One of our favorite BI articles from the N.Y. Times:
THE sights of an East Coast summer — body surfers careering toward the beach, children licking fudge ripple off sticky knuckles, bicycles casting shadows on hot pavement — vanish after Labor Day, when pool closings and school openings signal the beginning of a more somber season. But on this island, 13 miles offshore, the summer idyll slides far into fall.
“September and October are the two most beautiful months on the island,” said Kim Gaffett, a naturalist who grew up here and is now first warden, the chief elected official on the island (technically the Town of New Shoreham, population about 1,000).
For Ms. Gaffett, fall’s enchantment lies in the reduced humidity, the optimal stargazing, the flocks of birds heading south for the winter and the surprisingly warm ocean. The deeper waters off Block Island help retain the summer’s warm temperatures into the fall; the shallower waters along the mainland cool more quickly. “But I think it’s also relative to the outside temperature” — the hotter the weather, the colder the water feels. “Some of the magic may be in people’s brains.”
For the most part this pork-chop-shaped island doesn’t shutter itself until after Columbus Day; some businesses are open as late as Thanksgiving, offering a second chance at summer after the season officially ends elsewhere.
While not as quiet as, say, Shelter Island, compared with the region’s shore towns or even Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island remains blissfully undisturbed by the current of commercialism, mostly because of strict zoning laws and conservation efforts that date to the 1960s. The island remains largely rural, with rolling hills, chalky cliffs and stone walls that resemble the coast of Ireland. The Victorian architecture of Queen Anne porches and mansard roofs has changed so little that it’s possible to identify buildings in photographs from the turn of the 20th century. Besides a Ben & Jerry’s and a tiny Starbucks, the island is free of chain stores, and there is nary a neon sign or traffic light.
As the smallest state’s smallest town (by population), Block Island has seasonal and year-round residents whose friendly and no-nonsense manner recalls a hardier generation of New Englanders. A neighborly chat one morning at Ballard’s Beach about the search for less-choppy waves led Michael Keating, a part-time resident, to offer my wife, daughter and me a lift to Benson Town Beach. While driving us in his pickup, he talked of buying a cottage here in 1971, when the summer season was shorter and the visitors fewer. But the crowds, he added, have not detracted from the beauty that drew him, “when the island was a backwater.”
The attractions, for the agenda-compulsive, are mainly found outside. There are 12 miles of exceptional white-sand beaches, all open to the public and free (including parking). The ocean waves are the real deal, high enough for great body- and board-surfing and capable of beaching a whale. The best swimming spots with easy access are along Crescent Beach, just north of Old Harbor.
At the end of a rocky, wind-swept beach on the northern tip is the prosaically named North Light (closed to visitors until next summer), built in 1867; its still-functioning sister, the Southeast Lighthouse, sits on a verdant cliff-side lawn. Each makes a stunning backdrop for a picnic and a good destination for appetite-inducing bike rides. (Rebecca’s Take Out, which has wraps and a nicely peppered lobster roll for only $11.25, is a solid choice for lunches to go.)
Other destinations where the journey is half the fun include hiking through the wildflower-filled basin of Rodman’s Hollow or down the steep staircase at the 150-foot Mohegan Bluffs lookout point near Southeast Lighthouse. Both end at secluded beaches. If you prefer to fully engage the water instead of flirting at its edges, you can kayak in a brackish pond or charter a sail- or fishing boat. The island, especially in fall, is known for its striped bass.
With the simple seaside life comes straightforward dining options, but the popular Eli’s in Old Harbor is a creative exception. In an understated, breezy dining room, fresh local catches like swordfish marinated with garlic and chili powder, and the fly-ins like tuna “nachos” made from sushi-grade fish with wasabi cream on crispy wontons ($12), promote plate licking. Families will be happier with the distractions, informality and low prices of the Oar, overlooking the New Harbor boat basin. Juicy cheeseburgers and more traditional seafood take second place to making friends and playing games on the expansive lawn while you wait. For dessert the creamy cones at the Ice Cream Place are worth any line.
The island also excels at marrying cocktails and views. There may be no better place to salute the summer on the Eastern Seaboard than at sunset happy hour on the front lawn of the majestic 130-year-old Atlantic Inn. Adirondack chairs and rockers fan out along a hill, serviced by waiters balancing fanciful cocktails as the sky turns hues of orange, purple and red. For a less-romantic view of seaside life, Mahogany Shoals on Payne’s Dock in New Harbor is a wonderfully salty old wooden sailors’ bar with uneven floors and outside tables overlooking the Great Salt Pond.
Getting around the island’s 11 square miles is easy by bicycle (locals frown upon the zippier mopeds), sometimes serendipitously serviced by roadside lemonade stands. After dark it’s wise to get back to your room on one of the many cabs equipped with bike racks.
Mr. Keating, of White Plains, was first inspired to visit Block Island by an article 40 years ago and has returned every year. His favorite pastime is fishing, especially after Labor Day, when things slow down and the water is still warm. But what he loves most here is the freedom. When his son, now an emergency room doctor with a penchant for surfing, was young, he let him have the run of the place. But for Mr. Keating it’s the freedom of being absolved of work and responsibility — summer freedom, even when summer is over back on the coast.
“There is a sense that you are cut off from the mainland, the real world,” he said, “and that is relaxing.”
IF YOU GO
The Block Island Express (401-466-2212, goblockisland.com) to Old Harbor from New London, Conn., (next to the Amtrak station) runs weekends through Sept. 27. The Viking Superstar (631-668-5700; vikingfleet.com) from Montauk, N.Y., to New Harbor, runs through Oct. 12. And the Block Island Ferry (401-783-4613; blockislandferry.com) from Point Judith, R.I., to Old Harbor, runs year-round.
WHERE TO STAY
There are many bed-and-breakfasts on the island; most around Old Harbor are within walking distance of the ferries. There is no public camping on the island.
The 1661 Inn and Hotel Manisses (Spring Street; 800-626-4773, blockislandresorts.com) are the flagships of several buildings that offer a range of rooms from duplex suites with a Jacuzzi tub, fireplace, deck and ocean views for $340 (on weekends) in September to small rooms with en suite bath starting at $75 in October. The 1661 and two other guesthouses are open year-round.
WHERE TO EAT
Rebecca’s Take Out (435 Water Street, Old Harbor; 401-466-5411). Open until mid-Oct. The lobster roll is $11.25.
Eli’s (456 Chapel Street; 401-466-5230, elisblockisland.com). Open until Nov. 15. No reservations. Appetizer of tuna nachos is $12 and a pesto-crusted mahi mahi entree is $24.
The Oar (West Side Road; 401-466-8820). Open until Oct. 12. Sweet potato fries are $2.50 and the black angus cheeseburger with bacon is $6.99.
Ice Cream Place (232 Water Street; 401-466-2145). Open until early October.
WHAT TO DO
Beaches don’t close for the season, but the two beaches with lifeguards and facilities do end those services. Fred Benson Town Beach (a section of Crescent Beach off Corn Neck Rod.; 401-466-7717) ends Sept. 13 and Ballard’s Beach (south of ferry terminals in Old Harbor; 401-466-2231) ends Sept. 27.
North Light (401-466-2982) is closed for renovations but normally is open weekends from Labor Day to Columbus Day.
Southeast Lighthouse (401-466-5009) is open weekends from Labor Day to Columbus Day.
The Empire Theater (17 Water Street; 401-466-2555) is usually open through Columbus Day and sometimes as late as Thanksgiving; this year it closes after Labor Day.
The Atlantic Inn (High Street; 401-466-5883, atlanticinn.com) is open until October 18th.
Island Moped and Bike (Chapel Street; 401-466-2700), one of many bike rental stands, is open through Columbus Day weekend.
Mahogany Shoals (Payne’s Dock; 401-466-5572) is open until Sept. 20.