Back in the mid-70s Block Island was a frequent haunt for my family and friends. Back then the island, a 21-square mile piece of land that juts into the Atlantic about 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, wasn’t the tourist mecca it is today. Sure, the island’s population would surge in the summer months, but it was nothing like today when the ferries disgorge their human content in Old Harbor in the town of New Shoreham during the summer months.
We’d bring our bikes out on the ferry and were often among just a handful of people who did so. We’d grab seats on the upper decks or stand at the rail below where cargo and cars were stored. Once on the island we’d eschew the local white-sandy beaches to peddle for hours around the island’s coast, venturing inland to marvel at the rolling hills, rambling stone walls, ancient cemeteries and quaint little cottages of year-round residents.
By the 80s the crowds on Block Island had become so common that my husband and I stopped going. But as our 24th wedding anniversary approached last week I got nostalgic and thought it was a good time to check back in with “The Block.” We’d never spent the night there though I’d checked summer rates a few times and was surprised by how pricey it was, $200-$300 roughly, in season, for one night’s stay. Still, I figured it was worth it for a quick, weekend getaway.
So I was more than pleasantly surprised when I found a midweek package deal online for $350 for two, for two nights, which included ferry tickets, a hotel room, bike rentals for two and even $100 worth of dining vouchers at a local restaurant.
We left from Point Judith in Galilee, Rhode Island, on a bright, warm Sunday afternoon aboard what’s now called the “traditional ferry” that takes about 45 minutes to reach the island, not the high-speed ferry that can whisk tourists out there in about half that time.
We booked our room at the Harborside Inn through a service called Block Island Reservations, which also arranged for our ferry reservations. We checked in to the inn, a rambling, Victorian-era hotel in the midst of the village and overlooking the harbor, late in the afternoon and then rented a moped for two-hours to get reacclimated to the island before heading out on bikes the next morning.
We balked, initially, at the $60 price for a two-hour moped rental, but the counter clerk quickly dropped the price by $10 when she realized we weren’t biting.
Turns out Block Island off-peak is not only a decent bargain, but go there midweek in September or October and you’ll find the Block Island of old, the one that can easily handle a few hundred tourists on a Sunday night.
Buzzing around the island on our shared moped it felt like we had stepped back in time. We were among just a few people, for the most part, exploring the island. We passed a few others on mopeds and just a handful of folks on bikes. We ventured up to the historic Southeast Light near the dizzying bluffs along the south shore of the island. It was nearly closing time and the caretaker inside the still-working stone lighthouse gave us a private lecture on the structure’s history (It’s been moved twice since it was built because the inexorable erosion along the bluffs has threatened to send it crashing to the rocky shore hundreds of feet below.)
We criss-crossed through the islands interior a few times trying to find backroads to explore, but were often turned back on such roads by signs warning that mopeds aren’t allowed. Seems the locals, to their credit, decided years ago to put limits on where these whining little contraptions can go and when (their use is not allowed after dark).
We finished up our tour at the North Light, which sits on a long, skinny spit of land at the northern end of Block Island before heading back to the inn to get ready for dinner. For the next two days we cycled around the island, discovering dozens of small wonders we’d never seen or experienced during our earlier, limited daytrips out there.
We napped in mid-afternoon on the white sandy beaches that stretch from Old Harbor out to the bluffs along the island’s west shore. For the first time, we made the trek out to the North Light along a mile-long section of rock-strewn beach. Once there we looked out over the limitless expanse of ocean that stretched out in every direction.
Along one side of the island we discovered that down those narrow lanes where mopeds aren’t allowed but bicycles are there are often unadvertised trails through beach grass that lead to hidden beaches. We explored one of them as a thick fog rolled onto the beach one afternoon, lending a ghostly appearance to the seagulls who scurried out of our path, many of them with a still-wriggling crab in their beaks.
Here’s the best part of exploring Block Island in September and even into early October: There are no crowds of people. At many times, we were the only two people on the road or the beach and we never waited for a seat in some of the island’s most popular restaurants, most of which stay open until Columbus Day weekend in mid-October. Most of the stores in the village are still open and are offering year-end sales.
Best of all, it’s still lovely and warm on the island in September and even into early October. We managed to get sunburned on our two-day visit and the ocean water was warm enough still for swimming.
It was good to know that some things, at least at certain times of the year, haven’t changed.