Block Island is a haven from the outside world

August 29, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III

BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. -- There was a time when this island off the coast of Rhode Island was closer to the news of the day, more critically engaged in momentous events. But it was a long time ago.

Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Italian explorer, is said to have noted the place around 1524 and named it Claudia, honoring the mother of France's King Francis I. But he didn't bother setting foot on the island. This probably suited its Indian inhabitants just fine, as their later encounters with the white man were not happy.

About 380 years ago, John Endicott, an English colonel, led a party that landed on the island and killed a lot of warriors of the Manisses tribe and burned their wigwams and cornfields. This was a punishment for the Manisses having killed a white man who had come to trade with them. All of this is described in a wonderful history of the island, written 128 years ago by S.T. Livermore, and updated by the Block Island Historical Society.

Block Island played its part in the Revolution, with both sides making life uncomfortable for the inhabitants. In the Anglo-American War of 1812, the island declared neutrality. Occasionally, there has been talk of secession in modern times.

But these days -- apart from storms and shipwrecks -- Block Island is not likely to attract much attention. This is a good thing for the people who visit here -- increasing the population from fewer than 1,000 to more than 15,000 in the summer -- and the really lucky people who live there the whole year. Not a single one of them is a Manisses Indian, so far as I could learn.

For more than three decades, this island has been the favorite vacation place of my family. We have vacationed at other Northern resorts, in the Hamptons, on Nantucket, even in Maine. Maine is quaint enough and has not been overly glitzed the way the Hamptons and Nantucket have been. But who wants to swim in water cold enough for the seals? So we always return to Block Island.

Aficionados of the island discourage publicizing it for fear that too many people will want to come, and that they will want to build condominiums and have fast-food franchises to serve them and all the other junk that proliferates in the common American vacation places.

Plenty of hotels and B&Bs are on the island, many of them built in the Victorian style reminiscent of Cape May, N.J. The hotels and restaurants all serve good food. If you're lucky enough to have a house to stay in, there's fresh lobster to be had from the fishermen who bring them in to the dock at Old Harbor, or swordfish from the nearby seafood market. The town center has an old, long, frame movie house.

A small establishment on Payne's Dock at the so-called New Harbor serves up the best cinnamon doughnuts I've ever tasted in the morning and delicious lobster rolls later in the day. Next to it is a tiny bar popular with the sailing crowd. It's known as the smallest bar in the smallest town in the smallest state in the Union.

The beaches are splendid. The island is small, but there are 17 miles of beaches facing Block Island Bay and Long Island Sound on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.

The temperature is balmy much of the time. The water is clear, and so is the air. About 40 percent of the island is owned by the Nature Conservancy, protecting its variety of freshwater ponds and about 30 miles of nature-walk paths. Many of the properties on the island are marked off with stone fences, which together with the verdancy, give the place the look of Ireland.

The island has changed, of course, since I first visited in 1967. Then, the island was reached by ferry. Most people still get there by boat, but the number of boats has increased from a few a day to many, from the slow car ferries from Point Judith, R.I., and a ferry or two from other places like Newport, R.I., to several fast boats from New London, Conn., and Galilee, R.I. On weekends, the island's roadways are crowded with rented motor scooters. On a nice beach day, the roadsides are jammed with parked cars. But it's not overwhelming.

My favorite watering hole seems to have changed, too. This is a place called Ballard's, a vast pavilionlike dining and drinking establishment overlooking Old Harbor, which used to cater to a family clientele. Each summer everyone of our children was compelled to participate in the chicken dance there, presided over by a marvelous piano player named Jim Kelly. Kelly died a few years back. So did the old owner of Ballard's. I went there one Sunday afternoon recently, and it was overtaken by a younger, more intoxicated crowd than I remembered. A couple of young women were performing lap dances in the sunshine on the patio while a rock band played. Ballard's has been in trouble with the authorities over some of its excesses.

The island is more expensive than it used to be. Peter Voskamp, a writer and editor at the weekly Block Island Times, told me that the value of property on the island has increased from $400 million 10 years ago to $2 billion today. I wish I'd bought a house there 30 years ago, when $75,000 seemed expensive.

The best part of the island experience is that no one seems remotely concerned about what's going on in the outside world. Block has that way about it. I rarely watched television the whole time, except to check on the remnants of Hurricane Charley as it moved up the coast.

And, you know what? We didn't miss a thing. When we left the mainland, the news was all about the fight for Najaf and John Kerry's war record. We returned to the same tragedy and political nonsense.

Where are those Manisses Indians when you need them?

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