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Soaking up Block Island in a day and on a budget

A rented moped is a fun way to see Block Island and its historic North Lighthouse, built in 1867.
A rented moped is a fun way to see Block Island and its historic North Lighthouse, built in 1867.Karen Campbell for The Boston Globe

It’s sometimes called a poor man’s Martha’s Vineyard. But tiny Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, needs no apologies. For most visitors, its modest commercialization, down-to-earth friendliness, and size (just 10 square miles but 17 miles of free beaches) contribute hugely to the island’s appeal. A stunningly gorgeous little place that’s an easy ride by ferry, it’s an ideal spot for a day trip or overnight splurge – without breaking the bank.

The year-round and least expensive crossing is from Point Judith, in Narragansett, and there’s parking across the street for $10 a day. The traditional ferry takes an hour, the high speed only 30 minutes. (In high season, you can also catch the ferry in Newport and across the border in Fall River.) Upon arrival at Old Harbor in New Shoreham (as the town is known), consider making the Visitors Center your first stop to get maps, a lay of the land, and tips on planning your day. (Outfits such as Block Island Experience can craft and facilitate a customized plan for you if you’re short on time.)

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The vibe on Block Island is unpretentious and outdoorsy. Only 1,000 or so people live there year round, and almost half the island is preserved open space. The nicest way to get around the northern end is by bike. You can bring your own across on the ferry or rent one at any number of spots in town. One of the largest and longest-running rental businesses is Old Harbor Bike Shop, which is basically in the ferry parking lot (take a sharp left once you get off the boat and follow the water’s edge to the blue striped awning.) If biking isn’t your thing, you can also rent a moped or a car there, and cabbies are happy to do island tours, as well. There’s usually a small fleet waiting at the ferry dock. With my husband nursing a torn rotator cuff, biking wasn’t an option. Luckily, we were able to borrow a tiny smart car, which allowed us to get a true feel for the whole island in one day.

Rather than eat in town, we got takeout and a picnic, grabbing fresh, homemade sandwiches at the charming Three Sisters. You can eat there at one of several picnic tables or swing in the hammock while you await your order, taking in the funky patio décor, including all manner of found object sculptures and rusty bicycles.

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Food in hand, we headed toward historic Southeast Lighthouse. Located on the southeastern corner of the island atop Mohegan Bluffs, it offers a gorgeous, expansive view. More impressive still is just down the road, where stairs lead partway down the 150-foot clay bluffs to a lovely beach. Be forewarned: To get all the way down involves not just the 141 wooden stairs, but a challenging climb down a steep rocky face, though a knotted rope on the side helps on the way back up.

View from the top of Mohegan Bluffs, near Block Island’s Southeast Lighthouse.
View from the top of Mohegan Bluffs, near Block Island’s Southeast Lighthouse.Karen Campbell for The Boston Globe

From there, the road takes you past rolling hills and verdant meadows crisscrossed with stone walls (nearly 400 miles of them etch the island). We stopped in Rodman’s Hollow for our picnic and a stroll amid birds and butterflies. I’m told if you make it to the Hollow in early morning, you’re apt to see wildlife — the island has tons of deer and more than 40 rare or endangered species, but surprisingly no squirrels, chipmunks, or raccoons.

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Dessert was reserved for two spots in New Harbor. We gobbled down doughnuts at Payne’s (“Home of the Killer Donuts”) then headed to The Oar, a sprawling restaurant-bar fancifully decorated with hundreds of personalized oars. We grabbed a chair on the lawn and watched all the boats coming in as we nursed one of the establishment’s renowned Mudslides. (Think White Russian milkshake.)

The island’s North Lighthouse is a great spot to hit around sunset and feels wonderfully wild and breezy, with hundreds of seagulls nesting in the grasses all around. Mansion Beach, just down the road, is a lovely, tranquil spot for reflection. Closer to Old Harbor, Town Beach offers a concession stand, lifeguards, and a shower-bathroom facility.

Dinner at Eli’s was the perfect capper. A favorite among locals, it has excellent New American cuisine and attentive service, but only 10 tables and no reservations, so be prepared for a bit of a wait.

If you must, the last ferry back to the mainland leaves weekends at around 9 p.m. in high season. But we splurged on an overnight. Accommodations on Block Island range from quaint bed-and-breakfasts to huge inns and rental homes. We lucked out with a reasonable B&B that was just our cup of tea. Owned by two sisters, the newly renovated Darius Inn is just steps from the beach and a five-minute walk from the ferry, but it’s around the corner from the main drag and a little quieter, with several rooms and suites offering ocean views. Happy hour from 5:30-6:30 on the second-story deck is a terrific opportunity to enjoy wine and noshes while mingling with the owners and your fellow travelers. Breakfast is a feast involving an egg dish, salad, fruit, yogurt, and a variety of homemade baked goods. Coffee and tea are on tap all day. Perfect.

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Following breakfast and a brisk walk on the beach, we took the rest of the morning to explore the historic downtown of Old Harbor. It’s full of all kinds of low-key shops, including typical gift and clothing stores, many, like Lazy Fish and Glass Onion, with a more artistic flair. We didn’t notice any of the super kitschy souvenir spots one often expects of beach destinations, and every shop owner we encountered was friendly and welcoming. As one longtime visitor told me, “It really hasn’t changed in decades. It’s kind of like vacationing in the 1950s.”

When it was time to head home, we grabbed snacks from the deli across from the dock and boarded the traditional ferry. Our eagerness to get to Block Island put us on the high speed on the way over, but on the way back, we wanted a slower ride to savor every minute and plan what we’d do when we came back.


Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.