New England’s Chillest Island Isn’t Where You Think It Is
Squeeze the last out of summer in this lesser-known New England paradise.
Block Island was all but a secret to me until a few years ago, when my son made a preschool friend whose family happened to have a house near the south end. After two years of friendship through thick and pandemic-thin—during which we hit it off with the kid’s parents and grandmother—we scored ourselves a coveted summer invite.
Admittedly, the choppy ferry ride from New London, Connecticut, to Old Harbor in New Shoreham left even our dog looking a little seasick. (“When my husband brought me over here for the first time, I said, ‘I guess we’ll have to buy a house because I’m not taking the ferry back,’” the grandmother joked.)
Seasick or not, it’s hard not to fall in love with Block Island immediately upon making landfall. Only reachable via ferry or small plane, it’s about 13 miles from Rhode Island’s mainland and 14 miles east of Montauk, New York. Craggy seaside cliffs and sandy paths lead to sweeping views of the Atlantic, and the whole island—just 10 square miles—is blanketed in colorful beach roses, honeysuckles, and milkweed.
Add in classic shingle-style architecture, local restaurants with deep community ties, and very few cars and you have yourself the ideal New England getaway. The best part? It’s got none of that Cape Cod snobbishness, and offers a much more laid-back, down-to-earth vibe than Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Here’s everything to check out on Block Island.
Cruise along the seaside by bike
One of the first things you’ll notice on Block Island is the amount of possibly tipsy college kids on mopeds. Ballard’s Beach Club—the island’s equivalent to Flora-Bama—tends to be the first stop for people coming on the express ferry from Newport or Point Judith. That’s all fine and good until they start renting electric scooters, driving them down the island’s many bumpy dirt roads, and causing accidents.
That being said, it’s probably best to avoid further pissing off locals by renting a classic bicycle, instead. (Cars are allowed on certain ferries, but getting a spot requires making very expensive advance reservations.) Check out Beach Rose Bicycles or Island Moped & Bike to get your wheels for easy cruising between the small island’s best spots.
Explore Block Island’s best beaches
What’s amazing about Block Island’s shoreline is how varied it is. Some beaches are sandy with smaller waves (Baby Beach, Scotch Beach, Mansion Beach). Others are filled with multi-colored sea glass and shells (West Beach). And others still require scaling down a cliff to reach and have waves large enough to surf (Black Rock Beach—find the rope and make your way down…carefully).
A couple of the most popular are Fred Benson Town Beach—the place to go if you want facilities like restrooms, food, lifeguards, and chair, and umbrella rentals—and Mohegan Bluffs, whose dramatic cliffs make up for the relatively small shoreline. And if it’s too cold to go swimming—not uncommon in the northern Atlantic, even in summer—check out Andy’s Way by the Great Salt Pond, an ideal spot for clamming and kayaking. Along with cold temps, the waves and currents here can be strong, so be sure to look out for any “no swimming” signs.
Take a hike and maybe find some hidden treasure
Block Island is filled with little paths and trails to explore, many of which lead to killer views of the Atlantic with either the North Light or Southeast Lighthouse in the frame. Clayhead Preserve, Rodman’s Hollow, and the Hodge Preserve are all great places to explore. While you trek, keep your eyes peeled for glass floats (or orbs), an initiative started to get people exploring the outdoors. Every year, local glass artist Eben Horton creates 550 clear glass orbs, which are numbered and dated with the year, and hides them along Block Island’s nature trails. It’s finders keepers if you spot one—just be sure to register it here and only take one per year.
Eat a whole lotta seafood, obviously
Seafood is understandably the king of Block Island cuisine, so bring a bib. Tiny shack Rebecca’s, the old school Dead Eye Dick’s, and the food truck Southeast Light Delights—parked outside the Southeast Lighthouse—will all do you right, with New England delicacies like lobster rolls, Narragansett mussels, Rhode Island clam chowder (which has a clear broth instead of a creamy one), fried Rhode Island clams, and fish and chips made with local cod. Meanwhile, The Oar is the calmer answer to Ballard’s: plenty of fun with a huge lawn of picnic tables and games and stellar sunset views, minus the messy co-eds.
For the seafood-averse, the area’s got a palate that extends beyond the catch of the day. For breakfast or lunch, Persephone’s Kitchen is a cozy café using seasonal produce to make the island’s best egg sandwich and bowls (go for the Quinoa Ranchero). Winfield’s is an unassuming indoor spot with high-quality cuisine that makes for a lovely night out thanks to dishes like tomato crab bisque, seared scallops with apples, shallots, thyme and beurre blanc, and a perfectly cooked filet mignon. And for an unexpected surprise, hit up Los Gatitos and order the towering nachos—lobster is a solid add-on if you’re game—and a strong margarita.
Last, do not leave the island without a stop (or several) at the Ice Cream Place, a longtime local favorite with a line to prove it. Spring for the homemade chocolate fudge and fresh whipped cream.
Where to stay on Block Island
If your kid hasn’t befriended a child with a summer house on the island, don’t fret—there are plenty of hotel options. We actually snuck away to spend a night at the recently renovated Champlin’s Marina & Resort, which has a pool, restaurant, café, and bi-level outdoor bar, on top of spacious rooms with a nautical theme. If you bring your own boat out, you’re also welcome to dock for a few days and refuel.
If you prefer to be right in the middle of downtown (which, while small, is truly bustling in summer), book a stay at Block Island Beach House, a recently-opened modern boutique with a pool and small beachfront, just down the block from the ferry landing. And if it’s a classic New England grand dame experience you’re looking for, the historic Spring House Hotel—which dates back to 1852 and has an amazing restaurant—is your best bet.