If you’re looking for a fabulous east coast getaway that offers plenty of eye candy, beautiful Atlantic beaches and vistas, soaring cliffs, miles of hiking trails and historic lighthouses along with graceful inns, quaint specialty shops, art galleries, delicious restaurants and lively bars, head to Block Island.
An idyllic retreat located 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, Block Island is only accessible by ferry, and although you can bring a car onto the island, not many visitors do. So, if you follow suit, when you’re not lounging on the beach and romping in the ocean surf, you’ll be exploring Block Island’s natural treasures and manmade charms on foot, by bike and moped, or maybe even on horseback.
Whichever way you choose to get around though, you’ll be thinking of times when togetherness, nature and tranquility were the order of the day. With sunning, biking, hiking, fishing, kayaking, lounging, feasting and sea glass hunting being the main activities on Block Island, your vacation will be a throwback to easier times. Whether you go for a day, a weekend or longer, you’ll come away relaxed and full of wonderful memories. Book your spot on the ferry or plane early on (see How to Get to Block Island below) and then plan and anticipate. Below is a list of things to do that’ll help you make the most of your island adventure.
First Things First: Go Carless If You Can
If you follow common advice, leave your car on the mainland in the ferry lot. The logic: the ferry charges a steep fee for cars; island roads are narrow, winding and shoulder-less; it’s hard to deal with driving around a multitude of cyclists and moped rider and island taxis can get you anywhere. Among the first things you’ll want to do after arriving is rent a bike or moped. They’re available at a few different spots, including some inns (bear in mind that mopeds aren’t allowed on dirt roads, which lead to many of the island’s beaches). A couple of rental outfits: Old Harbor Bike Shop and Island Moped and Bike Rentals.
Speaking of bicycles, take the Block Island Bicycle Tour during your visit. This self-guided, 16-mile tour was designed for bikes but you can explore the island’s top sites by other methods as well including on foot, moped or car. The tour comprises 12 stations, each one a singular highlight marked with a QR code at the center of a post that gives you a minute-long video about the spot once you’ve taken a shot of the code with your phone. You can also pick up a map of the route (with descriptions) from a bike rental place should you want to skip the phone routine.
The Amazing Beaches of Block Island: Where to Spend Time Doing Very Little
Block Island, which is a 3-by-7-mile land mass, has 17 miles of beaches and every single one of them is free, public and easily accessed, not to mention special in its own way. Here are a few favorites among the island’s 15 beach options:
Mansion Beach: Located at the north end of Crescent Beach, this is one of the island’s most scenic beaches, and also one of the least crowded. Its waves make it a great spot to body surf and beach comb.
Mohegan Bluffs: You’ll have to work to get to this one—141 steps lead down to the sand—but, whoa, is it worth it. This beach is at the bottom of the 200-ft.-high bluffs and by most accounts, it’s Block Island’s most beautiful beach. It’s secluded and conducive to both swimming and surfing. And the cliffs, composed of clay, provide one of the most spectacular views of the Atlantic in all of Rhode Island.
West Beach: If total seclusion is your thing, this is the beach for you. It’s not ideal for swimming or laying out (it’s quite rocky), but sunsets don’t get much better than the ones you’ll see here. And West Beach is also an ideal location for sea glass and Glass Float hunting (see Glass Float section below).
Surf Beach: Just a three-minute walk from the ferry landing, this beach at the south tip of Crescent Beach remains shallow for quite a distance, so it’s a great place for families with kids. Be sure to bring snorkeling gear along because this beach is also the best area for spotting the sea creatures that gather near the breakwater and rock formations. You’ll find that the beach is also a treasure trove of sand dollars and shells.
Baby Beach: This is another great spot for families, especially those with babies and young kids requiring abundant gear. The beach is sheltered, has fewer rocks than most of the others on Crescent Beach and gentler waves.
Grace’s, Dorry’s and Cooneymus Coves. These coves are the hidden gems of Block Island — the beaches are secluded, quiet and lesser known because they’re the furthest from town and more difficult to access. Hikers love them for their sunsets and fishermen relish the catches. Walk, beachcomb and picnic, but don’t come to these coves for sunbathing (these are rocky beaches) or swimming (the waves are too rough).
Other Nature Havens to Explore on Block Island
In 1991, The Nature Conservancy designated Block Island one of 12 “Last Great Places” in the western hemisphere, which casts light on the island’s rare animals and plants. About half of Block Island is now permanently protected and it’s a wildlife hotspot.
One reason anyone goes to Block Island is to soak up its amazing scenery. Clayhead/Trail Maze, a 190-acre area that’s a Nature Conservancy property on the northeast portion of the island, incorporates a beach that’s all but deserted, bluffs with knockout vistas of the ocean 120 feet below and, at the top, the “maze.” Wander around this series of connecting paths to simply enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery that surrounds you. And if you come in the fall, you’ll be in for a birder’s dream: this is one of the top spots on the continent to see migratory songbirds.
Walk around Hodge Preserve, a 25-acre area that links to the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge, to see more migratory songbirds (the northern harrier and the Block Island meadow vole), flowering plants and trees. The vast meadows feature goldenrod and aster among other plants. And highlights of the shrubland include bayberry and black cherry.
Visit the Block Island Lighthouses
North Light: Head to Cow Cove/North Light Area to see Settler’s Rock (a monument with the names of the island’s first settlers, English families who came in 1661); the historic North Light — a granite and iron lighthouse built in 1867; and the lovely coastal views around the lighthouse. The beach here is a nesting area for numerous rare bird species.
Southeast Light: Resting atop Mohegan Bluffs is an 1875 lighthouse with a captivating brick-and-granite tower and grounds that afford stunning views of the Atlantic and the Block Island Windfarm, built three miles offshore. This don’t-miss lighthouse is a National Historic Landmark.
Horseback Riding on the Beach
One of the most unique (and unforgettable) things you can do on Block Island is trot along the beach and nature preserve on horseback. Rustic Rides Horse Farm offers guided trail rides for ages 4+ at different paces, during the day and at sunset. No riding experience is required.
What to Do When You’re Not Out in Nature
When you’re ready to take a break from the water and the nature preserves, head into Old Harbor, the island town.
Shopping and Gallery Hopping
Old Harbor is peppered with shops stocking everything from clothing to books and magnets. Make your way through them to pick up souvenirs and gifts for others, and comb the many galleries for fine artworks that range from photography and paintings to ceramics and jewelry. One popular gallery you’ll want to be sure to check out is Spring Street Gallery. It’s staffed by artists, and your interactions with them will elevate your browsing into visits with makers.
There are numerous eateries on the island, everything from casual cafes to fine, if laid-back, dining establishments (not a single place requires a jacket or tie). They serve a wide range of cuisines, but fresh seafood is, understandably, a specialty; and why wouldn’t you want to sample the daily catches on an island?
If you opt to make your own meals (some of the places to stay on the island accommodate DIY meals with kitchens and outdoor grills), you can pick up everything you need at a local market. Sweet and coffee shops also abound and make for great snacking and ‘refueling’ stops.
For casual food, The Oar, overlooking Block Island’s Great Salt Pond, is a favorite. Be sure to sit out on the back deck, which has incredible views of the Pond and try the mouthwatering clam chowder, New England lobster rolls or sushi.
For fine dining, head to stately Restaurant 1879 at the Victorian-style Atlantic Inn, a popular destination since 1879. The menu changes frequently but the dishes span the gamut from surf to turf and rely on ingredients that are sourced locally. Another unique dining spot for adults and children over 12 is The Barn at the Spring House Hotel, which features an open kitchen and wood-fired grill.
Various island taverns and pubs, such as Captain Nick’s Rock-N-Roll Bar and Pier 76 Dock Bar at Champlin’s Resort, offer delicious drinks and nighttime fun, and some bars (and eateries, too) stage live music performances.
Hunting for Glass Floats
Glassmaker, Eben Horton Glass, has created 550 glass floats (small glass orbs that are dated, numbered and stamped with the shape of Block Island) in his ‘The Glass Station’ and hidden them on the island’s beaches and on the Greenway Trails. Most of the floats are made of clear glass but in 2021, 21 of the orbs sport colors. Read more about the Glass Float Project here and have fun searching…
How to Get to Block Island
Not all the services listed below are offered on a daily basis—check the company websites for more details.
- Block Island Ferry, based on Point Judith, RI, is the only ferry that takes vehicles to Block Island (by phone reservation only—call 1-866-783-7996, ext. 3).
- Block Island Hi-Speed Ferry, which reaches the Old Harbor dock in Block Island in less than 30 minutes, departs from Point Judith, RI as well as from Newport, RI and Fall River, MA.
- Viking Fast Ferry goes from Montauk, NY to New Harbor in about one hour.
- Block Island Express travels from New London, CT to Old Harbor, Block Island in a little over an hour.
- New England Airlines flies to Block Island Airport (BID) daily (year round) from Westerly, RI; the flight takes 12 minutes.
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