Historical wonder meets natural beauty on Block Island Athletes and spectators find sports, contemplation, relaxation

July 24, 1994|By Nina Tassi | Nina Tassi,Special to The Sun

Block Island, R.I. -- The Narragansett Indians long ago named this beautiful patch of land forested in oak, hickory and cedar Manisses: Isle of the Little God. Although no longer a true wilderness, this tiny island retains much of the dreamy, unspoiled aura of its ancient past.

Twelve miles south of mainland Rhode Island, the Isle of the Little God is now prosaically named Block Island, after a Dutch trader who landed there in 1614. A place of many moods, from gentle meadows to fierce rocky bluffs, Block Island lures lovers who stage weddings by the sea and world-class cyclists thrilled by breathtaking ravines.

The appeal for me lies in echoes of its great antiquity. Ten or twelve thousand years ago, mountains of ice pushed huge granite and quartz boulders away from southern New England; they spilled onto much older land, mainly massive beds of clay -- some white or bright red, most gray or brown. Deep in the glacial hills are suggestions of inhabitants far earlier than the Narragansetts.

An hour and 10 minutes by ferry from Point Judith, R.I., the island appears, a seven-mile snake of sandy rises and deep green hollows, undulating across the horizon.

The dock at Old Harbor is a cluster of shops, cafes and Victorian hotels with wraparound porches. The only hint of tourists in this setting were the mopeds and bikes lined up for hire.

I made my way up Spring Street to the hilltop where the 1661 Inn stands, a large, white, clapboard building that recalls the island's Colonial origins. AsI took the brick path to the door, I could hear roosters crowing from a nearby farm.

My room was lavish. The wallpaper was splashed with roses, and baskets of fern and philodendron swung over a white wicker love seat cushioned in rose velvet. Marble-topped tables stood by a brass bed, and a decanter of brandy sat on an antique sideboard.

Every night of my week's stay, I listened to the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean, letting the tidal rhythms gently ooze away all tension and deliver deep dreamless sleep. Each morning I awoke to a bird songfest and got up eager to explore.

Rich gifts await nature lovers, both athletes and spectators. Block Island's 11 square miles contain four miles of paved roads open to cars, bikes and mopeds; 20 miles of nature trails; and two miles of coastline with beaches varying from smoothly sandy to dramatic and rocky.

Besides hiking and biking, there are opportunities for swimming, fishing, tennis, sailing, horseback riding, surfing, canoeing, kayaking and the gentle sport of bird-watching, for the island lies on the Atlantic Flyway for migration.

A good jaunt leads to Sandy Point at the north end of the island. In the midst of a long stretch of sandy beach, Settlers Rock marks the spot where the first 16 white settlers landed in 1661, sailing in a small boat from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. An estimated 1,000 Narragansett Indians still lived on the island then, although control of their Manisses had been wrested from them by Massachusetts leaders who seized it in retaliation for the murder of Boston trader John Oldham by one of the Indians.

On the dunes overlooking this lovely beach is North Light, a granite structure erected in 1867, the fourth on this site after previous lighthouses had been destroyed by shifting sands and fierce storms. Around this shore, a profusion of nesting sea gulls watch over their young.

Across the road spreads lake-sized Sachem Pond, an idyllic spot for a picnic and a freshwater swim.

Nearby, the Clayhead Preserve extends for more than 200 acres, containing a maze of hiking trails. This nature sanctuary and Audubon Society bird-banding station is one of five wildlife refuges on the island that monitor 40 rare and endangered plants and animals.

Birds abound among the pine groves and ponds. I identified (almost certainly) a snowy egret, yellow-crowned night heron. red-winged blackbird, yellow-rumped warbler, American goldfinch and an Indigo bunting.

Block Island's interior is a picturesque study of rolling farmland and grassy meadows dotted with fresh-water ponds. Some 400 miles of stone walls made from native fieldstone that had to be cleared for farming crisscross the island, over pastureland, through ponds and across swamps. To this day stone walls cannot be altered or removed because of a law passed in 1721.

I stopped at the Colonial brick-red cottage of Bob Huggins, who invited me to tour his garden of flowering cherry, apple, pear and crab-apple trees, lilac bushes, tulips and Japanese maple. He told me that his cottage has stayed in his wife's family ever since it was built in 1760.

The community is so small, he said, that instead of addresses, houses have fire numbers so that fire trucks can find them.

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