As we rack up more hours cruising New England in Vigilant, we’re also collecting a lot of inside tips for overnight cruising to major destinations.
So far, I’ve reported on two small ones that I know very well – Cuttyhunk and Mattapoisett. This will be the first story about a major destination and this one is all about my favorite spot to spend a few nights – Block Island.
What Makes Block Island Special?
I’ve spent a lot of time on Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and Nantucket. They’re all great, but they feel beachy. Don’t get me wrong, Block Island has some great beaches, but to me, it feels islandy.
In fact, Old Harbor feels kind of like Hamilton Bermuda, at least it feels like the Hamilton I remember from the last time I was there in 1979! Other parts of the island feel like Cuttyhunk or Tisbury. A little quick searching on google revealed a few other stories comparing Block Island to Bermuda.
As I said, Block Island is a major beach Island. There are a string of beautiful white sand beaches running from The Surf Hotel in Old Harbor down to the north end of the Island. These are all within walking distance.
If you’re looking for a real tropical island experience check out Ballard’s Beach. It’s on the south side of Old Harbor and provides a unique party atmosphere you can’t find elsewhere in New England.
I love barefoot tiki bars, but there’s a lot more to Ballard’s. Check out my complete report here.
Old Harbor versus New Harbor
The first decision you’ll have once you make Block Island your destination is which harbor to stay in. We stayed in New Harbor is Tenacity in 2016 and Old Harbor in 2017. Both offer there own pluses and minuses.
If you’re coming from Buzzard’s Bay or any point north of Point Judith, Old Harbor is about 20 minutes closer. It’s a small, well protected basin with two marinas, some moorings, and anchorage areas.
Old Harbor sits right smack in the middle of downtown. If you dock at Ballard’s Marina or the Town Wharf, you’ll have a short walk to 90% of the restaurants on Block Island as well shops and the grocery store. To me this is the part of Block Island that feels like old Hamilton Bermuda.
The downside to Old Harbor is hustle and bustle. This is where the ferries from the mainland dump thousands of tourists each day.
New Harbor sits on the south side of the Island. It’s probably 15 minutes closer to Connecticut ports. In fact, it’s only about 20 miles from Montauk Long Island.
It’s a good sized harbor that was originally known as the Great Salt Pond. In 1895, it was dredged and an entrance to the ocean was created.
This photo shows you pretty much everything there is in New Harbor. Each of the big marinas have their own restaurant. Payne’s has Dead Eye Dicks (and Payne’s Donuts); The Block Island Boat Basin has The Oar (along with a basic grocery store), and Champlin’s has La Cucina (along with a bar, ice cream stand, and snack bar).
The New Harbor vibe is totally different than Old Harbor. As you can see, there’s not much there beyond the docks and their on property restaurants.
It’s a popular for the deep sea fishing crowd. People tend to hang out off the back of their boats, eat, drink, and socialize. When we stayed at the Block Island Boat Basin in 2016, Rudy and I went boat to boat with my guitar and serenaded our neighbors.
My best comparison for this side of Block Island would be Cuttyhunk back in the day when The Allen House and the Bosworth House were operating restaurants. There’s still a little more to do in New Harbor, but that’s the vibe I feel.
The Story on Block Island Marinas
My first piece of advice on selecting a marina is DO YOUR HOMEWORK. While the big difference between the major marinas in Newport involve things like views, showers, and how far do you have to walk, the differences here are far more significant.
The first is something Dick Payne called rafting in a slip! If you’re interested in New Harbor and you want a slip, keep in mind that both Champlin’s and Payne’s raft boats together on their piers.
I just found this aerial photo of Payne’s on the Internet that illustrates “slip rafting”…
If you look carefully, you can see that the majority of boats require guests to climb over their neighbor’s boat. Combine that with the late night drinking crowd and the possible scenarios aren’t pretty! This is also the way Champlin’s and the Town Dock in Old Harbor pile them in.
There are minor differences between the slips at Block Island Boat Basin an Ballard’s. Both back into floating docks, BIBB has pilings on both sides of the slip while Ballard’s has just one. At Ballard’s you tie one side of your boat to your neighbor.
Breezy at Ballard’s does a fantastic job tying up the boats. I would also say that Ballard’s is better protected in a blow.
I would also add that BBIB’s slips for boats under 39′ are down a narrow channel and require a lot of delicate maneuvering.
Again, both are decent slips and I think the choice comes down to where you want to stay; Old Harbor or New.
Dining on Block Island – New Harbor
Let me begin with New Harbor because there are only a few options. I’ve dined at both The Oar (Block Island Boat Basin) and Dead Eye Dick’s (Payne’s Dock). Both were quite good as seaside eateries go.
The Oar feels more causal and kind of reminded me of Cheeseburgers in Paradise on Front Street in Lahaina Maui. The food was typical seaside fare but they also had great Sushi – see full review here.
Dead Eye Dick’s feels more like the kind of place you might find on Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard. Dick’s offers typical seafood fare but with more of a fine dining flare than anything else in New Harbor or pretty much anywhere on the island – see full review here.
If you’re dining on your boat and need some provisions, there is a very basic grocery store near The Oar at The Block Island Boat Basin. You can also order beer, wine, or liquor here and the Liquor Store in Old Harbor will deliver it. BBIB also rents mopeds.
Dining on Block Island – Old Harbor
Thanks to the thousands of visitors coming in by ferry, there is a lot of pressure on the restaurants in Old Harbor and I can honestly say that everything I ate was good.
For breakfast you can’t beat Ernie’s. It has an old diner feel and fare. Their corn beef hash is unique and when topped with a couple of fried eggs, it could be the best breakfast among all the seaside eateries in New England – see full review here.
On a couple of days we just went out and picked up Bacon and Cheese Egg Muffins; once from Ernies and once from Old Harbor Takeout.
By the way, Old Harbor Takeout doesn’t just do breakfast, they serve all day long and they’re famous for their Lobster Rolls.
As a California boy, I absolutely love Mexican breakfast. Calaveras near the Town Docks serves a special take of Huevos Rancheros that features BACON.
They also offer great Mexican all day long (BYOB) – see full review here.
We had lunch at Calaveras, Finn’s (which is what Ernie’s turns into after breakfast), and several times at the Tiki Bars at Ballard’s Inn Beach Resort – see full review here.
Finally, there are a number of great restaurants for dinner in Old Harbor. Here are three that I have reported on,
The Surf Hotel – see full review here.
The National Hotel Tap and Grille – see full review here.
Ballard’s Inn Restaurant – see full review here.
We also ate at Aldo’s Italian Restaurantwhere we had great pizza and pasta.
Of course there are plenty more restaurants that we haven’t tried yet. We’re currently planning at least one return trip in 2018 so watch My Buzzards Bay for new reports.
Oh yeah, there is a decently stocked grocery store just past the Surf Hotel and a liquor store across the street.
What to do on Block Island
Most folks go to Block Island for the beaches. We spent 3 days at Ballard’s and loved every one of them. Keep in mind that the water is cool (66 in early August), but once I got use to it it was refreshing.
Ballard’s was very crowded on Sunday, but you could always find an open spot. My cousin Sharon loves Mansion Beach and there is a nice beach behind the Surf Hotel.
Besides “beaching it”, we also spent a morning mopeding around the island which I recommend. Unlike Martha’s Vineyard, most of the people in cars are locals who seldom go faster than 25 MPH. They also don’t drive much so the streets aren’t crowded – see full review here.
Block Island is a great place for walking off breakfast or dinner from the night before. We trekked from Old Harbor to New Harbor several times and noticed a lot of others walking. I suspect it might be a good place to rent a regular bicycle, but the streets are a little narrow.
If you have a boat you can sleep on you just have to visit Block Island for a few days. Of course you can also go in a smaller boat or the Ferry and stay at a hotel.
Block Island is one of the major blessings for boaters in Southern New England.