throughout the island’s interior. Visitors should plan a visit to the Mohegan Trail, which runs along the island’s southeast coast and leads to the iconic Southeast Light, the famous lighthouse that sits atop Southeast Point. This tower-style lighthouse was built in 1875, and the beacon is visible from 21 miles at sea. The Block Island Southeast Light Foundation (401-466-5009) offers guided tours.
Off Southeast Light Road, Mohegan Bluffs drop 150′ to the sandy beach below, which can be reached via a long, wooden stairway. This state-managed site is well known for its excellent view of the island’s dramatic southern coastline and of historic Southeast Lighthouse. There’s good surf fishing here as well.
Another worthwhile excursion is biking the Black Rock Trail, which passes through the Enchanted Forest in the Greenway, the largest tract of undeveloped land on the island.
A short bike ride from town, on the southern end of the island, is the spectacular Rodmans Hollow, now a 50-acre nature preserve, which was formed by glacial outwash. The hollow, with access off Cooneymus Road, features numerous walking trails that wind through thickets and fields, and is home to a variety of birds and small mammals, including the one and only Block Island meadow vole.
If you’re looking for an easy-access family beach, Fred Benson Town Beach is long, sandy public beach with lifeguards just north of Old Harbor, off Corn Neck Road. It’s also easy to reach from the Great Salt Pond. The beach is a popular location for walking, sunbathing, and swimming. It has a large, free parking area, bike racks, and a pavilion with changing rooms. Umbrellas beach chairs and boogie boards are available for rent. Showers are $2.
Another popular beach is Mansion Beach, at the eastern end of Mansion Road—a sandy lane and right-of-way on the northeast side of the island. This is a long, beautiful beach below bluffs that overlook Rhode Island Sound. It’s an excellent site for picnics and swimming, and for wildlife observation off-season.
Solitude seekers and wildlife lovers will want to spend some time at the 127-acre Block Island National Wildlife Refuge, on the northern tip of the island. The refuge has trails leading through the vast coastal marshland, around the perimeter of brackish Sachem Pond, and out to North Lighthouse and Sandy Point. The area boasts incredible birdlife, especially during the spring and fall migratory periods.
The above are just a few of Block Island’s many attractions. But make sure you leave yourself a few days to explore them all. In fact, you might even try to coordinate your visit around a major storm, although you might never leave.
Video Courtesy Block Island Tourism Council: