Cruisin’ the Dunes on Block Island, Rhode Island

The National Hotel, Block Island, RI.
The National Hotel, Block Island, RI.

Block Island: A Tiny, Charming and Delightful Summer Destination

By Kate Hartshorne

Farmhouse in Block Island, Rhode Island. photos by Kate Hartshorne.
Farmhouse in Block Island, Rhode Island. photos by Kate Hartshorne.

I just got back from a three-day jaunt over to Block Island, a three by seven-mile stretch of paradise just 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.

Block Island was deemed by the Nature Conservancy as “one of the twelve last great places in the Western Hemisphere.”

This small patch of land is home to fewer than 1000 people year-round but gets about 15,000 to 20,000 daily seasonal visitors.

Boasting a plethora of gorgeous free public beaches and over 43% preserved land, this island has always been on my radar as a “must visit.”

With my mom by my side, my two kids (as always) along for the ride, and beautiful weather in the forecast we were ready to start the summer.

Smooth Sailing

The ride to Block Island takes about an hour on the traditional ferry from Point Judith, Rhode Island. They also offer a high-speed ferry that gets you there in 30 minutes, but for me, the benefits of the traditional outweighed the speed.

The traditional ferry costs about $24 round trip per adult ($20 if you come back the same day), whereas the high-speed cost about $35. Kids under five are free on the traditional, but not on the high-speed.

My wallet did my deciding for me, and since we were to stay a few days I thought the extra half hour wouldn’t make much difference. There is a small charge for bikes, as many people choose to bike over for the day, and cars cost about $100 round trip.

In retrospect, a car would have been very helpful for carting around two young ones, but this time we managed without one.

Ferry landing at Block Island.
Ferry landing at Block Island.

Pulling up to the dock in Block Island, the first thing that struck me was the unique turquoise color of the water at the shoreline, something I generally associate with Bermuda or the Caribbean, not chilly gray New England.

The coast of the island was breathtaking, and the natural foliage that surrounds it made it even more so.

Wild roses abounded each bluff overlooking the expanse of sea, with small farmhouses peeking off the cliffs for a view of the sparkling water. Block Island stood out from afar as an extraordinary place to visit.

The National Hotel

We bunked at the National Hotel, an old Victorian-era hotel with a great view of the ocean and a rocking bar and restaurant. Located in the heart of the island’s only town, the gleaming white hotel is surrounded by specialty shops and restaurants, in a row of similarly antiquated buildings on the main strip across from the ferry landing.

The National is not known for its spacious rooms or air conditioning so I was not sure how family-friendly we would find it, but I was surprised to find that we were quite comfortable there.

I am a heavy sleeper, so live music doesn’t bother me, and on the nights we were there this was not an issue, but be forewarned: if you are not a night owl and cannot sleep through a party, this might not be the place for you. That being said, if you like a good time, good food, and a great view then the National could be your home away from home for a trip to Block Island.

Courteous Staff

The staff members at the National are courteous and helpful, although it was obvious that many of them had just arrived on the island themselves and were still getting acquainted with the surroundings.

That said, I found the multicultural crew more than willing to try and help us figure out the details of our stay. Breakfast was included, and the view from the restaurant deck was a great way to wake up.

After first rejecting our third-floor room with the gorgeous view (I have to say that I am the type of mom who will do anything to avoid carrying a child up four flights of stairs) we settled into a comfortable garden view setup just one floor up from the lobby. Fine by me, as my room is not where I spend most of my time while on vacation.

Getting Back to Basics

We spent a lot of time on the beach during our stay, hitting up several sandy beaches within walking distance to our hotel. The best thing about our time on the beach was my utter amazement at my son, who at six is mostly obsessed with all things plug-in. TV, computer, video games, tiny iPods; you name it, Nathan loves it.

The most gratifying thing about taking him to the beach was watching how little he needed to keep himself entertained for hours. I pack light when traveling to beaches (as in towel and sunscreen only) but Nathan made himself at home with just the sand, surf, and sea creatures he could scout out in the wake.

The hit of the trip was the live starfish he pulled out of the sea and examined until my mother made him hurl it back to its home in the water.

Chow Time

Sleepy Sofie missed most of the beautiful scenery during our bike ride.
Sleepy Sofie missed most of the beautiful scenery during our bike ride.

Our first night on the island we dined at the Mohegan Café, a local pub-style eatery. The burgers and burritos were surprisingly delicious, and the drinks were tall and strong, what else do you need after a long drive and ferry ride?

Dessert was a molten chocolate cake and ice cream for the kids from the local scoop.

Our second day on the island we rented bikes from Block Island Bike Rentals, seemingly a harmless and fun family activity. Wrong. Biking around Block Island is not for the weak or the young (as in six).

We made it (creeping along) maybe a 1/2 mile before Nathan collapsed into a heap on the side of the small winding road (no bike trails on this undeveloped patch of land) and cried “I can’t do it anymore! We must turn back!”

So it goes. If you’re going to bike on Block Island, be sure you know your cyclists or you may be in for a huge waste of time and money.

Biking with the Baby 

I did manage to sneak in a few hours on my bike with Sofie in the baby seat on the back. We rode north towards the islands’ tip, winding down a breezy coastal road. Sofie napped in the back for almost an hour so I had the pleasure of noticing every little shingled house and enjoy the ocean view from the bluffs with the scent of wildflowers dancing in my nose.

My brain was buzzing with the sounds of summer when we finally made our way back to join our family for cards and cocktails on the hotel porch. What a great way to get out and enjoy the day.

Dinner on the Cheap Side

The downside to staying in hotels when you vacation is the toll it takes on your wallet when mealtime rolls around several times a day. Feeding a family of four in restaurants is not cheap, and touristy prices do add up.

For lunch, on our second day, we grabbed deli sandwiches from the Block Island Grocery and ate them on the sand, saving us the money, and time away from the beach.

For dinner our second night we stumbled upon the Poor Man’s Pub. The name alone let us know we had to try it out, and I’m glad we did. This sweet little spot serves up burgers for just $5, and pizza for less than $10, and all of it outstanding.

With a wide range of fun cocktails to comfortable outside seating, the Poor Man’s Pub was definitely a good choice for us.

Cruisin’ the Block Island Dunes

Cruisin the dunes was the highlight of the trip!
Cruisin the dunes was the highlight of the trip!

The last day we made up for the lost time by renting a convertible jeep from Old Harbor Bike Rentals to tool around the island and check out the spots we had missed on our unsuccessful bike venture.

$70 got us two hours of jeep time, and it turns out it was money well spent. This was the highlight of the trip, and quite possibly of my children’s lives.

What says fun to a kid like riding around in a bright red convertible Jeep in the summer sun, screaming “Cruisin’ the dunes baby!” at the top of your lungs.

Clearly there is nothing like it, and now Nathan is insisting I look into trading in our minivan for a sportier ride.

Not Actually on the Dunes

While the strict guidelines of the car rental company and Block Island police dictate that you may not actually cruise on the dunes or the beach for that matter, we did get a lot of mileage out of our newfound catchphrase.

We drove our jeep around the island in less than one hour, stopping at the north lighthouse on Sandy Point, and down to the southern end of the island to Mohegan Bluffs. These 185-foot cliffs are one of the most reputable natural attractions Block Island has to offer, and to reach the beach you must be able-bodied and willing.

An Endless Staircase

The easy to access beach, right across from the National Hotel on Block Island.
The easy to access beach, right across from the National Hotel on Block Island.

We attempted to climb down the seemingly endless staircase to the beach, but when we reached the end of the stairs we realized that there were many more (steep) rocks to scale, and with Sofie on my hip I didn’t think I could make it.

The view from the stairs was marvelous and next time I will make it a point to scale down alone, but this trip we chose a more accessible beach to end our stay.

We finished the visit with a trip to the Fred Benson town beach. Soft, sandy, with an easy walk on and bathroom access this beach is great for little ones.

The wide stretch of sand is great for walking or jogging without feeling crowded by other tourists and was the perfect way to wrap up our trip before returning the jeep and boarding the ferry home.

It was refreshing to visit an island that has still avoided the built-up commercialization that so many places are overrun with. Block Island offered us the luxuries associated with vacation coupled with a natural, undisturbed beauty that is so rare these days.

With my skin taut from the beach and the smell of salt in my hair, I slept well that night at home knowing that summer had officially begun.

Block Island Information

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