It Took Me 39 Years to Cross 14 Miles to Block Island (But it was Worth the Wait)

New England Charm is everywhere on Block Island
New England Charm is everywhere on Block Island

To properly understand this piece, I need to provide a brief snapshot of my life at the time of writing. I am currently 39 years old and have lived my entire life on Long Island, NY, which for the benefit of all those reading this article out loud, is properly pronounced Lawn-GUY-lind. As a native of Suffolk County (the eastern half) I am quite familiar with the general topography, geology, flora and fauna of the region. So for me the idea of expending the effort and expense just to visit Block Island – inconveniently placed some 14 miles off the tip of Montauk Point (a.k.a. The End) – just didn’t make sense, as I reasoned that there’s nothing they could have there that I couldn’t get here. And as turns out, I was right. But that still doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth the visit.
Travel isn’t always 100% fueled by desire. There are also those rare occasions when travel opportunities present themselves for next to nothing – or in this particular case, literally nothing, for me at least. Due to the fortunate combination of a gloriously sunny summer day, my Dad’s newly-acquired pilot’s license, and his subsequent urge to use said license to explore the region, I was invited along on a day trip that after decades of traipsing about all seven continents, would finally bring me to this little gem right in my own backyard.

For the record, for those who have the means or opportunity I would highly recommend the short flight to the island as opposed to the sometimes nauseating ferry ride, which in summertime is about an hour long from Montauk, NY as well as Port Judith, RI and New London, CT. Block Island is technically out in the North Atlantic, and though not very far into it, let’s just say things can get a little choppy. I suppose the same could be said for arriving by air, but at least the trip is a whole lot shorter.

The airport is located nearly smack dab in the center of the pork chop-shaped island, reasonable walking distance from the Old Harbor region, which to me seemed the only part of the island that could truly be considered a town. An argument could be made for New Harbor as well, since both accommodate ferries and have homes and businesses clustered together. But Old Harbor is where things are happening, and was to my delight, a bit different than the Long Island beach towns I was used to.

Here, along the harbor ‘s shore, is a gauntlet of lively restaurants, pricey but character-laden landmark-type hotels, and enough souvenir shops to keep capitalism going another twenty years. There on Water Street one can easily imagine themselves in the Hamptons or Port Jefferson or Northport, with its beach chic New England vibe and trendy boutiques skewed toward the well-to-do. Yet there was a certain aura that left me, the lifelong Long Island resident, feeling as if I were discovering something new. It might only be a variation on a theme, but it was a variation all the same, and that is what makes travel in any form so appealing.

The Beach at Ballard's Inn
The Beach at Ballard’s Inn

Only a stone’s throw from the Old Harbor ferry pier is Ballard’s Inn, a dining and lodging venue located on a sandy spit with one of the island’s better beaches at its doorstep. In summer this is a bustling hotspot, not just for beachside dining but for live music and drinks. This isn’t a budget-friendly option, but if you’re looking to splurge a little bit, the seafood is great and the views can’t be beat – even if you’re a Long Islander.

In “town” it is possible to hire a taxi driver for a tour of the island, running at last check at around $55 per person for an hour long rundown of the island’s highlights. After hiring just such a guide, we were first taken to the appropriately-named North Lighthouse, which is situated on a narrow strip of land at the northern tip of Block Island. This area is part of the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge, which protects large swaths of the limited acreage left on the tiny landmass.

The bucolic setting of Block Island's interior
The bucolic setting of Block Island’s interior

Swinging back down to the southern shoreline, our guide pointed out various points of interest and explained that in an effort to prevent overdevelopment, landowners are required to own a certain number of acres in order to build. The finite nature of this resource has kept the island in a bucolic state of rolling meadows, serene ponds and plenty of temperate greenery. It has also sent real estate values through the roof; many of the island’s lovely homes are now worth something well north of a million dollars, though taxes are not anywhere near as high as they are just 14 miles to the west and beyond. Once again it was evident that Block Island and Long Island were separated by more than just water.

The Author Contemplating Mohegan Bluffs
The Author Contemplating Mohegan Bluffs

The topography on the south shore was reminiscent of the topography of Long Island’s north shore. At Southeast Lighthouse and the adjacent Mohegan Bluffs, visitors are greeted with a dramatic panorama of the Atlantic as viewed from about 150 feet above sea level. For anyone wishing to visit the rough waters but secluded beaches down below, you will find a staircase of over 100 steps that will take you there, and if you have the stamina, back up as well.

When it comes to getting around the island, there are a number of options. Its small size means that it can be efficiently and economically covered by bicycle, which are available for rent near the ferry docks in town. For those less concerned about their carbon footprint – or physical well-being – scooter rentals are very popular, though fraught with risk as many are injured in accidents each year. They have earned the scorn of the natives such as my taxi driver, who had less than complimentary remarks toward the reckless tourists who block the roads and hurt themselves and others. So if you do choose this option, be careful and play nice with the locals.

It may of taken me nearly my entire lifetime to get to Block Island, but I can honestly say that it was still worth the visit. After traveling the world I can rightly be considered a bit jaded, and as a Lawnguylinder even more jaded to the region’s charms. But as we took off from the small airfield and banked out over the Atlantic, I realized that I’ll never tire of seeing things so long as the view is fresh and the experience is new – even if it’s only 14 miles away.