BLOCK ISLAND — In mid-September last year, Howard LeFevre and his wife, Donis Tatro, stayed here a couple of nights, their first trip to the island. The days were warm and the traffic light, great for biking and hiking. Sure, fewer restaurants and hotels were open than during the height of the summer, but there were still plenty to choose from.
As they were checking out of their inn, they rebooked, a year in advance, for late September this year.
“Fall is the best time of the year to go,” says LeFevre, a house painter who lives in Milton. “There aren’t many people there, and it’s cheaper.”
Though “the season” on Block Island is, like in many New England resort areas, Memorial Day through Labor Day, autumn here is ideal for tourists, with good weather and good deals.
Gone are the cars and the crowds, and the vibe on this scenic spit of land 13 miles off the Rhode Island coast is decidedly more relaxed.
“We call it local summer,” says Shannon McCabe, who was raised here and works at Rustic Rides Farm, her family’s guided horse ride business. “I always tell people it’s the best time to be out here. Hotels are usually flexible on rates, and it’s the best time to do nature walks and hiking because it’s less congested. It’s much, much more peaceful in the fall.”
About that flexibility: LeFevre got a special fall deal at the Avonlea bed-and-breakfast, where he stayed last year. If he booked for two nights, he’d get a third one free. The inn is right on Crescent Beach, with a big porch overlooking the ocean.
Few locals know Block Island as well as Howard Rice does. In the 1920s, his grandparents bought land here, and Rice moved to the island as a kid in 1945. He’s the school-bus driver; the island, with a year-round population of about 1,000, has one school, which graduated seven students last year.
“It can be in the mid to upper 70s in the fall,” says Rice. “I know people who have swum up until Christmas time. All the kids wear shorts till then. They go bike riding on New Year’s Day.”
Moderated by the Atlantic, the island’s temperatures can indeed edge into the 70s into October. Nearly half the island is conservation land, and there are 27 miles of meandering greenway trails, 17 miles of beaches and dozens of ponds. The island, with its flat, paved roads, is also beloved by bicyclists.
On a recent visit, we took our dog, Gumbo, and stayed at the Darius Inn just down the street from the ferry terminal in the Old Harbor historic district. The cedar shake inn, built in 1803 as a pharmacy, was recently bought by two sisters from Philadelphia who have worked at other inns on the island. In the attic, they found leather invoice books for prescriptions written in beautiful, old-fashioned hand and costing just pennies.
Becca Zendt, who is 26, laughs at one prescription. “It said, ‘If your wife is still bothering you, give her the whole bottle.’ ” Her sister Christy is 28 and responsible for the happy-hour wine and nibbles and the breakfasts served to guests who don’t rent a suite with a kitchenette.
When traveling, it’s never easy to find a decent place to stay with a dog, but Darius fills the bill for a $50 dog fee. Dogs are only allowed in the five suites that include a kitchenette and porch; there are also five motel rooms. The sisters provided us with a “dog towel” for wiping Gumbo off when we returned from Crescent Beach, just across the street.
Most places that will accept dogs require that Fido leave the room whenever you do. Not the Darius. They’ll even walk him if he’s barking and you’re at the beach; just leave them your cellphone number.
The Block Island beaches are mostly dog-friendly, and Gumbo loved wading in the water and digging for whatever it is that dogs dig for. An added bonus in the fall: There are fewer dogs, which is good news for both dog lovers and those other people.
The Darius, like many of the hotels and inns here, will decide its closing date depending on demand. “We’ll close either Halloween or Thanksgiving,” says Becca Zendt. “We’re not winterized. But the season is getting pushed further and further into the fall every year.”
Don’t come here looking for fall foliage, though. The island doesn’t have the leaf-peeping colors that many associate with New England. Elizabeth Connor, who oversees nine properties, including the iconic 1661 Inn and Hotel Manisses, says she has regular customers who swear by the off-season.
“September, October, and early November are a nice compromise,” she says. “It’s my favorite time of year. Our spring may come a little later than the mainland, but the flip side is that fall extends a little later.” The rates all go down after Labor Day, and a few of her properties are open year-round.
Old Block Island was a fishing and farming community without a good harbor until one was dug in 1875, ushering in tourists — and the stunning Victorian homes and hotels that remain today. At the Block Island Historical Society Museum, Ben Hruska shows short videos about the Victorian years when horses and buggies carted people around, and sun bathers posed on the beach, the ladies in long dresses, the men in long pants. The Block Island Ferry, which runs from Point Judith and Newport, celebrated its 100th anniversary this summer. Ferries run every day of the year except Christmas Day.
No trip to Block Island is complete without a visit to the Southeast Lighthouse, built in 1873 atop a 150-foot cliff. Due to erosion, the lighthouse was poised to fall into the sea when a group of volunteers raised the money to have it moved several yards back in 1993. We walked down the road from the lighthouse to Mohegan Bluffs, and more than 150 wooden stair steps down to the ocean. It is a stunning vista, good for both your soul and your calves.
Food, in particular sweets, is good for the soul, too, and my soul soared once I wandered into Blocks of Fudge, a charming candy shop run by Sheila Fowler. She’s open through Thanksgiving, with a warning: “I might not have the Creamsicle or the Amaretto Chocolate Swirl after Columbus Day.”
Not to worry. Fowler makes 20 kinds of fudge, and it’s creamy and creative. (“I came up with Chocolate Fluffernutter Fudge during a 2 a.m. hot flash in February,” she says.)
September is her favorite month, October a close second. “In September, the weather’s gorgeous, not so humid. You can stand on Front Street and see the lights of the Newport Bridge. We don’t usually get a frost until November.”
Fortified by my fudge fix, I wandered into Block Market, a cool clothing boutique run by Sean Dugan, who grew up in Lenox, Mass., and summered here as a child. An island resident for 16 years now, Dugan travels to Indonesia where he buys fabric and jewelry and has his signature logo — the shape of the island — embroidered on clothing. His own Block Island Brand has men’s shorts bearing the logo, sort of a play on the whales that adorn those preppy Nantucket threads. Block Island Market is open until Columbus Day and on weekends until Christmas. It’s the place with the colorful batik sarongs hanging outside.
Nearby is the fantastic Farmers’ Market, where arts and crafts — all made on the island — are sold, along with organic flowers and produce from farmers, and honey and beeswax candles from Littlefield Bee Farm. The market is open Wednesday and Sunday mornings until Columbus Day.
The Glass Onion is another great shop that has been around a long time, selling clothing and gifts. Owner Mary Anderson keeps it open until December, but only on weekends in October and November. She loves autumn on the island. “You can walk the beach and see 10 people,” says Anderson. “It’s also better for biking, and the ocean is still warm.”
Fall is the high season for one population: birds, which of course attract bird-watchers. Block Island is on the Atlantic Flyway, the “avian superhighway” for migratory birds, and 150 species stop here on their way south. “In October and November, the Audubon Society people go to conservation land and set up nets to trap and band birds, and check those that have already been banded,” says Rice.
Life on the island slows down markedly after Columbus Day, though the annual Christmas Stroll on Thanksgiving weekend still attracts tourists. The stores are decorated and offer deals, hot chocolate, and cider. There’s the Christmas tree lighting, and as of last year a new tradition: the building of a towering Christmas tree made out of lobster traps in a local park.
After that, the island gets some hard-earned sleep for the winter.