Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Friday, June 25, 2010

Block Island, RI

“I love Block Island!” bellowed a half-drunken hillbilly wearing brightly colored shorts, a cowboy hat, and sunglasses. Crowds of people flowing onto the dock cheered back their consensus as the locals snickered and rolled their eyes. It was noon and the tourists were already drunk while everyone else was just relieved to finally be “on the island.”

Block Island, that is. On Memorial Day weekend I stepped off the New London ferry onto Rhode Island’s answer to my island’s Culebra. BI is where New Englanders go to drink and eat by the beach, but for many Rhode Islanders—the “locals”—this is their second home, where they come eat and drink by their houses and occasionally the beach. My friend Willis’ family had very graciously invited me up for the weekend and I’d jumped at the opportunity. Despite this being my first time here, Willis assured me, “Don’t worry, you’re a local.”

That’s lesson number one when visiting an island, any island (mine included): you always want to be a local.

“So what is there to do around here?” I asked, climbing into the family’s Jeep. The island is small but not that small, to get around you need a car or at the very least a bike.

“Well,” replied Willis, sporting aviator sunglasses and a fishing hat— which to me defines Rhode Island cool—, “there’s pretty things to look at. And there’s Block Island Blondies, which you will try.”

And that’s about right. Unless you’re a hillbilly in loud shorts, the reason to come to Block Island is to slow down, drink some Blondies, and chill out.

Block Island has a small population of about 1000 that lives there year-round, while the summer packs in over 16,000 tourists and visitors from New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island—and Puerto Rico, apparently. Old Harbor where we arrived is part of the main town, New Shoreham, where the ferries dock and the stretch of beach lining the east side of the island begins. Around there you’ll find most of the restaurants, hotels, and stores along short streets with white wooden buidlings sporting broad porches. “Locals”—which I later figured out just means the people who are willing to visit the island during the winter, when the summer marauders are hibernating their hangovers away—all sport a sort of uniform composed of shorts, T-shirts, and sweaters with any variation of Block Island, RI or BI-RI, or Block Island, Rhode Island etched across it. As an honorary local, I understood I should probably acquire one before this trip was over. ( I did and have been wearing it almost every day since at my over-air conditioned office.)

The grand tour of the island takes about two hours in a car, if you take your time about it. As we traveled inland, BI started to resemble a slice of the English countryside. Houses become more spaced out as the fields dotted with ponds and marshes spread wider, the dirt roads flanked by endless rows of short stonewalls.
When looking for the first “beach,” the Mohegan Bluffs, what you actually need to look out for is the edge of a cliff. If you love stairs, well this is the place for you. To access the “beach” you walk down about three or four stories-worth of wooden stairs built into the cliff’s side, the final stretch of which are just large rocks that deposit you onto the rocky sand. Its impressive standing at the foot of the bluffs—a sheer rock wall on one side and the Atlantic Ocean spreading out on the other. Teenagers lounged on giant boulders taking in the afternoon sun while children climbed over the many rocks along the edge of the water. Willis tried and failed to teach me to skip rocks. 

At the edge of the cliff is the Southeast Light, a clay-colored lighthouse with a large house attached to the side of it. Block Islanders are proud of their lighthouses and the one in question had been rescued by the community some years back. The face of the bluffs changes constantly, as the waves and weather eat away at the rock walls. The lighthouse was perched precariously at the edge of a ridge that wasn’t going to hold for much longer. So rather than lose their lighthouse to the elements, the people of Block Island moved it back 360 feet, saving it from its impending destruction. That’s love.

Continuing on our tour, we headed up to the other side of the island, skirting around the Great Salt Pond—a hybrid body of water that is bay, pond, and lake all in one, speckled by white sail boats and yachts. Soon we reached the Northern Lighthouse, which stands on a stretch of land that juts out into the Atlantic and where currents crash against each other at its peak.

As we were walking up the rocky-sandy stretch, Willis was telling me how his family’s ties to the island stretch back many generations—even pointing out his ancertor’s names on Settler’s Rock—to the extent that their family tree is on display at the Block Island Historical Society. About five families on the island have that kind of lineage and everyone knows them. Then I looked over at the water and yelled, “Seals!” And dashed off. 

At the edge of the beach were about a dozen seals. They stuck their heads out and looked at us, as if asking us to please go away so they could climb onto the sand. Black and grey ones were offset by white spotted one, each with faces so closely resembling a dog’s you expected them to bark at any moment. Those are the kind of moments you get on Block Island: the sun just starting to set, the Northern lighthouse’s beacon just starting to be felt, on a beach full of seals bobbing in and out of the surf. There were a handful of people around and as it started to get colder we headed back.

Around the evening in Block Island there’s a number of things to do and you have the added benefit that the day tourists are jumping ship back to wherever they came from. After grabbing drinks at the National Hotel’s porch—the porch that puts all the other porches in Old Harbor to shame—the locals seek out a handful of places, most of which are only open during the summer. Among them The Beachead, one of the few restaurant I’ve ever seen my 6’ 2”, 140 lb friend ever get excited about, is a classic choice. Walking in you’re in a fisherman’s dive, a small dining room stretches out towards the back and to your right some steps lead up to the bar. The dark wood walls are covered with painted oars and lobster traps. The food is described as “New England Fare” and of course features a wide range of seafood, including lobster, but sadly no “Stuffies”—a stuffed clam dish I fell in love with the first time I visited Rhode Island. Willis recommended I try Don Warner’s Chilli, a surprisingly spicy, very savory meaty soup topped with cheese and onion. They didn’t have Blondies so we chased down our food with the other local beer, Narragansett Lagers. It’s a lager with a nice undertone of bitterness which you’re obliged to drink when you visit Rhode Island.

After dinner, we stopped by Club Soda (“it’s a pun” points out Willis), the local bar that has nightly activities. We came in on Kareoke Night, where a rotation of five people—locals of course, since whatever tourists left were either tucked away in their inns or passed out on a beach— sang with varying degrees of skill—our own Willis among them. It was at Club Soda that I finally got to try the Block Island Blondes. They are delicious with a malty sweetness that almost reminds you of a pale ale but with the body of a light lager. Like any small town, though, everything’s over by midnight.

The next morning I instructed my humble tour guide: “Take me to the best beach here.”

So we drove to Mansion Beach. While technically it’s all the same beach stretching from the Northern End down to the Old Harbor, there are imaginary subdivisions, the “best” of which is Mansion Beach. It was a perfect beach day, the sun high, the temperature a moderate high 70’s-low 80’s. 

Looking at the brilliantly blue water my Caribbean brain thought, Man that looks awesome, Willis’s New England brain looked at the same water and thought, That is freezing. He was indeed correct, as we got our feet wet, subsequently lost all feeling in them within seconds. I’d never experienced the ocean as local anesthetic. I would later find myself waist-deep in it and get to experience that strange denumbing/ warming sensation of freezing skin hitting warm air while muscles desperately try to regain body temperature—all while still working up a decent tan.

The rest of the weekend was exactly what a weekend on Block Island should be: drinking with family while sitting on Adirondack chairs out in the yard. We ate at another BI establishment called Dead Eye Dicks. While you’d think The Beachead would be the white cloth place and DDD’s the dive, of course it was the reverse. The paradoxes of this island are endless.  The restaurant sits by the port so you can watch the sunset and the boats while enjoying some really decent fish and chips (good by my standards, all right by Willis’ mother’s standards—so decent). 

The next morning we caught a flight back to the mainland on New England Airlines—a line of car-like airplanes where you have to report your weight and the weight of your belongings. Our pilot Lynn, landed a few minutes before we were scheduled to depart, arranged our luggage in the nose of the plane and arranged us so we could “all have more legroom.” She sped through some safety mumbojumbo none of us caught, which was fine by her, and we took off. The flight took about 15 minutes and it felt almost like we were suspended in mid-air while the world turned slowly bellow us. From the air you could make out the famous shape of BI and the morning sun cast a bright sheen on the water. 

It officially felt like summer.

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