A Guide to Navigating All 10 Square Miles of Block Island
If the idea of Old New England — its charming quaintness, rugged and rocky coast and simple way of life, before the days when shopping plazas and billboards began cluttering up the scenery — sparks a certain nostalgia inside of you, then Block Island may feel just like home. Because Block Island, sitting 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, is an honest-to-goodness anachronism in the middle of the 21st century. It’s not like kitschy Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the real deal.
There are no traffic lights, no highways, no chain restaurants. No big-name hotels either. Miles of pristine, rolling hills comprise the landscape, punctuated by cliffs that tower over the deep blue waters of the North Atlantic. And if that’s not enough, two historic, 19th-century lighthouses bookend the island, one on the north side and one on the south.
Sound perfect? For the island’s one thousand inhabitants, it is.
Since we already mentioned them, let’s start with the island’s two guardians of the coast. Two beautiful lighthouses harken back to the days of sailing, when the waters were full of majestic sailing ships bringing exotic goods and people from every corner of the world.
Rocks and sandbars around Block Island have made it an especially treacherous place for ships; in a 20-year period in the early 1800s, more than 60 ships ran aground there. A lighthouse was desperately needed. The first lighthouse on the island’s north end was built in 1829, but the current structure dates to 1867. The octagonal North Light stands 55 feet tall and is made of brown granite. A major renovation was completed in 2010, and you can visit the lighthouse, which has a small museum and five rooms showcasing different aspects of maritime history. Many people enjoy hiking in this area and observing the wildlife.
Perched atop the Mohegan Bluffs on the southeast coast is the appropriately named South East Light. The red-brick building and light are postcard New England. Built for the astronomical sum of $79,500 (about $1.5 million today), it went into operation on February 1, 1875. Today, it is recognized as one of the most architecturally sophisticated lighthouses built in the United States in the 19th century. There is a small museum and gift shop in the base, and the tower is open to visitors in the summer.
Hit the Beach
It’s no surprise that Block Island has beaches — it is, after all, surrounded by water — but you might be surprised to learn that over a dozen beaches are spread out across 17 miles of coastline. Some are more popular with residents and tourists, while others are isolated and provide a tranquil and quiet place to unwind and drink in the pristine scenery. Admission to all beaches, as well as parking, is free. Although each beach has its own charm and character, here are a few that shouldn’t be missed.
Fred Benson Town Beach is one of the most-visited beaches on the island. The sandy shore, pavilion, concession stand, and chairs and umbrellas are tailor-made for spending a day at the seaside. It’s also the island’s only beach with lifeguard patrol, showers and restrooms. This beach is on the east side of Block Island between the ocean and Great Salt Pond.
For a quieter beach experience, head a little further north to Scotch Beach. There are generally fewer people here, and the water is perfect for skimboarding or body surfing. There is also a volleyball net for public use.
If you’re interested in bigger waves where you can body surf or boogie board, head to Mansion Beach on the northeast shore. It’s one of the island’s grandest and most popular beaches, with wide swaths of sand, a gentle slope into the water, and a super-chill beachy atmosphere.
A number of beaches are also located on the island’s west side. Here, the rocky shore is great for climbing and exploring, and the evening sunsets are absolutely spectacular.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors
For good reason, Block Island is often referred to as “the Bermuda of the North.” Many visitors and residents prefer a bicycle or moped over a car, and whether you’re making a simple point-A-to-point-B commute or a leisurely ride across the rolling hills with no particular place to go, it’s the best way to see the unique beauty and landscape of the island. Oh, and all that fresh sea air and sunshine doesn’t hurt either.
What else can you do on Block Island? There are nearly 27 miles of trails, so you can hike along the picturesque shoreline or explore the island’s interior. Discover the remnants of stone fences built by settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Go fishing or hit the water in a boat or kayak. See the breathtaking landscape-seascape of Mohegan Bluffs. Tour historic homes, shop at the charming stores and boutiques, and dine at the island’s great restaurants.
In short, enjoy life! It’s slower on Block Island. Prettier. More relaxed. The way things used to be. Once you get a taste of Old New England, you won’t ever want to leave.