Reporting from Block Island, R.I.—I am standing atop Clay Head, a 70-foot-high bluff, looking over miles and miles of open ocean on a clear summer morning. It is an ideal way to greet a day that will include hiking, biking, birding, skimming stones and eating my weight in fried clams. And I have to smile. Back home in St. Louis, my wife, Nancy, and I had told a friend that we were heading for three days on this glorious island.
Blank stare. "Block Island. Where is that?"
This rough-hewn beauty sits alone in the Atlantic, 13 miles off Rhode Island and 14 miles from the eastern tip of Long Island. Somehow it's in the middle of everything. It's a half-day trip for about 21 million people. The only year-round ferry departs every morning from the mainland at Point Judith, R.I. There are also seasonal ferries from New London, Conn., Newport, R.I., and Montauk, N.Y.
For people traveling to the Northeast, a short trip to Block Island by ferry can be combined with other destinations, such as New York or Boston. One can easily see the whole island on foot in a day — no need for a car — but the best way to get around is by bicycle, for about $30 a day.
The island is less than 11 square miles, one them a salt pond. But no matter how many thousands of people spill off the ferries, it offers abundant space to be alone. It's a wonderland of rolling hills, dunes, hay fields, bluffs and beaches. A greenway of walking trails criss-crosses the island.
My wife still talks about the first time she saw Block Island on a foggy morning in 2007. We had spent an hour in grayness, unable to see more than a few feet. Then Clay Head, stark and red, emerged from the mist. It was like a dream.
This morning could not have been more different. Nancy and I pedal our rented bikes north about two miles from where the ferries land in Old Harbor, a picturesque New England town with rambling, white-clapboard Victorian hotels. Sam, our 9-year-old, joins us on a rickety tag-a-long. We ditch the bikes by the road and hoof it half a mile across a nature trail, past pretty sycamore maples and into a dark thicket. Fallen blackberries stain the ground.
Block Island's trails were born in the 1960s when F. David and Elise Lapham, a wealthy couple from Connecticut, bought the land near Clay Head, established a network of paths and invited the public to use them. Conservation fever struck, and now more than two-fifths of the island is protected.
As we head back to the bikes, we hear a chorus of birds. Wild turkeys gobble madly. Towhees implore, "Drink your teeeee!" Everywhere we heard a "sweet, sweet sweet, I'm so sweet!" "Yellow warbler," says Sam, our bird man, craning but unable to see through the bramble. He would like to come back during fall migration, when he'd see lots of different warblers, vireos, thrushes and shorebirds galore, stopping for rest.
Pedaling north again, we find a sign by the road with an arrow and the word: "Labyrinth." We climb a wooden stile over a stone wall and follow a path to a high meadow with a stunning view of the island's northern tip and the stately, granite North Light. Stones mark the entrance to a footworn rut through the grass that wends inward. It's not a maze; there is no dead end. There is only in and out. At the center, visitors have left wishes, thoughts. "Bring in courage, strength, new opportunities," says one note. "I love you, Tony!" proclaims another.
Piles of stone
Later, it is beach time. Ever present on Block Island's coast are smooth, flat stones. You haven't visited Block Island until you've piled as many as you can into a cairn — a delicately balanced monument to ... what? Beauty? Vacation? We humans never just let nature be. We always leave our mark.
We ride with my sister Lauren and my nephew Colin, 9, to the island's southern end. Mohegan Bluffs makes Clay Head look like an ant hill. We descend about 200 steep wooden steps to the beach. It is cairn central, with stones balanced in ways one could not think possible. Harry, my 5-year-old, delights in crashing a few to the ground, which makes some people unhappy, but not me. The tide would have accomplished the same thing in a few hours.
These bluffs make me uncomfortable. A chunk of earth rolls off as I look at it. It doesn't seem smart to stand here too long. About 300 yards up the coast is the Southeast Light, a massive brick edifice whose ghostly green light has warned ships: Look out! From the long list of shipwrecks I've read about, it's apparently had mixed results.
It's time to be among people again. We see a ferry coming in from Point Judith, its three decks stacked with people. We watch from our bikes as they spill into Old Harbor. Others walk to Ballard's Inn, a boisterous old bar whose waitresses will, thank heaven, bring you a drink on the beach.
In the marina, six people with wide grins are stepping off a fishing tour boat. They have hauled in three massive bluefish and three Atlantic stripers, probably 75 pounds of fish. Our time is almost up on this island, but some deep-sea fishing sounds like a good idea for our next visit.
The tide is heading out, leaving behind pools, stranding sea life. A few years ago, in August, the kids teamed up with some others to find hundreds of starfish and put them together in a single pool. It was a starfish aquarium that amazed beach strollers. They could have charged admission, it was that fantastic. Today there are just snails. Not as cool.
We meet my parents for lunch at Finn's Seafood Restaurant. Fried clams and some cold Narragansett beer await. Sounds like heaven.