When approaching Block Island one may wonder why Old Harbor, exposed directly to Long Island Sound, is older than New Harbor, a deep and well-protected body of water. The logic certainly didn't get past 18th century settlers, who tried making use of Great Salt Pond by widening and deepening its inlet. For some time optimism about the prospect of a protected harbor reigned, but the reality of the effort involved soon laid the idea to rest.
So Much To Do and See!
Renewed interest over a century later resulted in hard-fought dredging of a 20-foot deep channel-a significant feat for a small band of island-bound residents. Equally significant was 18 feet of shoaling that the inlet had gained six years later, reducing the depth to an impassible two feet and finally exhausting the islanders' patience. The western harbor was finally abandoned in favor of a breakwater on the opposite shore, and may have helped spin the local phrase "if at first you don't succeed, then try something else."
Magnificent Victorian and granite structures that soon surrounded the new “old" harbor still survive and aptly reflect the charm for which Block Island is well-known. Only twenty-five years later, in 1895, did significant federal-funding enable the island to finally open up Great Salt Pond, but not soon enough to unseat the newly established town center, which today absorbs a rush of tourist-laden ferries and represents the majority of the island's shops, inns and eateries.
Things to See and DoWhatever you are searching for, Block Island seems to have it: art galleries, hiking, fishing, bars, food and shopping are all available within arm's reach, and you'll be no farther than a 20-minute bike ride from the southern and northernmost points of the Island.
For most, the first priority when arriving is food, and whether you arrive in Great Salt Pond to the west or Old Harbor to the east, you'll be close by to just about every shop and eatery on the Island. Strolling around the Island by foot may seem like more of a hike, so if you brought a bike great, if not don't worry, there are many places to rent one. Plenty of 50cc to huffing about on a bike.
If you're well-rested and ready for some sight-seeing, the Island offers many opportunities for touring its northernmost and southernmost reaches, and many trails and beach hikes in between. Clay Head Hill Trail, starting at Corn Neck Road, offers a rare inland view across the island's bluffs. Most others are restricted by private homesteads. To the south The Greenway includes 15 miles of spacious trails that wind their way though Old Mill, Beacon Hill and West side drives.
The island's Moorish landscape brings to mind Scotland or Wales; its rolling hills and rugged ravines make for ideal exploring by bike or foot. The town is full of Victorian hotels, restaurants, shops and galleries, and there are even two movie theaters, including the surreal Empire Theater (401-466-2555) on Water Street. A small reception booth opens way to a huge wooden cathedral, and you'll be treated to a light show, dance music and even a bubble-maker before watching the show. Bicycles and mopeds can be rented near most of the marinas and at Block Island Bike and Car Rental (401-466-2297) on Ocean Avenue. Taxis and rental cars are also available, as are station wagons masquerading as tour buses-all within 200 yards of the ferry docks.
You'll know the boating season has arrived when the Storm Trysail Club's Block Island Race Week begins. Held biennially in mid-June, the sailing regatta draws several hundred boats and thousands of professional and amateur sailors to the island for a challenging five-day series of races. This international event provides a variety of wind, water and current conditions with each variation requiring different sail configurations and ever-changing strategies. The next race is scheduled for June of 2009. Call the chamber of commerce (401-466-2982) or see www.blockislandraceweek.com for more information.
Every summer weekend is bound to be packed, but you should arrive particularly early if you want even a chance of finding space around the Memorial Day, Fourth of July, or Labor Day holidays. No matter the occasion, all summer long Block Islanders and visitors alike pack the streets and keep the Island hoppin' into the wee hours of the morning.
Amble north of Old Harbor to the island's east side and Crescent Beach for a day of sun and surf along a popular, two-mile stretch extending from Old Harbor to Jerry's Point. For a more secluded alternative with stronger surge, head to Southeast Light and descend the wooden stairs from the towering Mohegan Bluffs to the sand and boulders below.
For those who prefer life's calmer, simpler pleasures, like the feeling of sand between your toes and the mesmerizing sound of surf, there are two nice beaches to enjoy near town. Row to the eastern side of Great Salt Pond, beach your dinghy, and walk across the narrow spit to Crescent Beach. The sand and usually light surf extend from Old Harbor to Jerry's Point, offering excellent swimming and sandcastle opportunities. For a little larger surf, head over to Ballard's Beach on the east side of the Old Harbor breakwater, right behind Ballard's Inn.
Nearby to Old Harbor is the celebrated Southeast Lighthouse. Due to the erosion the structure was once only 55 feet away from a precipitous drop over a bluff into the Sound. National attention was sparked when a local grassroots effort helped move the structure away from imminent danger by the mid-90's. You may still be able to observe the efforts of ongoing renovation of this celebrated lighthouse. Tours are offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The North Light marks the island's northernmost point and makes you work if you want a close-up view. Whether you travel by bike or car, the road ends at Settler's Rock, the honorary place where the island's first European settlers landed in April 1661. From there, it's about a mile walk over a sand-and-rock beach-terrain that makes it feel longer than it is. It can be a tough hike out there but the view is worth it. When you finish your tour of the renovated lighthouse, recharge on the beach on the point's western shore. Swimming isn't recommended out here, especially off the northern point, where rips can take you out to sea in no time. If you're searching for a salt-free dip, you may opt for a freshwater swim in Sachem (pronounced "sack-em" by Block Islanders) Pond, near Settler's Rock.
For some around Block Island, fishing offshore is the only mission. For many off-and-on Island anglers it's either off to Southwest Ledge for seabass and bluefish or off to Ballard's for Budweisers and steamers to recharge, and not much in between. Off-season it's easy to jump in with a charter boat, but make reservations in-season. Captain Matt King offers trips with Hula Charters (401-263-3474). Captain Denny Dillon (401-783-5644) offers trips aboard his spacious 35-foot sportfisherman Persuader, which is suitable for families and large groups.
Twin Maples (401-466-5547) has bait and spin-fishing tackle, while Oceans & Ponds (401-466-5131) on Ocean Avenue carries tackle for spin- and fly-fishermen; both can tell you what's happening where and on what.
Searching for an underwater adventure? Consider heading for the Pinnacles. Marked as "Boulders" on the chart, southwest of Block Island, this area is one of the finest dive sites in New England waters south of Cape Cod. The site consists of huge stones piled 50 to 70 feet high. In August, visibility can reach 50 feet, and you can swim between the boulders and scout visiting tropical fish like barracuda while checking out the many wrecks that litter the area. Island Outfitters (401-466-5502) on Ocean Avenue should be able to help you out with any equipment needs that you may have; they also offer charters for those who'd prefer a guide.
These suggestions just touch the tip of the lighthouse when it comes to activities on Block Island. Contact the Block Island Tourism Council (401-466-5200) or the Chamber of Commerce (401-466-2982) for more.
Restaurants and ProvisionsYou'll find most of the island's cafés and inns near Water Street in Old Harbor. If you're in search of oysters, steamers or lobster, you almost can't go wrong with any of the local restaurants. Finn's Seafood Restaurant (401-466-2473) is a popular place for seafood, and its fish market below the restaurant emphasizes their commitment to getting you a fresh meal. Take-out is also available. The Salty Dog (401-466-5254) on Water Street is a local institution, and offers a wonderful view of Old Harbor.
Named "Best Island Café" by Rhode Island Monthly Magazine, the Orange Cat Café, located on Dodge Street across from the library, offers a variety of baked goods and some excellent coffee. For those with a sweet tooth, look for Blocks of Fudge (401-466-5196) on Chapel Street behind Eli's.
"Andiamo! Andiamo!" If you've never stayed the night on Great Salt Pond, this odd sound may alarm you in the morning. But some experienced Block Island boaters salivate like Pavlov's dog, for this "let's go" wail emanating from Aldo's Bakery (401-466-2198), replete with boat deliveries of breakfast fare. In Old Harbor, Aldo's Place (401-466-5871) will be happy to serve you too, minus the wake-up call.
If it weren't for the views and island ambience that is crucial to a complete Block Island visit, you could probably spend all your time at Champlin's Hotel, Marina & Resort (401-466-7777), where you'll find two eateries. The Dockside Restaurant serves Cajun and American cuisine and also offers a raw bar. If you're in the mood for a slice, stop in at the Pizzeria. Then again, you may just want to waste away at the Tiki Bar.
The Oar Restaurant (401-466-8820), at Block Island Boat Basin, is adorned with a colorful selection of pulling devices dangling from the ceiling. The good food, creative decor, and harbor views make for a great combination.
Closer to town, the pairing of Winfield's (401-466-5856) and McGovern's Yellow Kittens (401-466-5855) offers a curious combination of fine dining and a place to whoop it up. On those wild summer weekends, Yellow Kittens can usually be found by following the hum of late-night revelers.
Ernie's Old Harbor Restaurant (401-466-2473) serves a fine breakfast, while Finn's Seafood Restaurant (same phone), below, serves lunch and dinner. Dead Eye Dick's (401-466-2654) on Ocean Avenue is famous for swordfish, and the outside deck and casual atmosphere makes it a perennial favorite with locals and tourists alike.
Now in it's 15th year, Froozies (401-466-2230) juice bar and café serves real fruit smoothies and an excellent breakfast served until 11:30. A short walk from the ferry, Juice & Java (401-466-5220) on Dodge Street makes homemade French toast for the breakfast crowd, and was a recent mention in the New York Times as having Block Island's best coffee.
On Water Street, you'll be sure to find a good meal at the Harborside Inn (401-466-5504) and Mohegan Café (401-466-5911). Don't be turned off by the shack-like appearance of Old Harbor Take-Out-it's a good place for a quick bite. For just a few bucks you'll be sitting at your picnic table with a burger, fries, and drink. Also, Rebecca's Seafood Takeout (401-301-5411) is considered by the locals as some of the best food on the island. No matter where you go, try some Rhode Island-style clam chowder: that's the kind with the clear broth-good stuff!
Located in Old Harbor, Block Island Health and General Store (401-466-5825) provides beach supplies, a large selection of video rentals, small appliances and general household goods. Nautical Needles (800-667-0648), located in nearby Westbrook, Connecticut, is the best source for custom canvas and interior work. Those looking to restock the galley should stop by the Block Island Grocery & Package Store (401-466-2949) or Block Island Depot (401-466-2403) both located on Ocean Ave. Both Champlin's Marina and Block Island Boat Basin carry basic supplies.
New England Airlines (800-243-2460) offers scheduled and charter flights to Westerly and nearby airports such as Providence, Boston or New York. For a boater-friendly boat loan, call on Chelsea Groton (860-448-4143) located in nearby Groton, Connecticut. If you're in need of a tow, contact Safe/Sea (401-895-8711) for prompt, local service. Atlantic Outboard (860-399-6773), in nearby Westbrook, Connecticut, is your source for professional outboard and engine refits. If you are shopping for your next custom sloop, call on Morris Yachts (207-224-5509), offering some of the world's finest yachts.
ChartsUse ChartKit Region 3, pages 10, 36, and 63 or ChartKit Region 2, pages 5 and 30; Waterproof Chartbook Long Island Sound or Block Island to Cape Cod; Maptech Waterproof Charts 1, 19, and 86; and Maptech electronic and NOAA paper charts 13217 (1:15,000) and 13215 (1:40,000).
Navigation and AnchoragesFrom a distance, Block Island looks like two separate hills, split by the low-lying Great Salt Pond. The north end of the island is marked by the squat tower of the Block Island North Lighthouse (Fl 5s 58ft 13M), less than two miles from G "1BI" Fl G 4s BELL. The bell is often used as a racing mark and can be hard to round, as you often have to beat back when the wind is out of the southwest.
CAUTION: Do not cut south of G "1BI" Fl G 4s BELL unless you have current local knowledge-Block Island North Reef stretches almost all the way from Sandy Point to the buoy. The shoals constantly shift. Standing waves develop around the bell buoy when the wind and tide are opposed, and waves break heavily on the reef.
Block Island Southeast Light (Fl G 5s 261ft 20M HORN) atop Mohegan Bluffs marks the opposite end of the island. In good weather you can see the light clearly when coming from Montauk or the south. If you're approaching during limited visibility, note that while the fog signal can be heard from several miles away, it may be indistinct when nearby.
The perimeter of the island is littered with boulders and should be approached with caution, even by small boats. The Coast Guard recommends keeping one-half mile offshore except in the marked channels.
From the east, you'll be crossing open water from the mouth of Buzzards Bay. In early summer, the weather can be foggy along this route, and you'll be sailing through long swells from the open ocean. Beginning at the Buzzards Bay Light (Fl 2.5s 67ft 17M HORN), head southwest for 25 miles to G "1BI" Fl G 4s BELL north of Block Island. Round this mark to the north and swing south to R "2" BELL at the entrance to Great Salt Pond, about three-and-a-half miles away.
Great Salt Pond
From Point Judith it's a straight shot south-southwest for about seven miles to G "1BI" Fl G 4s BELL marking Block Island North Reef. Jog west before marking R "2" BELL at the entrance to Great Salt Pond.
From the west, crossing Block Island Sound to R "2" BELL at the entrance of Great Salt Pond is akin to being in the open Atlantic. There are long swells, heavy fog (in early summer), and big-ship traffic.
The entrance to Great Salt Pond (New Harbor) is protected by a jetty marked by Fl R 49ft 8M "4" HORN. Although the channel shoals, it still carries a respectable 10 feet. From BELL R "2," it's a straight shot into the harbor-just follow the marked channel to the paired G C "11" and R N "12." If you have a deep draft vessel, you can hail the harbormaster for recommendations on VHF 12 or call 401-466-3204.
CAUTION: If you're entering New Harbor at night, it's important to realize that the entrance channel is parallel to, but does not run directly along, the jetty. Use Fl R 49ft 8M "4" HORN at the end of the jetty to locate the entrance, but use the channel buoys (unlighted, but with reflectors) to get you in. Running next to the jetty will put you aground. Those entering New Harbor under sail on summer afternoons will often be greeted by a southwest breeze that seemingly appears out of nowhere and whisks you into the pond. Keep in mind that the channel is heavily used during peak periods and you may have to make room for the ferry. The high-speed ferry usually travels at a good clip until G C "7." Keep an eye over your shoulder and watch the wake.
Great Salt Pond offers good protection, although finding space on the more popular weekends can be a chore. With the varied types of holding ground throughout the pond, your choice of anchor is important. Experience would suggest the use of a Danforth in the hard bottom found in the middle of the anchorage, and a plow anchor in the soft perimeters. On the far east side of the pond, there are some areas where the bottom is covered with oyster shells and other debris. It's best to avoid this area and head out into the deeper water. Anchoring is prohibited in the northern quarter of the pond; you must anchor south of the cylindrical "No Anchoring Buoys." If you have any questions, hail the harbormaster on VHF 12.
Dragging anchor is a real problem here, especially when the wind comes up in the afternoon. The problems usually begin when it blows more than 15 knots. Many fail to put out enough scope and a rising tide only makes the problem worse, especially on the west side of the harbor. Two anchors off the bow are recommended.
The Town of New Shoreham is strict about anchoring. Ninety lime-green, inexpensive moorings located west of R N "14," are allotted on a first-come, first-served basis and fill up quickly. Just pick up a mooring and hail the harbormaster to tell him where you are. If you'd like a town mooring, you need to arrive early. You can reach the harbormaster on VHF 12 between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. He tells us that if you show up Friday afternoon, you likely won't find space.
You may also look for space in Smugglers Cove-islanders call it the "Hog Pen"-south of the ferry dock. This is the best spot to be in a storm, but it's also cramped.
If you'd prefer a slip, try Champlin's Hotel, Marina & Resort (401-466-7777), Block Island Boat Basin (401-466-2631), or Payne's New Harbor Dock (401-466-5572). All have groceries, bike and moped rentals, and restaurants close by. Call ahead for reservations.
Great Salt Pond is a federal "No Discharge" zone (except for "gray water"-waste water from your sink or shower). If you need a pump-out, contact one of the marinas or the town-operated floating pump-out station. Discharge valves must be sealed in the closed position. If you don't have a holding tank, you must use the facilities ashore. Recycling is mandatory on Block Island. Separate aluminum cans, glass, and plastic from your trash.
Old HarborFrom the east, it's a straight shot to F G 27ft 11M "3" HORN at the tip of the eastern jetty. This is open ocean, so don't be surprised by big swells and occasional fog during the summer. On the upside, there's little in the way of obstructions.
If you're coming from the west, you can round Block Island to the north or the south. Your only concern if you choose the northern route is to keep well north and west of G "1BI" Fl G 4s BELL before heading south to Old Harbor.
From Point Judith it's also a fairly simple cruise. Keep east of G C "7" at Old Britton Rock en route to G "1" BELL. From this mark, Old Harbor is just one-half mile to the south.
From the south, let the Block Island Southeast Light (Fl G 5s 261ft 20M HORN) lead the way. Once you approach the island, keep south of G C "1" then east of G C "3" at Old Whale Rock. Continue north about 600 yards offshore as you round F G 27ft 11M "3" HORN.
Old Harbor, on the east side of the Block, is a tiny artificial refuge occupied by fishing boats, charter boats, ferries, and a small marina run by Ballard's. The harbor's breakwater is marked by F G 27ft 11M HORN "3."
Old Harbor may be the more ideal harbor on Block Island because it gives you direct access to "downtown" and is better protected by high bluffs and the breakwater, but most boaters still choose Great Salt Pond. The controlling depth of the channel entering the harbor has been dredged to 15 feet. The town maintains a public dock, but no reservations are taken. Call the Old Harbor Dockmaster on VHF 12 or enter the inner basin and hail him from your boat. Make sure you have lines and fenders ready. Anchoring is a problem here, as there simply isn't much room. Again, hail the harbormaster and he'll tell you where to go.
One final note: the Town of New Shoreham has been authorized to collect a 50-cent landing fee for each person over the age of 12 visiting Block Island. The fees are to be used along with matching funds from the State to build new facilities for visitors, i.e. showers, toilet facilities, and other services used mainly by boaters in New Harbor. You'll find collection boxes located at all the major marine facilities. The harbormaster has an office right at the docks if you have any questions.
From Block Island, you'll be only a short distance from many of New England's finest attractions and marinas. Nantucket Boat Basin (800-NAN-BOAT) in Nantucket, Old Harbor Marina (860-669-3500), Silver Spring Marine (401-783-0783) in Wakefield, RI, and Spicers Noank Marina (860-536-4978) in Noank, CT all offer fine amenities for your next jump-off ptoin.
Shoreside and Emergency ServicesAirport:
New England Airlines 401-466-5881
Block Island 401-466-5511
Block Island 401-466-5017 or VHF 16
Point Judith 401-789-0444 or VHF 16
Montauk 631-668-2773 or VHF 16
to Montauk, NY 631-668-5700
to New London, CT 860-444-4624
to Newport, RI 401-783-4613
to Point Judith, RI 401-783-4613
401-466-3204 or VHF 12 or 16
Police, Fire, Ambulance:
Sea Tow 800-4SEATOW or VHF 16
TowBoatU.S 800-391-4869 or VHF 16