Lost in a saltwater wilderness of ocean, moors, and sand, my thoughts were interrupted only by the call of a goldfinch making its way north on the Atlantic Flyway. I rested on a patch of grass in front of a red brick lighthouse that has been keeping watch on this corner of the island for more than a century and a quarter. Below, sea-gouged cliffs plummeted some 200 feet to a white crescent beach.
Come July, the same speck of land where I stretched my legs will be overrun with tourists getting a glimpse of the famed Mohegan Bluffs. But it was early April on Block Island and I was remarkably all alone.
Most people associate Rhode Island with the palatial Gilded Age “summer cottages” in Newport on the southern end of Aquidneck Island. Block Island is the antithesis of such materialism, a wild sliver of land 12 miles south of the mainland. Its remoteness and strict zoning laws have helped preserve its natural beauty.
The hour ferry ride from Galilee-Point Judith leaves you on this pork chop-shaped isle where weathered houses brave the ocean’s wrath on hillsides bordered by old stone walls and blue-green ponds. Add that rugged coastline to the equation and you have a scene that feels more like the Scottish Highlands than New England.
If you venture here in the spring months before high season, you’ll no doubt be spending most of your time reading a novel atop a bluff.
“Or in a field of daffodils,” said Claire McQueeny, who’s lived here year-round for 20 years. “It’s sort of our local flower and they’re in full bloom in mid-April.”
To find that special hideaway, orient yourself with a 13-mile bike ride around the island. Starting the third week of March, bikes can be rented at Island Moped and Bike Rentals, or bring your bike on the ferry. You’ll be disembarking and likely be staying in Old Harbor, the only town on the island. Water Street is lined with vintage Victorian white clapboard buildings looking out to sea. Gabled hotels, terraced restaurants, and a few shops and ice cream parlors are housed in these structures.
With the ocean on your left, bike in a clockwise direction around the island. Almost immediately after leaving town, small fields with cedar-shingle houses appear on the right. Cruising uphill, you see the Southeast Lighthouse — on the highest ground of any lighthouse in New England. The original lens, now housed in a museum next to the lighthouse, was made of eight fisheye panels of French crystal that cost $10,000 in 1880. Today, it would cost more than $10 million. Stroll around the lighthouse and then walk over to the Mohegan Bluffs parking lot. A trail lined with bayberry bushes and rose hips (when the rose hips turn red, people use them to make tea) leads to those majestic cliffs. Another path leads down to a beach where you can feel inconsequential as you walk below massive sheets of rock.
Back on two wheels, turn left through a series of small ponds covered with lily pads. Ride past Center Road to Cooneymus Road and look for a sign to Rodman’s Hollow. Here, you can give your bike a rest and walk on one of the Greenway trails through this forested glacial ravine. First, ramble away on a soft spongy carpet that leads north to the Enchanted Forest. Appropriately named, this dark forest of red pines, spruces, and maples takes you back to the Block Island of yesteryear. Bear right to circle around Turnip Farm, a wide-open field of bushy rockrose, northern blazing star, and other, more prosaic wildflowers that start to bloom in spring. You might also see bright yellow goldfinches, graceful marsh hawks, and brown and yellow butterflies.
On the southern side of Cooneymus Road is Rodman’s Hollow, a half-mile-wide deep cleft in the land that goes right down to the sea. The white birches that once covered the island still grow here, sheltered from sharp winds and now a haven to deer and pheasant. A short loop on a nearby knoll rewards you with panoramic vistas of the surrounding hills, which are covered in white from budding shadbush in mid-May.
When you remount, pedal toward the southwestern part of the island, turning left at the sign for Chaplin’s Marina on Great Salt Pond’s New Harbor. You’ll see sailors getting their boats in shape for summer. At Corn Neck Road, turn left to ride along the moors that line the island’s most popular beach, Crescent. This 3-mile stretch of sand is packed with day-trippers in summer. But on a weekday in spring, it’s just a favorite dog-walking beach for some of the 1,051 year-round residents.
Leave your bike. Just north of the beach, Clay Head Nature Trail meanders along red clay cliffs to a network of intricate hiking trails called The Maze. Another 11 miles of paths cut through pine forests to hidden ponds. The road ends at Settler’s Rock where you can walk over the sand to the North Lighthouse, erected in 1867 from finely cut granite. Stroll onward to the northern tip of the island, Sandy Point, to see one of the largest gull rookeries in Rhode Island. The birds know that it’s better to be above water here than below. An invisible sandbar that stretches a mile out to sea has caused more than 1,000 shipwrecks and many more casualties over the years.
Thankfully, you don’t have to risk your life to venture to Block Island this spring. All you need is the desire to lose yourself in an untamed seascape from a half-forgotten era.Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.