NEW SHOREHAM -- Twelve miles off the Rhode Island coast lies a vacation destination often overlooked in the region's tourism sweepstakes. But if Block Island lacks the star gazing appeal of the celebrity isles of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, the visitors who swarm off the ferries here from Memorial Day to Columbus Day appear blissfully unconcerned.
That may be due to the island's alluring blend of so many elements that help a frazzled refugee from the working world exhale and relax. This pork chop-shaped island has gorgeous beaches, stunning ocean vistas, 32 miles of hiking trails, 250-foot-high coastal cliffs, a deep sense of history, and a lively night scene.
But most important, perhaps, is the way that Block Island can be both compellingly different and as comfortable as an old sweater. The pace is slower here, man-made and natural beauty blend harmoniously, and the compactness of the 11-square-mile island dictates that the visitor stop and take notice of the splendid ever-changing scenery.
"This is a place where there's no stress," said Debbie Cutler of Sharon, as she watched the ocean at twilight from the porch of the National Hotel, one of the island's grand Victorian lodgings. "It's just a beautiful, tranquil place to be."
With just under 1,000 year-round residents, the town of New Shoreham, which is the municipal entity on Block Island, is the smallest town in the nation's smallest state. But in summer, that number swells to more than 10,000, according to Jessica Dugan, spokeswoman for the Block Island Tourism Council.
Still, even with all those visitors on their bicycles and mopeds, the landscape feels uncrowded. That might be the result of a strong environmental streak among islanders that has preserved an astounding 43 percent of the land as open space. With such devotion to the natural beauty that surrounds them, Block Islanders seem to have pulled off an improbable trick: attracting a robust tourist trade despite putting much of the island out of the reach of builders.
Nearly all of the summer visitors arrive by ferry, principally from Point Judith, but also from Newport, New London, Conn., and Montauk, N.Y. The ferries make the docks a bustling, busy area, where visitors can stroll to one of the nearby hotels sprung from the island's Victorian-era building boom, or hail a taxi to one of many inns or cottages.
Cars can be brought over only on the traditional ferries from Point Judith, as opposed to passenger-only, high-speed boats that operate from Point Judith and New London. Slower, passenger-only ferries also operate in the summer from Newport and Montauk. The overwhelming number of visitors come ashore under foot power. A commercial air service carries some tourists from the state airport in Westerly.
At the Old Harbor dock, tourists are greeted by a view that harks back to the days of parasols and straw hats. There are the facades of hotels erected after the construction of a breakwater and modern harbor facilities helped attract tourists in the Gilded Age. The Harborside Inn, Water Street Inn, National Hotel, and Surf Hotel are a few of the mainstays.
Many tourists come here for the island's easy going, laid-back charm, but a wide array of night life is within walking distance of many of the inns. Whether one's taste is blood-pumping rock at Captain Nick's , alternative music and mudslides at Club Soda , reggae and margaritas at McGovern's Yellow Kittens Tavern , or simply gazing out to sea from a hotel porch, the choices are invitingly diverse.
Closing time is 1 a.m. Islanders have complained about noise in the past, Dugan said, so the clubs and hotels are working hard to tamp down the volume.
Although Block Island has been a tourist destination for more than a century, it long slumbered as an isolated backwater. In 1524, the explorer Giovanni Verrazzano was the first European to document a sighting of the island, which he wrote was the size of the island of Rhodes -- an observation that later led to the state's name. In 1614, the Dutch navigator Adriaen Block named it for himself while traveling to present-day New York.
Indeed, until the improvements to Old Harbor in the 19th century, many of the island's rhythms had changed little since 16 Massachusetts families bought the place in 1661 and waded ashore near what is now North Light, an impressive 55-foot granite structure built in 1868 that sits amid sand dunes and rose bushes in a national wildlife refuge.
The lighthouse, designed to warn mariners crossing the dangerous, current-churned juncture of Long Island Sound and Block Island Sound, can be reached by walking three-quarters of a mile along the beach from the parking lot at Settlers' Rock , at the northern tip of the island. Many tourists reach the spot by bicycle, pedaling 3 1/2 miles from Old Harbor along a road that gives the visitor a delightful sampler of Block Island's finery. Sweeping views of the ocean, tidy homes, lush pasture, and pristine ponds bring a new perspective to each bend in the road.
More of the same awaits visitors who push south from the harbor. There, along a challenging road that forces many cyclists to walk their bikes up some of the inclines, is Southeast Lighthouse , an 1875 brick building whose 52-foot height is perched atop the striking Mohegan Bluffs . On a clear day, the outline of Montauk Point, the easternmost tip of Long Island, can be seen from the lighthouse grounds.
Nearby, a short trail from the road brings sightseers to the top of the cliffs, where a band of raiding Mohegan warriors is said to have been defeated at the 150-foot bluffs by the native Manisses tribe. A steep set of stairs descends to a beach at the base of the sand and clay cliffs, which erosion has sculpted into fascinating, fantastical shapes. Because of the loss of land here, the lighthouse was moved back 200 feet from the edge of the bluffs in 1993.
With stops and lunch, a tour of both the northern and southern loops can take up much of the day. But it is a great way to see an island that, in addition to its 17 miles of beach, has 365 freshwater ponds , Colonial and Native American cemeteries, and sanctuary for thousands of migratory birds and more than 40 rare or endangered species.
The beaches are a delight, with options ranging from the accessible to the remote. Indeed, it's only a short walk from the ferry to Crescent Beach, whose 2 1/2-mile arc provides ample space to unwind . Many day-trippers simply tote their blankets from the ferry to the sands, where they while away an afternoon before taking the ferry back to the mainland.
For those inclined to a bit of motion, island vendors offer choices ranging from sail or power boats, to kayaks, to boogie boards. Parasailing and horseback rides on the beach also are available.
For such a small place, Block Island offers plenty to do. And then, maybe best of all, there's the option of doing next to nothing.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.