By Billy Finn
We drove about three hours north from New York City, fighting traffic the whole way. It was a humid, cloud-choked morning in mid-July and we sat with slipping patience as endless lines of cars stuttered their way up 95 like hesitant toddlers learning how to walk.
My wife and I were on our way to Block Island, Rhode Island: a place I’d been many times and one that was quickly becoming a favorite of Emily’s, an Indiana girl used to lakes and rivers still marveling at the very idea of an island surrounded by water in every direction.
Newly married and fried from months of planning a wedding during a plague, we both needed a break. Choking the steering wheel of my Corolla as we inched our way northward, I got the sense I needed something more than a respite; I needed a reset, a reclamation.
I needed a homecoming.
We broke free of the midsummer traffic somewhere along the endless stretch of highway that calls itself Connecticut and raced to Point Judith, a small, blue-collar town on the Rhode Island coast. We ditched our car and rushed to the dock, dangerously close to missing the noon ferry.
We hopped on the boat and headed for a small island shaped like a cartoon teardrop drifting just south of the New England coast and just east of Montauk’s outstretched fingertips. The ferry bobbed gently in the green waters of the Atlantic as it curved around the northern tip of the island. Layers of morning mist slowly peeled back on themselves, revealing about 10 square miles of pale yellow shoreline, green, dappled hills and homes wrapped in gray clapboard.
We glided slowly into Old Harbor and the massive boat spat us out onto Water Street, the island’s main drag lined with souvenir shops and aged hotels whose bones were wearing the passage of time quite nicely, thank you very much.
We headed right on the sun-bleached asphalt and made for one of those hotels: the Block Island Beach House; a handsome, Victorian hotel on the corner of the street with a gray facade worn pale by years of salt and sun and wind.
Bellying up to the bar tucked in the back of the hotel’s wraparound porch, I ordered a lobster roll and a beer and stared out at the beach, watching the shoreline curve its way from Old Harbor to the bluffs on the northeastern edge of the island.
The sun was out now, finally freed from a blanket of early-morning fog, and the water in front of us burned blue. Gentle white caps formed and crashed onto the sand, foam hissing around the ankles of squealing children playing in the surf.
I felt comfortable. I felt familiar. I felt home. I started thinking about all the ways that memory and nostalgia color and distort our connection to place and time. Was it possible, after so many summer days spent here, to be objective about this place? To see it clearly?
Is it possible for any of us to be dispassionate or even honest about the family lake house or the annual trip to the mountains; those places that seem to be waiting for us before we even arrive, that bend time into wistful loops and make us remember things we thought we’d forgotten?
Turns out—for me at least—nostalgia tastes like salt water in the air, smells like sunscreen and fried fish, and sounds like an endless chorus of waves licking the sand, retreating into themselves, then repeating the cycle over and over again.
Settled by a small group of European families in 1661—and by the Niantic people thousands of years before that—Block Island is a laid back, New England gem; a green, beach-rimmed pear resting above the cold waters of the Atlantic; a possibly haunted, purposefully rustic piece of Yankee-fied Americana Summer offering white sands, panoramic views, hot lobster rolls and cold Narragansetts.
The island was a popular summer holiday destination for families across New England for most of the 19th and early-20th centuries before tourism exploded over the back half of the last century, coinciding with the local community’s commitment to conserving both the island’s natural beauty and historic charm.
My own history with Block Island began somewhere in the mid-80’s, when my grandparents rented a house on the northern end of the island from some friends of theirs and quickly fell in love with its crisp beaches and unpretentious charms. As they grew older and less able to make the trip, my parents picked up the tradition and made it their own.
As I grew up, the island sank its hooks deeper in me with every visit. I began to savor each trip as a recharge, a refresh, a chance to steel myself before the start of another school year or reconnect with my family as my sisters and I grew older and grew apart, at least geographically.
Nearly half the island is under the protection of the Block Island Conservancy and Land Trust, and the environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy declared Block Island one of the “Last Great Places on Earth” back in the 90’s, one of only 12 such places in the Western hemisphere.
That spirit of conservation and protection extends beyond the island’s natural wonders. The smallest town in the smallest state in the country has remained admirably obstinate to modernization throughout the years, setting it apart from most other popular New England summer destinations and their strip-malled, seersucker sameness.
If you’re looking for coffee in the morning, you won’t find a Starbucks or even—horror of all New England horrors—a Dunkin’ anywhere on the island. There is, however, Persephone’s Kitchen; a hip little shack of a coffee shop just up the road from the center of town.
The morning after we arrived, Emily and I began our day on the lawn outside Persephone’s, sipping rich and earthy cold brew coffees and splitting a grilled cheese sandwich called “The Moon,” a tangy combination of melted cheddar cheese and kimchi on fresh sourdough bread.
After that, it was beachtime. We headed to Baby Beach, a thin strip of sand and dunes wedged between the much more crowded Surf Beach and Town Beach about a ten minute walk from Persephone’s. The water was clear and the refreshing kind of cold, the sun’s heat dulled by a gentle breeze sweeping across the warm sand. Baby is just one of 17 beaches on the island, ranging from the ragged, rock-covered Andy’s Way to the expanse of sand and waves found at Mansion Beach on the northern edge of the eastern shore.
After a few hours on the beach, we headed back to town to peruse the shops along Water Street. We snagged a pair of Del’s Frozen Lemonades and strolled the bustling street, navigating our way around scores of sun-burnt beach-goers flip-flopping their way in and out of stores. We popped into the Glass Onion so Emily could buy a straw beach hat and into Star Department Store so I could buy my annual hat emblazoned with the island’s distinctive shape.
We passed through the Empire Theatre, a century-old, roller rink-turned-movie theater on the western edge of the street currently hosting a rotating collection of art, vintage clothing and collectibles from local artisans and craftworkers. Crossing the street, I nodded reverently to the Statue of Rebecca standing proudly on her plinth in the middle of the traffic circle, her white marble skin glowing in the early-evening sun.
After a quick return to our hotel to shower and change, we walked up the hill on High Street for pre-dinner cocktails at the Atlantic Inn, an impossibly charming dollhouse of a hotel come to life with a crisp, white facade and blue shutters draping its many windows.
We grabbed seats in a pair of white lawn chairs out front, ordered glasses of rosé and the cheese plate and enjoyed the best view on the island; a gorgeous panorama spanning the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Old Harbor straight ahead, and a brilliant sky to the west, the sun slowly diving for the horizon and lighting gentle fires of purple and orange on its way down.
This is one of the many places on the island where time seems to stop and invite you to be totally present, or in my case allow the past and present to overlap.
All at once, I was a carefree, curly-haired kid running barefoot across this very lawn; a sullen teen drinking flat soda and fidgeting in my chair; a (mostly) confident and comfortable adult, newly married and contemplating the passage of time between sips of pale pink wine.
After a few drinks, we ambled back down the hill into town for dinner at Eli’s, a cozy little six-table, seafood-centric restaurant tucked back against the bustle of town on Chapel Street. Emily and I split a bright arugula salad topped with a medallion of fried goat cheese and a pair of fish entrees (crispy-skinned salmon and flaky, well-seasoned cod).
After dinner, we followed the sound of tuning electric guitars and booze-fueled laughter to Captain Nick’s, a shabbily charming, appropriately-grimy dive featuring live music and a pleasant mixture of island-goers.
It’s here where all the disparate strands of type, experience, status and style that annually gravitate to the island seemed to converge at once to sip on overpriced Corona Lights and listen to a better-than-expected cover band. We ran into the girl with the septum ring who brought us our coffees at Persephone’s that morning and that wealthy, Wasp-y couple we chatted with during Cocktail Hour on the Atlantic Inn’s perfectly manicured lawn.
A few hours later, we stumbled (carefully) out of Nick’s and headed back to our hotel by way of the beach. The fog had crept back in under cover of darkness and I stared at the white lights of the cupola above the National Hotel burning mutely in the distance. We stood with our feet in the water and looked out at the dark ocean in front of us.
I took a moment to contemplate my luck, that three decades ago my grandparents had the good sense to say “yes” when friends offered up their house on this strange and sweet little island and they became smitten. That my family fell equally in love with the place and carried the tradition forward. That such a place even exists at all, impervious to change and chain stores.
I thought about the fact that erosion is steadily chipping away at the island, one grain of sand at a time. One day—decades or centuries or hours from now—the waters surrounding Block Island will eventually swallow it whole, and it will be as if these beaches, the salt-weathered hotels, the sunken grave stones in the old cemetery, and every footstep buried in the sand had never even been here at all.
Emily’s hand slipping gently into mine woke me from my reverie. We pulled our feet out of the water and headed back toward our hotel and toward sleep.
Some people believe Block Island is one of the most haunted places in America. Many of those people happen to be tour guides for Block Island Ghost Tours, leading hour-long expeditions around Old Harbor’s most cursed locations three times a night.
The island was indeed a terror for ships throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and the waters around the island are littered with the bones of dozens of wrecks. One such wreck involved a ship called The Palatine, a British passenger vessel that got caught in a brutal winter storm just off the coast of the island in 1738.
There are several versions of the story, but the darkest one details how islanders lured the passengers ashore, murdered them, set fire to the ship and then set it adrift to sink into the frigid waters of the Atlantic. Locals still say that, on dark winter evenings, the ghost of the ship appears in the distance—a pale fire burning along the horizon known as “The Palatine Light.”
For me, the ghosts of Block Island are less spectral and more perceptual. Every corner of the place holds layers of memory, the whole island seemingly soaked in sun and sepia tones.
Before I even step off the ferry, I see my grandfather standing on the dock in his trademark yellow windbreaker and bucket hat, cheerfully waving his grandchildren into the harbor with that familiar, toothy grin on his face.
Walking into Star Department Store, I see a younger version of myself—sunburned and hormonal—trying on every hat in the place, searching for the exact right one.
Every shop, beach and pebbled road on the island holds some remembrance for me, making it hard—if not impossible—to be objective about the place. Is Block Island really as special as I believe it to be, or is it just so burdened by the weight of my own nostalgia that the sun can’t help but shine brighter, the sand feel warmer and the breeze smell sweeter?
The answer is probably both, but I’d like to think that—whether it’s your first visit or your thirtieth—this island will charm the hell out of you if you let it.
Early on our last morning on the island—a gray and muted day—I rented a bike in town and made my way north up Corn Neck Road, the aptly-named, skinny stretch of road that connects the wide, southern half of the island with its diamond-shaped northern half.
I pedaled all the way to the very end of the road, where the chapped pavement becomes a thin curve of rocky beach. I walked along the shore, past the North Lighthouse to the very tip of the island, a knife’s edge of sand where the waters of the Block Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean converge, their waves pushing and shoving at each other like hungry giants.
Straight ahead, I saw the coast of Rhode Island. Off to the west somewhere lay Long Island and the rest of the country. East was nothing but gray ocean and gray sky for miles and miles.
I kicked off my shoes and put my feet in the water, feeling the waves swallowing my ankles from both directions. I considered the island, the beaches and the shipwrecks, thought of the ghosts, the lobster rolls and the Statue of Rebecca standing serene on her altar on the far edge of town.
Is this island haunted? Is it the greatest place in the world? If I want it to be, then it is.