Block Island: Where Time Slows to the Speed of a Bicycle
By Karen Rubin
Fall is Brilliant Time for Family Getaway
We left our car and our cares behind at the parking lot by the dock in Montauk and boarded the Viking Fleet ferry for the under-two hour ocean voyage to Block Island, where time slows to the speed of a bicycle.
Block Island is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts. Its size, shape, and exquisitely diverse landscape (especially considering its compact size) of lush green valleys, rolling hills, ponds (365 of them), dramatic cliffs, sand beaches (17 miles, all public), and views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Block Island Sound on the other. These features make for a constantly changing panorama as you are biking along. Also remarkable for an island of this size is the number of nature preserves and trails (20 miles worth), well-marked by a granite "Greenway" post, that entice you to stop and explore. That is the nature of a Block Island getaway: taking time to explore simple things.
The man-made features are also interesting: two marvelously picturesque lighthouses which you can visit; 400 miles of stone walls, five churches, 39 restaurants, 12 art galleries, two movie theaters, pleasant cottages and Victorian-era inns and hotels that dot the countryside, and (what I found interesting), modern-day windmills, and of course, the endless stream of every manner of boat and sailing vessel. It is not so much like being dropped into yesteryear, or even some uniquely evolved society, like a New England Galapagos. Block Island is merely and especially Block Island, flowing along at its own pace. It is a place where good moods and good cheer abounds, probably because of the sparkling light and brisk sea breezes.
There are fewer than 900 permanent residents who play host to as many as 20,000 visitors at any one time, particularly in summer, when ferries with more than 1,000 passengers apiece, pull in to the Old Harbor from Pt. Judith, Providence, Newport, R.I., and New London, Ct., and into New Harbor from Montauk, Long Island. Yet Block Island can be even more delightful as a getaway in fall-not because of fall foliage (there aren't the maples here), but because of the peacefulness of the place.
Indeed, its special location keeps the water warm well into the fall, and even when rain is battering the mainland, the weather can be sunny and dry on the island.
I love a place that is pretty much dominated by bicycles. We noticed little ones on their own bikes or attached to their parents' as a tandem bike or a cart; or riding behind their parent on a moped; at times, there seemed like whole caravans of mopeds and bikers. Car drivers for the most part were courteous and careful.
It is easy to get around by bicycle (if you don't bring your own over, it is easy to rent). Some people rent mopeds. There also are 34-licensed taxis (they have bike carriers on the cars), and many of the hotels offer some kind of car service to accommodate guests (this is handy because the ferry from Montauk does not take cars; though the ferries from Pt. Judith and New London do).
Historic Hygeia House B'n'B
Minutes after docking at New Harbor, we were on our bikes and had only to peddle a short distance before we had arrived at our haven on Block Island: the newly restored and reopened Hygeia House, a bed-and-breakfast owned and operated by a living link to the first 16 settlers (and two who came to the New World on the Mayflower), and a family that had played a key role in the island's history.
Indeed, if James Michener were writing a novel about Block Island, he would likely use the Starr family and their turn-of-the-century Hygeia House as the centerpiece. For it is this family that plays a role throughout Block Island's history, going back to the original 16 settlers and through the significant events of this small, isolated community of just 900 year-round residents. This family, with the names that mark many of the streets and landmarks-Champlin, Payne-also brings the personal intrigue that makes a novel so interesting-such as how the inn was willed not to a family member but to a grand uncle's mistress, and how it was ultimately was restored to the Champlin family and to its former use.
The turn-of-the-century inn, which had been vacant for more than 20 years, was completely restored and reopened in 1999 by Charles Champlin ("Champs") Starr and his wife, Lisa Starr, as a 10-room bed-and-breakfast. It proved as much a haven for our island getaway, as an attraction and very accommodating for families.
It has originally been built by Champs' great grandfather, Dr. Charles Champlin, Jr., who believed in the restorative benefits of salt air. He and his brother built it as an annex to the grand Hygeia Hotel that was constructed in the Victorian era and the heyday of Block Island tourism (it burned down in 1916, leaving only the Hygeia annex). He named the hotel after the Greek goddess of health, and maintained his own office in what is now the Hygeia House, which he converted to a guesthouse in 1907.
The rooms take on the incarnation of the Champlins' family member, furnished with personal items, letters, photographs, even the original furniture. In the room that is named for Champs' great grandfather, Dr. J.C. Champlin, Jr. (the furniture was his), there is a case such as you would see in a doctor's office with his medical bag, business cards, mortar and pestle, and a letter to him from 1900. There is also an interesting letter from an Undertaker, which is framed.
The rooms named for Uncle Carter and his wife, Mae, keep with the tradition that during their life together, they had two separate apartments in Providence with no connecting door, so when Champs was selecting rooms, Uncle Carter's and Mae's are next to each other, but separated by a staircase. "Tradition," he says. It was Uncle Carter who willed the Hygeia House to his mistress of 38 years, rather than the family.
It is hard to keep Champs' family straight, though I am sure if you stay long enough, I am sure you wind up feeling like you know the family better than your own. But if you get stuck, you can check the family tree that is painted on a rear stair (the only new architectural element that Champs added).
Modest and unpretentious, its size and amenities make the Hygeia House superior as a bed-and-breakfast (which can tend to make you feel uncomfortable for the lack of privacy, cramped for lack of space, and a feeling of imposing on the family). When the Starrs restored the inn, they reduced the number of rooms from 19 to 10, making most of the rooms suites with a separate sitting room with a trundle bed or sofa (which can accommodate one or two children), and each with a private bathroom.
This makes the Hygeia House unusually accommodating for families who want to enjoy the distinctive experience of a bed-and-breakfast accommodation, instead of a commercial hotel or motel. Bed-and-breakfasts are special because you get to live with a local family (and here, children are apt to meet the Starrs' own young children), and also have a chance to sit around (such as at breakfast or in the parlor) and share experiences with other guests; if you want to watch television, you have to share (since there are no televisions in the rooms) and most people like to sit around and read or play board games. However, because most bed-and-breakfast establishments are typically large private homes with personal artifacts (typically delicate or antiques), most tend to discourage young children altogether.
The Hygeia House is ideally located, perhaps even uniquely, so that it is perched on a hill exactly between the New and Old Harbors. There are waterviews from every room (most places can only offer water views from one side). It is also easy to get about (another consideration if you have children): you can walk to the Town Beach, about one-half mile down the road, where there are facilities and lifeguards; bike about one or two miles into Old Harbor (the only real village on the island, where most of the restaurants and shops are concentrated).
The Starrs have two kayaks available for guest use and their own dock on a gentle tributary that goes out toward the marina at New Harbor or into Harbor Pond that goes almost to Old Harbor. They hope to offer bikes at some point.
Breakfast was a continental style service-boxed cereals, English muffins, breads--set out from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. for guests to help themselves. During the day, you can help yourself to coffee or tea, and there is a refrigerator for guest use, which is stocked with ice tea and iced coffee and cold water.
As one grateful guest wrote, "A glorious getaway. Even our two little ones were at peace."
Great grandfather Champlin would have been pleased.
Rates range from $65 to $135 in off-season (Nov. 1-April 30); $100 to $180 in shoulder season (May & Oct.) and $175 to $235 in peak season (June-Sept.) Hygeia House, PO Box 464, Block Island, RI, 401-466-9616.
Biking Block Island
On our first afternoon, we quickly dropped our bags in our room at the Hygeia House and hit the road toward the North Light at Sandy Point. This route takes you past the Town Beach and up the narrow "bone" of the porkchop-shaped island. Along the way, there are access points to beaches that extend almost the entire way, and lovely trails, such as Clay Head, marked by a "Greenway" granite post. Other trails connect, formerly known as the Maze, lead to scenic views and though they basically go through private land, in what seems the Block Island way, the public is welcome to enjoy most of them (do take care about ticks).
At the entrance to Sandy Point, Settler's Rock, erected in 1911 by descendents of the original settlers, marks the historic landing site of the brave souls who first colonized the island in 1661.
You can walk the beach, beside the Sachem Pond Wildlife Refuge, a fresh water pond teeming with wildlife and a rookery for the local seagull population, surrounded by narrow barrier beaches, to reach the North Light Interpretative Center. A local commission is in the process of restoring the North Light, which dates from 1867, to house a maritime museum.
The island is stunning and a biker's dream-green valleys and ponds, ocean views, lovely cottages and Victorian hotels, a colorful and bustling village (Old Harbor), manageable ascents and descents and relatively courteous drivers (the speed limit is 20 to 25 mph) and a constantly changing panorama.
In the evening, we rode our bikes into Old Harbor area, where there is the greatest concentration of restaurants, shops, boutiques, inns and hotels, set picturesquely over the beach and dock area (returning after darkness is a little dicey-you should bring some kind of reflective vest and light for the bike).
We thoroughly enjoyed the Mohegan Café and Brewery for dinner, with beautiful views, a sea-faring ambiance, and wonderful old photos. The menu had enough to satisfy youngsters, teens, and adults: New England Clam Chowder ($4.50), vegetarian chili ($4.95), salads, burgers, seafood and house-made brews on tap. Also, Payne's Dock is where you can find lobster roles, saltwater taffy, chowder and clam cakes.
The next morning, we were able to do a 6.4 mile loop around the southern half of the island before breakfast at the Hygeia House.
Later, we returned in order to linger longer at Mohegan Bluffs, on the southern-most tip of the island. A path leads to the sea and a view that is the most dramatic on the island. The Bluffs are 150-feet up, and you look out over the Atlantic and down to the rocky shoreline below. From that perch, you get this magnificent view of the Southeast Light (probably the most photographed scene on the island), which dates from 1875 (you can visit in the lighthouse, as well).
At the overlook, there is a geological display which indicates that Block Island only 12,000 years ago (at the end of the Ice Age) was somehow separated from Long Island, along with Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. You can even see Long Island on a clear day. You can climb down 200 steps, then make your way over boulders (there are some ropes if you need some extra support), and go along the beach.
Interestingly, the isolation of Block Island means that it can be chilly and foggy on the mainland but bright blue skies and 85 degrees on Block Island, with constant cooling breezes; it is warmer in the fall than most places, with comfortable water temperatures (though you do not have foliage changes here, more like Indian Summer). September and October, when the crowds have thinned, is ideal for bird-watching, since the island is on the Atlantic Fly-way.
It is truly remarkable how the Block Islanders have pulled together to protect their special environment, which is considered one of the most ecologically significant areas in the Northeast (there is even a regional office of the Nature Conservancy, 401-466-2129). Its diverse habitats-morainal grasslands, beaches, sand dunes, maritime scrubland, salt and brackish ponds and freshwater wetland ecosystems-support a diversity of wildlife including more than 40 species classified as rare or endangered. Thousands of migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, raptors and songbirds also use the island as a critical stopover point on their journey north and south.
You might spot the rare Northern Harrier or Marsh Hawk in the scrubland; Ring Neck Pheasant and American Woodcock in the shrubs. The highest concentrations of endangered species are in the open grassland habitat, particularly the Lewis-Dickens Farm in the southwest, where you might spot the rare Grasshopper Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper and federally endangered American Burying Beetle.
Spring is also a special time, when daffodils are in bloom. You can walk through the network of trails, the Maze, that homeowners have allowed the public to use, to a field with thousands and thousands of daffodils (best is the first three weeks in May).
Considering there is just 11 square miles, the island affords an amazing amount of nature preserves and trails. Rodman's Hollow is one of five wildlife refuges, a great natural ravine cut by a glacier, which affords many different paths that wind their way down.
New Harbor was created by the clever cut of a channel from the Block Island Sound into the Great Salt Pond, which you can reach by kayak from the Hygeia House dock or from Payne's kayak rental ($20/hour plus $5/hour after, 401-466-5572). This area has a number of eateries and shops, a movie house. Nearby, there is a historical cemetery, where 17th and 18th century settlers are reposed.
Literally around the corner from the Hygeia House is Payne's kayak rental ($20/hour plus $5/hour after, 401-466-5572) with a vast selection of one and two-person kayaks for rent. This is just marvelous for families, even with young children, because the water is gentle, and there are several different places to paddle, and you do not have to ferry the kayaks anywhere, but just slip them down into the water.
There is also fishing and sailing charters, which can be arranged through Oceans & Ponds, an Orvis dealer (800-ORVIS-01, www.blockisland.com/fishbi).
Block Island is fairly serendipitous-you create your own entertainment and it is amazing how entertaining rocks and shells on a beach can be. But families with children can also take advantage of storytelling at the Island Free Library; a children's theater workshop; and Island playground and a petting zoo, and of course, exploring the lighthouses.
Block Island has a very different character from Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket. It so far has been spared the chains and designer-label stores and somehow, the tourist community which predominates seem a natural extension of the landscape. But it is not as sleepy as Shelter Island. There is an energy, an aura of good will and cheer about.
Many visitors choose to rent houses for the season, and there are about 1,500 of them for rent.
Accommodations that are open year-round (and accommodate children) include: Hygeia House, a 10-room newly restored bed-and-breakfast, 466-9616; 1661 Inn, with ocean views, private decks and Jacuzzis (466-2421); New Shoreham House, a quaint Victorian seaside Inn (800-825-6254); the Blue Dory Inn, a Romantic Victorian on the beach offering cottages and suites (800-992-7290); Dodge Cottage (466-2421); and the Samuel Peckham Inn, a full-service resort on the shores of the Great Salt Pond (466-2439).
Water Street Inn, a bed-and-breakfast with ocean-view rooms (800-825-6254) is open year-round but does not encourage children (on the other hand, it has TV).
Other famed Victorian-style hotels which are open only in season include the Harborview, offering quiet cottages and efficiencies within walking distance of the beach (466-2807); the Harborside Inn, built in 1878 and now restored (800-892-2022); Hotel Manisses, which dates from 1870 (466-2421). The historic Gables Inn is near town and beach and only is open in season (466-2213); the Gothic Inn, is by the sea in the heart of the historic district (800-944-8991).
Block Island Holidays can provide "one stop" access to the Island, including hotel packages, day trips, sightseeing or outdoor adventures, 401-466-3137, www.blockislandholidays.com.
Getting there: Viking Fleet provides seasonal service from Montauk to Block Island (departs 9 a.m. daily, June through September, returning at 4:30 p.m. from Block Island; then Fri., Sat., Sun through mid-October and end of April through May, Mondays second two weeks in May and through mid-October; $40/roundtrip, $20/child roundtrip, $10/bike, plus $5/day to park, 631-668-5700, www.vikingfleet.com). Word of caution: if you are prone to seasickness, take medicine; this is an ocean-voyage, after all;
There is year-round ferry service from Pt. Judith, Rhode Island, (this ferry also takes cars and offers up to 10 departures daily; Interstate Navigation, 401-783-4613, www.blockislandferry.com); there is also seasonal service from New London, CT., Providence and Newport.
For further information, contact the Block Island Tourism Council, PO Box 356, Block Island RI 02807, 401-466-5200, 800-383-BIRI, www.blockislandinfo.com.
(1) Hygeia House, a historic inn that was completely restored and reopened as a bed-and-breakfast by the great grandson of the original owner (photo by Karen Rubin).
(2) A mother and daughter take a leisurely stroll along the beach to North Light (photo by Karen Rubin).
(3) The view of the Southeast Light from Mohegan Bluffs is one of the most photographed on Block Island (photo by Karen Rubin).