Travel Local: Block Island

From beach-filled days to starry nights and everything in between, a local’s essential guide to this island destination

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In an algorithmically driven day and age, establishing natural connections with people and places can be a challenge. The benefits of a relaxed and exhilarating getaway can’t be overstated. Once you harness the interconnectedness of life on Block Island, it’s an easy spell to fall under. So go ahead, get yourself a ferry ticket: accept the humble invitation to fall in love with a new environment, to replace strangers with friends, and to slip into the rhythm of a slower world.

During the summer months, navigate the buzzing crowds of Old Harbor on the east side of Block Island, where there’s much fun to be had with a stellar bar scene, unique shopping district, and dining choices aplenty. Based on the activity of Water Street, one might guess that the whole place is teeming with people, but in reality, the island is much more than a busy seaside town. Just a quick drive away from the harbor offers empty beaches, lush trails, and the tranquility of another era. You just have to know where to find it. 

Based on this year’s informal yet reliable Groundhog Day Census, Block Island has roughly 1,000 year-round residents. This three-by-seven-mile island is also home to a deer herd nearly the size of its human counterpart, a single grocery store, and one K-12 school with just over 100 students. Size and scale aside, this community fearlessly and consistently punches above its weight. 

FRIENDLY FACES & SUSTAINABLE SPACES

The island maintains its beauty through collective participation in sustainability initiatives: they’ve banned balloons and plastic bags, beach cleanups are a favorite pastime, and environmental friendliness is passionately encouraged (islanders are advocates for regular friendliness, too – it’s a warm and congenial place). Environmental conservation was prioritized in the 1980s, and nearly half of the island’s open land has been successfully conserved in less than 50 years. In the early ‘90s, the Nature Conservancy named Block Island one of just 12 “Last Great Places” in the Western Hemisphere. 

In a historic partnership with Providence-based Deepwater Wind, Block Island took a step toward the dream of wind energy reliance with five offshore turbines. Completed in 2016, each turbine is twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, rotating dreamily a few miles off the coast. The Block Island Wind Farm is the first of its kind in the United States, setting the precedent for upcoming renewable energy projects on the eastern seaboard. Starry-eyed ambition isn’t looked down upon out here.  

Celebrated for their extensive natural spaces, islanders have conserved nearly 30 miles of easily accessible walking trails, all free and open to the public. Over 100 acres at the north end are designated a National Wildlife Refuge. From piping plovers to snowy owls, Block Island hosts one of the most important migratory bird habitats on the East Coast.

ATTRACTIONS & ADVENTURES

There are many ways to fill a day on Block Island. Yes, you can lounge on the beach from sunrise to sunset, and with 17 miles of coast, there are certainly plenty of spots to choose from. An early morning bike ride is an invigorating way to feel the crisp sea breeze, and a slew of bike rental businesses are ready to get you on your way. The Southeast Lighthouse and Block Island Historical Society are great midday stops, and any local taxi will give you a stellar tour of the island at large.

Taking in the Mohegan Bluffs offers the same view that has dazzled onlookers for centuries. Thanks to local conservation efforts, it’s an amazement we can all share for generations to come. That’s the beauty of this island. Years pass, times change, but its key components remain.  

If you’re interested in seeing the sights from a different angle, or you’re an avid angler, consider booking a fishing charter. Locals recommend Block Island Fishworks. If you didn’t love fishing before, you will after a day with Captain Hank.

Finish the day with a Block Island Ghost Tour, programming from the Block Island Maritime Institute, or a sunset horseback ride with Rustic Rides. Check the schedule for Soundwaves’ Movies on the Beach; there are few things better than watching a film with your toes in the sand, while the midsummer sun goes down over an open ocean. Ending up back on the beach, multiple times a day, is certainly characteristic of the Block Island experience.

 

WAVE BYE-BYE TO THE LAST FERRY

Once the stars come out, Block Island is a different place. There’s no feeling quite like that last ferry leaving and knowing you have no place to be but here: staying the night is highly recommended. Many islanders endorse a stay at the Darius Inn, a boutique B&B run by sisters whose creative flair and hostessing expertise is the stuff of legend on Dodge Street and beyond.

Overlooking a vast Atlantic horizon is the 1661, where meticulously designed rooms and suites fill all four buildings on their Spring Street property. The 1661’s champagne breakfast, complete with complimentary bottomless mimosas, is an island favorite. All ages will enjoy the 1661 Farm and Garden, home to camels, black swans, lemurs, and a well-stocked farm stand.

 On the outskirts of Old Harbor find Payne’s Harborview Inn. A quick stroll to the Great Salt Pond boasts a full view of the harbor or  catch it from your own personal balconies.

 

SEAWORTHY SWEETS AND EATS

A stay at Payne’s warrants a visit to Payne’s Killer Donuts, where the smell of cinnamon sugar and salty air go surprisingly well together. While donuts are always an option, other locally owned breakfast nooks are in no short supply. Down a quiet alleyway on Dodge Street is Persephone’s Kitchen: here you will find the legendary Splendid Egg Sandwich, along with a collection of ornately crafted toasts, smoothie bowls, quiches, and lunch melts. Persephone’s parents, who are cafe regulars, will tell you the secret ingredient that makes everything taste so good is love, and they’re right.

The Cracked Mug, which just opened their second location on Payne’s Dock in New Harbor, offers perfect cups of locally roasted coffee and freshly baked pastries year-round. Explore another corner of the island and head to Bethany’s Airport Diner. With a view of the Block Island Airport – the second busiest in the state – you can watch New England Airlines’ fleet and private planes in action over a sky-high stack of pancakes. Would you have guessed that the Block Island Airport is the second busiest in the state?

What’s a mudslide and why is everyone talking about them around here? Find out at almost any local restaurant or bar, starting with a mini version of the popular cocktail at Los Gatitos. Throw in an order of nachos and achieve peak relaxation after a day of biking and beaching. Or maybe a skillet of pulled pork mac and cheese from Poor People’s Pub calls your name. 

For such a small island, there are plenty of dining options. Chef Erika Monat offers a fantastic menu at Eli’s Restaurant, a minuscule bistro nestled into the corner of Chapel Street and Weldon’s Way. Have a meal and martini on the wraparound veranda at the island’s oldest hotel, the Spring House. Admire this mansard-roofed beauty and its ocean views. Weddings here are booked years in advance for good reason. 

Walk barefoot through the Spring House gardens to the Atlantic Inn, where enjoying tapas and a glass of good wine on the lawn will become a coveted memory in the deep midwinter. Alternatively, book a dinner with Howarth Family Lobsters, a multi-generational Block Island lobstering business offering family-style lobster bakes wherever your home or rental on the island may be. Complete with corn on the cob and fresh baked potatoes, booking with the Howarths is about as “Block Island” as it gets – and they take care of set-up, clean-up, and seating.

If you feel you’ve overdone it with New England traditionalism, veer away from the norm at Tigerfish. Here you’ll find wok-smoked mussels with miso butter, street noodles, General Tso’s crispy chicken and waffles, and a new du jour sushi menu. Sip a Thai-Grrrr Water, a favorite local cocktail, and you’ll be ready to take on the nightlife, which is just steps away.

   

DANCE LIKE NOBODY’S WATCHING

If you ask any islander where to find live music, you’ll never receive a simple response. On any given night, great musicians can be heard around town and in both harbors. Find some of the best bands at Captain Nick’s, a legendary watering hole with three bars, dog-friendly patio, and indoor balcony that overlooks center stage. While the weekend acts are top notch, Disco Night with Dr. Westchesterson takes the cake, and you’ll surprise yourself with the amount of dancing you can do on a Monday. 

 Established in 1876, The Yellow Kittens is the island’s oldest tavern, where DJs and bands entertain most nights and getting your groove on in the center of their timeworn dancefloor just feels right. Mahogany Shoals (dubbed “the bar that you’ve been practicing for”) features nightly live music, a great view of New Harbor, and the timeless ambiance of a dockside bar that has seen more than a few ragged sailors.

The walls of Club Soda feature Holden Wetherbee’s murals of the island from the late 1940s, a glimpse back in time from the basement of a weathered and well-loved boarding house. The paintings are a backdrop for camaraderie of the present-day, and Block Island lovers of all kinds will find themselves in the details. 

SHOP THE UNIQUE

A jar of local cinnamon honey, a basket of scones, honeysuckle lemonade, a few new shiny accessories – the Block Island Farmers Market has it all, elevating any average Wednesday or Saturday morning. Hosting an impressive selection of local wares, you will find wild bouquets from Amy Keeler’s Succotash Farm, jewelry from Peter Gibbons (his sterling silver rings are a local staple), and the Traveling Seamstress, Liz Doherty, whose brilliant custom dye work and range of alteration services keep her busy year-round. Other local shopping and gallery experiences include the Glass Onion, Lazy Fish, Jessie Edwards Studio, Red Right Return, and Diamondblue Surf Shop – all woman-owned and -operated, too!

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