When I travel, I don’t spend a lot of time with guidebooks that tell me, in painstaking detail, what monuments and cathedrals to visit or how to best arrange my days. I like to be surprised. Of course, I run the risk of missing “must see” places, but I prefer having my eyes on the new sights and sounds around me rather than in a book or on a cell phone.
Given my studious avoidance of touristy facts, I had no idea what to expect when I was invited to stay on Block Island for a few days before the July 4th weekend. It’s the least well known of the three islands – Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket being the other two – within driving (and ferry) distance of New York City.
It turns out that Block Island itself is tiny – about 10 square miles – shaped a bit like a pork chop, with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents. But, as I discovered, the Island offers all the beaches, bike rides, hiking trails, fishing, sailing, and tourist amenities of its larger cousins.
A Visitor Center is just steps from where ferries dock, as are bike and moped rentals. A few steps further is the Island’s “downtown,” with its Old Harbor Historic District, a treasure trove of National Register Victorian architecture whose exteriors are virtually unchanged from the late 19th century. Today, these buildings house the Island’s hotels, restaurants and shops, many of whose interiors strive to preserve the look and feel of the past. Some more successfully than others.
But it’s the stones of Block Island, on its beaches and, most beautifully, its “dry stone walls” (interlocking stones of different shapes held together without mortar) marking land and field properties, which enchanted me the minute we drove into the countryside. Reminiscent of rural England, they are not mentioned in any guidebook and, for me, are one of the highlights of the Island.
Equally striking is how under-populated – by people or homes –most of Block Island’s interior appears. This did not happen by accident. It’s due to the foresight of Block Island residents who established in 1972 — before big money and gentrification swept the East Coast — The Block Island Conservancy. It, along with other environmental groups, set aside about 40 percent of the Island – think of it, 40Percent! – for conservation. What a great gift they gave to us, preserving vast landscapes, unspoiled trails and vistas, and preventing overbuilding of summer “cottages,” condos or mega mansions. So rare is this achievement that The Nature Conservancy named Block Island one of the “Last Twelve Great Places” in the Western Hemisphere.
As a result of their foresight, the Island is a virtual bird sanctuary and remains a favored resting stop for birds along the Atlantic flyway. In fact, a cacophony of birdsong woke us each morning at dawn, and continued most of the day and evening as an array of small and large birds flew in and out of the Island’s network of protective bushes and trees.
So if you are seeking a vacation spot where nature — instead of celebrities — still reigns, try Block Island on a long weekend. You’ll probably want to return, as I do, again.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag