Travel Guide: Block Island on Foot
Story and Photographs by Heather Caulfield Mills
As the ferry approaches the shore, a row of Victorian hotels and shop-fronts emerge from the fog as if frozen in time. It is the end of summer. The crowds have returned to the city and this town of New Shoreham, RI has a tantalizingly abandoned air about it. You disembark onto a two-way thoroughfare, Block Island’s “downtown.” Anything you might want — from a good book to fresh catch — is just a quick walk in either direction. At seven miles long and 3 miles wide, Block Island is the perfect car-less getaway, with hidden trails and remote sites best explored by walking or pedaling.
There’s a powerful sense of history wherever you go on the Island — whether following an ancient stonewall through the woods, or lingering at the mound of mossy gravestones marked “Indian Cemetery.” Markers are situated on the edge of beaches and along roads throughout the Island, commemorating battles, shipwrecks, and Native American history. The architecture is also fascinating, crowned by two unique lighthouses, majestic Victorian resorts, and many lovely cottages. Visit the Historical Society or stop by Island Bound bookstore to learn local folklore and find out about haunted places like the Surf Hotel. Stop by Painted Rock (exactly what it sounds like), where Block Islanders have recorded personal and international events since 1962, and perhaps leave a message of your own.
The Island has many acres of preserved land. You’ll spot wildlife like deer and waterfowl as you hike trails through dense forest, along open pastureland, or up sandy bluffs. Take your bike on dirt trails or winding roads where you’ll pass weather-beaten homesteads, old graveyards, and lily-covered ponds. Explore Rodman’s Hollow, a deep valley of narrow, brush-lined paths, where the air vibrates all around you with the hum of bees hidden amongst the wildflowers. For one of the best views on the Island, take a left off the ferry and head up the main road to Mohegan Bluffs, an incredible cliff-face that rises 150 feet above the ocean. If you’re feeling brave, there’s an impressive staircase that goes all the way down to the beach.
Back in town, there are a variety of restaurants, inns, and shops above the ferry landing. The Farmer’s Market takes place on Saturdays all summer and into fall, and the Island hosts music, food, and art festivals throughout the year. Accommodations range from luxurious to authentic Victorian – complete with precarious 3-foot wide staircases, no A/C but an open window, and rooms only slightly larger than their beds. There are plenty of places to eat, and important things – like ice cream, pastries, and coffee – are easy to find, too. For breakfast, sit on the porch at Froozies, or join the hippie surfers at Juice N Java for earthy specialties like blueberry-acai breakfast bowls. There’s a small grocery store for picnic essentials, and several convenient places to rent bikes or (mopeds). You’ll find the usual tourist shops, along with tiny boutiques like The Glass Onion. If you wander into the shed-like candy store, be ready for the cantankerous guy behind the counter to tell you a story or two. Try your hand at a game of chess outside the Island Free Library, and say hello to the friendly cat usually dozing there in the sun.
What I love about Block Island is its intimacy, its rugged, unassuming New England charm. I love that I can leave my car on the mainland and yet become so well acquainted with a place. During the long winter months and into spring, perhaps you, too, will find yourself daydreaming about this remotest of Atlantic islands - it’s time-worn houses and quiet beaches, and the wild beauty of its wind-twisted trees and overgrown meadows.