A fine solitude, a natural stillness: Block Island

To step off the ferry at Block Island for the first time is to feel that you've just walked into an oversized Edward Hopper painting. Before you, stock-still as a set, is the town of Old Harbor, a cluster of clapboard hotels and shops immaculately white against a brittle blue sky. And just beyond, perched on windy promontories, Victorian homes jut out over a white-capped coast. Walking into town, I felt I should be smelling oil paint instead of the salt that stings the sea breeze.

I wouldn't for a moment want to suggest that Block Island is riddled with the austere loneliness that infuses Hopper's city studies. Rather, the island has the fine solitude of his seascapes, the natural stillness of his sea mansions, those white clapboard homes which, like Block Island's, are ringed by airy summer porches. To go anywhere on the island is to find a place perfectly at peace with itself.

What surprises the casual observer most about Block Island is the uncompromising Yankee identity that lurks just below its summer vacation image. Indeed what distinguishes it from Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard is that, unlike them, Block Island has stamped its year-round identity on its summer season. Refusing to be dictated to by the short-term demands of summer tourism, Block Island has intelligently accommodated its visitors by integrating them into its fuller community.

To visit Block Island any time of the year is to encounter a community necessarily bound by fierce civic pride.It's a community of 550 that must think as 10,000 -- the average influx of visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Interestingly, the community has safeguarded its interests and prompted commerce by consciously preserving its landscape and buildings, and protecting them with strict conservation laws. No one, for example, is allowed to build on less than two to four acres, depending on location.

The irony, of course, is that in preserving its integrity as a community, Block Island is besieged year-round by visitors lured by its unspoiled charm. It's hard to resist a community that has refused to capitulate to easy commercial interests. New Yorkers, who compose the bulk of summer visitors, positively swell with pride at their adopted community -- a community that raises and cans extra vegetables for its senior citizens; a community where it is nearly impossible to pass someone on the road without his raising his hand in friendly salute.

The real appeal of Block Island, though, is that its spirit of Yankee self-sufficiency extends to vacationers. It's a place one comes to in order to rid oneself of the questionable benefits of fast-paced city life. While the three marinas are busy at day and Old Harbor provides some semblance of night life, the island's principal activities are sailing, reading, and walking. You'll do quite a lot of the latter as there is only one main road ringing the island. And as inhabitants proudly point out, there is no public transport either. A fleet of inexpensive taxis, a host of bike rental shops, or your own car, brought over on the ferry, are your only recourses.

But you will want to walk the breadth of Block Island if only for its natural beauty. What's remarkable about this cutlet-shaped isle measuring a mere 7 by 3 1/2 miles is its density and diversity of landscape. Lying 12 miles south of the Rhode Island-Connecticut border, Block Island still looks very much as it did when settled by the Dutch and later by the English in 1661. There are the bone-white Mohegan Bluffs high above the thundering Atlantic surf; the blackberry-covered hills of Rodman's Hollow; the sharp peak of Beacon Hill from which one can see four New England states; and the flat sandy stretches near Settler's Rock that are now a protected bird sanctuary.

The landscape is a series of gently sloping hills, not unlike parts of Scotland, carpeted with wild rosehip and bayberry. Scattered throughout the island are some 365 freshwater ponds ribboned with bass, pickerel, and perch. These ponds provided the island's original inhabitants, the Narragansett Indians , with food and later supplemented the sea-water catch brought in by Yankee fishermen.

Because the island is largely treeless, most cottages have a view of the sea. And, when all is said and done, that's why one comes to Block Island: to spend an uninterrupted week by the sea. There are some 200 cottages for rent. Although these are mostly cape or gray-shingled saltboxes, there are occasionally modern or deck houses to be had. For those visitors with less vacation time than cottage-renters, Block Island has some 600 rooms -- hotel, boarding or guest houses --summer season.

Many people who vacation on the island place their reservations for the cottages and houses early for the following year. But at this time, there are still some openings in all categories; those interested in staying on the island should make their arrangments as quickly as possible to get their choice of dates.

One of the nicest inns is the 1661 Inn, perched high on a hill overlooking the Atlantic. A two-minute walk from Old Harbor, the inn is run by Rita Draper and her husband, who are also in the process of restoring the Manisses, a 19 th-century wonder of a hotel in Old Harbor itself. Mrs. Draper may be the quintessential Block Island resident although she is from Rhode Island. In 1969 she and her family bought the land on and around the 1661 Inn. Although they knew nothing about running a hotel, they refused to let the inn remain unused. So in 1971 they began running what has now become one of the best inns on the island, known for its fresh seafood, its freshly baked bread, and its quiet rooms.

Deciding to run a hotel simply because you loved the land on which it sat may be the best example of how people feel about Block Island. To know why, you'd just have to come see it for yourself. You might try the winter season when skies are scattered with silvery clouds, sea breezes comb the dunes, and the only sound is the steady click of a lighthouse powering its beam over Atlantic waters.

To get to Block Island, motor ferries leave daily from Point Judith, R.I., all year. During the summer season, ferries leave from Providence and Newport, R.I., as well as New London, Conn. Cars are accommodated on ferries. Advance reservation is required. Travelers may also fly to Block Island from Westerly, R.I. For travel and accommodation information, contact the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, Box D, Block Island, R.I. 02807. Telephone (401) 466-2436.

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