Rhode Island's Riviera
RHODE ISLAND'S RIVIERA
I had seen references to Block Island in many Travel Guides. The brochures all referred to Block Island in glowing terms. But, it was a mysterious destination to those of us not raised on the Eastern shores of the Atlantic. It had for us the enigmatic panache and the siren's allure of an off shore island resort. We were determined to go.
The Internet provided us with all of the information that we needed for reservations, directions and planning. August looked like a nice timeto visit and we made our plans accordingly.
We were driving in from Buffalo, New York and planned to stay in Connecticut one night, so that we could catch an early Ferry from Point Judith out to Block Island.
From Stamford, we followed the busy highway, Rte. # 95, along the Connecticut shore, past Bridgeport, Groton and other coastal towns into Rhode Island where we got off at exit # 92 (Westerly). The traffic, heading forthe beaches, was heavy even at an early hour. We stopped at a Mobile Station for gas and coffee($16), and then followed the local roads on into Point Judith, the Ferry Station for Block Island.
Cars were parked everywhere. Throngs of people ferry to Block Island daily and park their cars in the many surface lots, for a $5 per diem fee. We espied the "Dutch Inn" nearby and decided to stay the night. The place has seen better days, but for $106 we had a place to stay near the Ferry Station. It was also a place to leave our car for the three days that we would be on Block Island. We unloaded our bikes and luggage into the room and then took a walk around the small port area. It was cloudy, muggy and the promise of rain was in the air.
Point Judith, as well as being a busy year round Ferry Station, is also a functioning fishing village. We strolled through the port and admired the many shrimpers, lobstermen and crabbers that were working the harbor area. We stopped for lunch on the upper deck of "George's", a waterfront restaurant overlooking the Harbor. There, we had a wonderful Lobster Roll and "Buffalo Shrimp" that were delicious. ($35) The shrimp are fried and dipped in a hot barbecue sauce before cooking. They are served with a blue cheese dip, and the combination is wonderful. Chicken wings never tasted this good.
Afterwards, we walked up and down the beach admiring as always, the rhythmic surf crashing upon the shore. It was crowded withvacationers, even though the sun hid behind the clouds. At the Ferry Head,we watched the multi-decked "Carol Jean" disgorge her load of hundreds of day trippers, cars, trucks and freight of all sorts. The place is a flurry of activity during ferry arrivals. Each arrival and departure is unique and interesting, a thousand personal dramas unfolding daily. We had coffee at "Maud's", on the waterfront, and watched the activity for a while, before repairing to our room at 3:30, to read and relax . A cool sea breeze was rising and the air was heavy with rain.
After a brief nap, we walked across the road to the port and again watched the arriving ferry unload her cargo. This vessel was smaller than the Carol Jean, yet it still carried 2 large trucks, 22 cars and hundreds of cyclers and passengers, returning from their day trip to Block Island. We watched the activity for a while and then wandered down the dock to the "Top of the Dock" restaurant. We sat on the outside second story terrace and watched the lobstermen and crabbers unload their day's catch. Barrels of crab bait, with inquisitive gulls sitting astride them, lay about the wharf area. Clad in their faded yellow rain slickers and fishermen's sweaters,the seamen drew a colorful portrait of men who went down to the sea to make their living. We had a wonderful Lobster and Angel Hair Pasta concoction that was delicious. A glass of Merlot set it off nicely.( $42.)Quality seafood is dirt cheap here and we were making the most of it.
After dinner, we walked along the shore's edge to Finback's Restaurant and observed the many fishing vessels and fish markets along the way. We walked back to the Ferry head and watched once more, one of the multi decked sea busses disgorge its plentiful cargo.
We really hadn't planned on staying in Port Judith, but were glad that we did. It is a busy, functioning fishing village and we enjoyed watching the fishermen go about their work. The ships had colorful names like "Excalibur", "Stormy Elizabeth" and "Iron Horse." They are broad shouldered nautical steeds that surge across the bucking Atlantic rollers, in search of the commercial fruits of the sea. Their men ride them with an easy grace that much belies the hardships of their profession. It is a colorful and interesting experience to watch these men ply their trade.
After the last ferry, at 8 P.M., we returned to our room , repacked our gear and readied for our excursion onto Block Island. We were traveling on bicycles with backpacks.
The next day we arose early, to the drizzling gray of a rainy day.We showered, packed our bags, backpacks and loaded the car. Then, I parked the vehicle in the lot behind the Dutch Inn. They would watch our car for the duration of our stay. After checking out, we peddled our bikes in the light rain to the ticket counter, at the Ferry Station. We were in line before 7A.M., for tickets on the 8 A.M. Ferry. No advance purchases are allowed. You get in line one hour before your desired departure and wait your turn.Others were arriving as we stood there.
The car owners seemed themost apprehensive, trying to get some of the limited auto space on the ferry. Fares were #6.50 each way for pedestrians and an additional $1.75 each way for bicycles. We bought one way tickets in case we decided to stay over another night. The M.V. Manissea is a double decked ferry, with a small interior passenger compartment, similar to a tug's wheel house, on the second deck. It filled up quickly because of the rain. Some intrepid souls still preferred the open decks and sat outside the wheel house on benches along the upper deck.
Families with small children, college kids, and an eclectic variety of tourists, made up the relatively small passenger contingent. At 8 A.M. sharp, we edged out of the ferry slip and headed down the rock lined channel for the 1 hour crossing out to Block Island. It is only 12 miles off shore, but those are pretty long miles in a heavy sea. We passed the moored array of the afore mentioned nautical steeds, champing at their bit to begin the days trolling. Even in the damp of a gray and featureless day, the harbor area was maritime picturesque. We stood on the upper stern deck and watched the port gradually fade into the blur of the distant shore.
The waves weren't too forbidding, but were of the long, roller variety. Ships like this, with a shallow draft for docking in harbors, rolled like a hog in a wallow, in a high sea. One of the small children vomited from motion sickness and another young girl looked pretty green around the edges. We felt sorry for the little rascals. It was comical watching someone walk up the deck. You needed to anticipate the roll of the ship and balance your legs accordingly, as you advanced gingerly. The expression "sea legs" had more meaning for us now.
Coffee and the relaxing side to side wallow were mesmerizing us on the short journey. The sky was a leaden gray and the ocean seemed devoid of life. Soon enough, we spied the bluffs of Block Island and rounded the headland for our approach into Old Harbor. Our first impressions were that of a well ordered, Norwegian, Fjord-side village. The row of Inns and Hotels, the National Hotel, Water Street Inn, Harborside Inn, The Surf Hotel, Ballard's Inn and the Old Harbor Inn sat aligned in an orderly row facing the protected harbor. The rain was gaining in intensity and we weren't looking forward to our bike ride up the hill, to the Continental B&B. But, a little rain never hurt anyone.
The Ferry reversed itself and docked stern end to the dock at Block Island, in the Rhode Island Town of New Shoreham. We had arrived. Disembarking from a ship into a strange town must be a universally unsettling experience. We put on our backpacks, mounted our bikes and set off in the pouring rain.
After a few missed turns, we set off up High St. and found the Continental B&B, located about half way up the hill, on a small pond. Lila Clerk is the proprietor, but had left earlier this morning for a medical appointment on the mainland. We walked into her home and were greeted by Nancy Dann and the other guests staying there. We climbed the stairs and settled in, grateful to be in out of the rain. Shortly, we descended to the dining area and joined the others as they finished their coffee. Al & Nancy Dann were from Framingham, Mass. and a young couple named Chris & Liz were from New Jersey. We had pleasantconversation with them amidst the beastly weather. This is the real reason to stay at B&B's, the people you meet and interact with over breakfast. It always proves interesting.
After a pleasant chat, we donned rain gear and hoisted our umbrellas for the walk down High St. to the Old Harbor area. We found a cozy little spot, for coffee, in "Rebecca's." It was full of other sodden vacationers like us, escaping the rain. Next, we bundled up and walked up and down Water Street, which fronts on the Harbor, to get a feel for the Town. The winds were picking up and the rain was soaking everybody. Umbrellas were useless. The wind would soon turn them inside out, if they didn't blow them away altogether. We found safe harbor in the Mohegan Cafe and settled in for a nice Lunch.($20) Clam chowder and salads, with warm beverages, lightened our mood. We saw several of the people who had come over on the Ferry with us and waved in recognition. The place had the paneled, square windowed feeling of an old sea cabin.
After Lunch, we decided to surrender to the elements and retreat up the hill to our B&B. We changed into warmer and drier clothes and settled in to read ( "Seventh Scroll"- Wilbur Smith)
Our room was on the second floor of the home and faced out onto Continental Pond. There were geese and ducks everywhere about. A grand peacock, whose name is Thor, strutted in the rain. They ruled the pond like the Lords of Quack, which they did loudly and often. We settled in to read and get a welcome afternoon nap. There were four other guest rooms on the second floor, sharing two baths. The first floor consisted of a large open living space and was centered by a wall long stone fireplace. Two of Lila's wall hangings adorned the room. A large dining table and a small kitchen, rounded out the spacious area of the remodeled house. It dated from the late 19th century. A large deck, that overlooked the pond and drooping Willow Tree, is visible through the glass sliding doors at the rear of the building. Near the front hallway is, presumably, the owners quarters and studio. The house is comfortable and user friendly to guests.
By 5:00 P.M., the rain had abated and we were feeling adventurous. We continued our walk up High Street, for a mile or so, until we found the high splendor of the Mohegan Bluffs. The eroding cliffs here rise up almost 200 feet from the beach below and provide a panoramic vista of the Southeastern portion of the Island. We enjoyed the view for some minutes and then retraced our steps, for the mile and a half walk down to Old Harbor.
We strolled along Water Street looking at the shops and enjoying the hustle and bustle of the pedestrian traffic. The "Harborside Hotel"looked inviting and we decided to give it a try for dinner. They had a wonderful clambake for the evening's special. A one pound lobster, mussels, corn and a full salad bar erased the gloom of the day. A cold beer washed the repast down and we felt like staying.($50)
After dinner, we walked up High Street in the waning light, and ambled over to the "Atlantic Hotel." It sits high on a rolling grassy bluff, overlooking the ocean. The Hotel looked warm and inviting. We enjoyed the view and, tiring, headed back to the Continental, across the road.
We were settled in reading when Lila Clerk returned from the Mainland. She graciously invited us to share a glass of wine with her. We sampled the Peach wine and chatted amiably with Lila. She is an artist whose specialty is geometric murals and textile wall hangings. We talked at length with her and she offered us advice on what to do and see while on the island. Lila had resided here for over thirty years and for a time, lived half of each year in an artist's loft in Manhattan, where she produced her work. We found her conversation interesting and enjoyable. The Danns returned from their sightseeing and joined the conversation. We all chatted amiably until 11:30, when the day's fatigue overtook us and we retired.
Our first impressions of the Island were favorable, despite the weather. Block Island is Nantucket style charming and the hotels, in Old Harbor, have the New England charm of Bar Harbor. It is pricey though,with many Hotels requiring a six night minimum, in season, at prices that ranged upwards from $125 per night. Many of the B&Bs have three night minimums, on the weekends, in Season. Prices ranged from $90 per night,like Lila's, to $125 and up. Restaurant prices are predictably high, but not outrageous, given the freight portage and short vacation season involved.
The next morning, we arose early at 6 A.M., showered and read for a while. At 8:30, we joined the Danns and Lila for a breakfast of French Toast, O.J. & Coffee. The conversation was wide ranging and interesting, by far the best advantage to staying at a B&B. It was sunny and cool out, and the temperature was in the 60's.
At 9:15, we saddled up our bikes and rode down the hill, through Old Harbor, and then a few miles out along the Beach road, to the old North Light house. The ride was pleasant and scenic. New Harbor, with its collection of sailing vessels at anchor, passed by on our left. To our right, the dunes of the beach area mounded a slight buttress against the rolling sea. A good wave would roll over this portion of the island without even slowing up. The sky was that wonderful rain washed cerulean blue, the sun was shining and we could see ocean on both sides of us. It was a very pleasant ride and we were glad we had come.
As we approached the Light, it appeared in the distance to be of the dowager, Victorian style architecture that was so prominent in the late 19th century. Indeed, the entry sign gave the date of construction as 1867. It had stood here all of these years warning mariners of the approaching rocks.
We came upon and read "founders rock" upon which had been inscribed the names of the founding families and some history of the island. Next,we locked up our bikes and hiked the last quarter mile across the powder soft sand. The vegetation was heavy and studded with primroses and brambles.
The final path led us up to the quaintly haunting structure. It is tall and imposing, as it stands its solitary vigil amidst the dunes. We continued on past the light and wandered the deserted tip of the island. It is a narrowtriangular spit of sand that points out into the ocean. We walked to the tip and stood in the surf looking out over the ocean. It was sunny and the sky was an impossibly bright blue, studded with those soft, fleecy cirrus clouds.
We sat on an old log and watched the sails, of pleasure boats, drift by and the gulls gracefully glide on the air currents above . Some few others walked out onto the spit, but the sound came mostly from the quiet crash of the surf, as we enjoyed the natural beauty that surrounded us.
After a time, we reluctantly made our way along the beach, back to the parking area where we had left our bikes. The hordes were descending upon the site. The ugly whine of scooters permeated the air. Taxis, cars and all manner of sightseers were arriving. We were fortunate to have come early and been able to enjoy the quiet solitude of the beautiful beach area. The area's natural beauty rivals that of the National Seashore, on nearby Cape Cod, or that of the Outer Banks, off North Carolina.We saddled up and began peddling the distance back to New Harbor.
It was a pleasant ride and made you feel glad to be alive. At New Harbor, we pedaled onto the small wharf area and viewed the many small sailing vessels at anchor. A few small hotels and "Dead Eye Dick's" restaurant make up the commercial side of the small port.
We cycled on over to Old Harbor and had some very nice clam chowder and spinach salad, at "Finn's" seafood restaurant ($23). It is a small place, with a large outdoor takeout patio. The Islanders favor it for the good food and reasonable prices.
The afternoon crowds were building and my legs were signaling their unwillingness to be pushed much further. We cycled up past the Atlantic Hotel and again admired the view. A small farm, immediately below the hotel, held several cows, llamas, pygmy goats and other livestock. We took a quick look and then cycled back to our B&B for a much appreciated 2 hr nap.
At 5:00 P.M., we walked back into town and browsed the shops along Water Street. We stopped by the Ferry head to watch the departing multi-decked water bus and were treated to a minor altercation. One rather ill advised potential passenger was hassling the ferry crew. I guess he figured that he could talk his way onto the ferry with his car. He either didn't have reservations or had come too late to drive aboard. In any case,the altercation became a shoving match and the police were called. The unfortunate man's wife came back from shopping, to find her husband escorted off in a patrol car by the New Shoreham Police.
After the drama, we bought some flavored coffee, at "The French Connection", and sat on the rocking chairs of the "Surf Hotel" overlooking the Ocean. The deck was for guests only, but nobody bothered us and we admired the late afternoon visage of the peaceful rolling sea.
Around the corner, from the Surf Hotel, is an upscale eatery names"Eli's." We managed to get a table in this small and attractive Bistro. We had some decent Merlot and a wonderful Shrimp & Pasta dish that was excellent($52) I would recommend the dish and the restaurant highly.
After Dinner, we walked over to the "Ballard's Hotel Complex" and sat on the beach for a while, listening to the melodic crash of the surf.
Then, we walked up to Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor and indulged ourselves in ice cream cones($3.60), while we watched the early evening sky redden against the watery horizon.
It was only 8:00 P.M., but the light was fast waning, so we walked on up the hill to the Continental and turned in to read and relax. It had been a full day.
We arose early again the next morning, at 6:00 A.M., showered and read for a while, before joining Lila for a wonderful breakfast of mushroom omelets, coffee and toast. It was sunny, cool and the temperature was in the 60's.
At 9:30, we cycled up High street, past the community school and medical center, and onto the high road which traverses the Mohegan Bluffs. We turned left and rode the short distance to the old SoutheastLighthouse. It has stood its post since 1873. It too was of Victorian, gothic style and commanded the bluffs in a wide 180 degree arc. It is in the process of restoration and looked a little the worse for its century of weathering.
We continued on along the high bluffs road, admiring the fine homes and the wonderful vistas of the ocean far below. A mile or so along,we came to a broad bend in the road. Beneath us,was the heavily shrubbed "Rodman's Hollow Nature Preserve." In the Spring, the blossoms here provide a sea of white carnations. We locked up the bikes and went for a 2 mile walk amidst the primrose and brambles. The overlook, on a hillock far into the preserve, has a bench where we enjoyed a nice 360 degree view of the surrounding area. The walk was fun, but the footing can be treacherous. Good shoes and a sharp eye are required. On the way out we talked briefly with a local farmer. He had just snapped the drive shaft of his tractor and commented ruefully, that it "hadn't been a good day."
From Rodman's Hollow, we cycled over to the Block Island Airport.The main building is a Quonset hut affair, with a small diner at the rear. A squadron of parked Cessnas and piper cubs attested to the legions of casual commuters who land here. We had coffee and watched several small planes landing and taking off. The place had the feel of a small aerodrome in England, during W.W.II. The sun was shining and the light breeze spun the windsock at the end of the field. It was bucolic and restful.
From the aerodrome, we continued cycling along the bluffs and stopped at the hilltop Baptist church, for a water break and time to admire the view. The road was beginning its descent. On the way down the hill,we glided effortlessly, with the wind in our hair and the sun on our face.It was a nice ride.
Near the foot of the escarpment, we came upon the Island Cemetery and decided to stop and take a look. The graveyard is filled with older stones, some dating from the 1700's. The raised letter inscriptions reflect the many names of the Island's most prominent families. Dodge,
Sprague, Ball, Sheffield, Rose, Motts and Payne are some of the more numerous embossed names on the fading tombstones. The Christian names were very Biblical sounding and New Englandish. Jedediah, Noah,
Abraham, Phoebe. They had the ring of Hawthorne about them. There were many smaller stones and we wondered what epidemic had carried off the younger ones in so untimely a fashion. It was a poet's sonata surrounding us and we wondered, as always, at the many stories that lie buried here. It was easy to visualize Edgar Lee Master's "Spoon River Anthology" , as it murmured to us from the past. "It is a cold and lonely place, and none I think do there embrace." (Keats, I think)
Next, we saddled up and rode down to New Harbor, where we had a delightful lunch of clam chowder and crab cakes on the patio of "Dead Eye Dick's."($26)
After lunch, we rode over to Old Harbor and watched another ferry unload its passengers and cargo. It was a flurry of activity that we always found interesting. New arrivals scurrying about, freight unloaded and cars disgorged from the bowls of the ship. It was action and life unfolding before us. Many stories lurked there to be told.
By now, the long muscles of the thigh were vetoing any further energy demands, so we returned to our B&B to rest and relax for a while before dinner. We had a nice routine going here. It felt comfortable.
At 5:30, we walked down the hill and had a flavored coffee and an enormous Danish Torte Cake at "Java and Juice" on the edge of Town. It is an interesting replica of an old 1960's style, big city coffee house. ($10)
From here, we walked over and watched the 7:00 P.M. ferry depart. It was bedlam, as the many day trippers crowded onto the ferry. I didn't think the multi-decked monster would hold them all, but it did. They were packed to the gunnels, on all decks, as she shoved off for the mainland. We know that feeling of waiting in line, hoping to get aboard. It has a "last lifeboat" desperation to it, and was perhaps the source of the altercation we had viewed the other night. It is an irrational feeling, but a palpable fear of being left behind as the ship goes down. It never leaves you and we have felt it several times on many ferries in Europe and the U.S.
"Fried Whole Clams" were next on our list. We found them at "Finns" and enjoyed their taste on the outdoor patio.($11) Tonight was a night for indulging in junk food.
We decided that we would pick up a good bottle of Merlot, some cheese and crackers and enjoy the waning sun on the deck of our B&B,overlooking the pond. The Town Liquor store had a great selection of spirits. We got a wonderful bottle of Black Opal Cabernet and then stopped at the grocery store for a cheese spread and crackers. It is here, where you really see the enormous mark up for goods transported over from the mainland. God bless the residents who must shop here regularly.
At the B&B, Lila was out to dinner. We had the deck to ourselves.We watched the sun go down and a magnificent star show arise from the sky. Ursa Major, Orion and an entire kaleidoscope of stars twinkled above us. The wine made us mellow and we soon retired. It had been a lovely stay on a beautiful Island. We were glad that we had come.
On our last morning, we were up at 5:30 A.M., listening to the quacking symphony of the Geese and Duck Sonata. The noisy fowl were house pets and as such, impervious to physical violence, so we listened to them with grim chagrin. We packed our bags, said good bye to Lila and cycled down to Old Harbor for the last time. It was early, yet there was still activity at the ferry. We settled in on the second floor, outdoor patio of "Ernie's", overlooking the harbor, and had a wonderful omelet breakfast.($12) I could sit here, and watch the harbor area forever.
At 7:00, when the ticket window opened, we bought our tickets for the 8:00 A.M ferry. There wasn't a full load of passengers, but every carspace was taken and the "standby" line was already filling up. We once had the dubious pleasure of sitting in one of these "standby" lines, on Martha's Vineyard. It took us thirteen hours to get off the island. It can be an interesting experience. Reservations are always recommended for automobiles.
The one hour ferryride, to Point Judith, was smooth and uneventful. We entered the rock lined causeway and passed the berthed, nautical
stables, of the many colorfully named fishing vessels. After debarking the ferry, we cycled over to our car and loaded the bikes up, for our run up to Cape Ann. We had enjoyed our stay on Block Island, Rhode Island's Riviera, and plan to return again. You should too.
Joseph Xavier Martin