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

BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. — 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.


Near Fresh Pond, where the Massachusetts Colonists built their first church, a tiny white sign identifies the Indian cemetery. I strolled through this grassy memorial to the Narragansetts, who died out in 1886. Under a few dark pines, with prickly bare branches sticking out, rocky stumps jut upward as unmarked graves.

Mohegan Bluffs recall the Narragansetts too. By far the most dramatic site, these clay bluffs extend majestically along the island's southern rim, rising high above the ocean. The name harks back to the days when Pequot and Mohegan war parties came in bark canoes from Connecticut and Montauk, Long Island, to raid the rich beds of oysters, clams, scallops and mussels.

The Narragansetts finally set up an ambush. After Mohegans in a raiding party landed and made their way into the island's interior, they were ambushed from behind and driven to the edge of the bluffs, where they plunged into the sea to die.

Contemplating this past, I stood at the top of these 200-foot bluffs one day, my eyes sweeping over the immense arc of blue sky that ends at the ocean horizon. I moved to the edge and descended a long steep wooden stairway that winds down to the ocean along an old Indian path.

I found myself in a more elemental space. The bluffs start swooping upward only a few yards in from the sea, which proved, close up, dark and wildly turbulent. It was difficult to maneuver along the narrow shoreline, with gray and white boulders strewn over rocks and thick pebbles. Shading my eyes against the sun, I stared up at the craggy, irregular, forbidding bluffs. They drew me deeper into the past. They seemed exactly as they must have been when the white glaciers slid away eons ago.

I glanced up at the homely Gothic Revival Southeast Light, built in 1874. Its lantern is still the highest in New England, visible from 35 miles at sea. Now endangered by the erosion of Mohegan Bluffs, this fragile 2,000-ton brick structure is being moved painstakingly inland over seven months by the Army Corps of Engineers.


Finally I turned to the sea. There, riding through waves were a pair of small black ducks -- who would imagine they'd like a ride so bumpy? But they bobbed merrily, and beyond them two or three harbor seals showed their black backs from time to time. It was a thrill to glimpse a few where thousands once cavorted.

I remembered that Thoreau said, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Which surely includes ourselves.

IF YOU GO . . .

Getting there: By car, take Interstate 95 north from Baltimore to Exit 92 in Connecticut. Follow signs to Westerly, R.I. Take U.S. 1 to Galilee, Point Judith exit, then Route 108, following signs to Block Island Ferry. Passengers $6.60; cars: $2O.25 each way. Reservations: (401) 783-4613.

By boat: Harbormaster, (401) 466-3204; or Block Island Boat Basin, (401) 466-2631.

Where to stay: Accommodations range from cozy bed and breakfasts to resort hotels. Hotel Manisses is a Victorian-style hotel with full dining room, (401) 466-2836. The 1661 Inn is a Colonial-style inn overlooking the ocean on Spring Street, (401) 466-2421.


For further information: Block Island Chamber of Commerce, (401) 466-2982.