Rocks...One Shimmers The Other
In 1590, a mohegan war party made the mistake of invading rival Indian territory on the southeastern tip of Manisses, New England’s “Island of the Little God.” The Manisseans were having none of it. Cornered and forced to the edge of the 185-foot cliffs, the aggressors came to a rocky end in the raging sea. Hence the name, Mohegan Bluffs.
Fast forward through the centuries: A Dutch explorer comes along and renames the island after himself, Adriaen Block’s Eylandt. During America’s lavish Gilded Age, its beauty and isolation, 12 miles off the Rhode Island coast, captivate the cream of Newport society—Vanderbilts, Astors and friends. Its name eventually gets shortened to Block Island, or, as we insiders like to call it, “The Block.”
Actually, it’s my first time on The Block. But there’s something about her sheer windswept cliffs, the ghost whisperings beneath the gables of her Victorian inns and the romance of her rose-covered sand dunes that seeps into your being and claims you as her own.
So 419 years after the Manisseans defended their island, I’m poised atop that same historic precipice. The faintest salmon-pink tinge in the sky hints of impending daybreak. Over my shoulder is the Southeast Light, a 19th century lighthouse that once nearly slid to its own demise. Before its time, many ships were splintered on the treacherous rocks below.
As I carefully descend 250 very steep wooden stairs to the beach, I’m sure I see the silhouettes of those 40 ill-fated Mohegans standing like chessmen on the sand. The tallest seems to move. The others remain as still as stones; which, in fact, they are—a miniature Stonehenge piled one atop the other in marbled shades of green, silver, orange, black and white. Love letters in the sand may work elsewhere, but apparently here on The Block, one expresses oneself in stones.
The sole moving monolith turns out to be a local fisherman, who hopes to take home a nice fat “striper” (striped bass) for breakfast.
It’s possible, he says, to walk the entire 17-mile perimeter of Block Island from here. The ever-changing scenery would be stunning: the sheer cliffs of Clay Head on the northeast shore, peaceful harbors, the Great Salt Pond, rust-toned rocky beaches and sugary white strands. But like the socialites a century before me, I’m only here for a few days’ respite from worldly obligations, and I have abject laziness in mind.
The aristocrats, of course, came from Newport by luxury steamer or yacht, with their trunks and personal attendants (half a day’s sail back then; just two hours now), while I took the Block Island Ferry from Point Judith in Narragansett (55 minutes). Still, we all arrived in Old Harbor, with the same romantic views of the imposing National Hotel, fishing boats and seagulls perched on posts, and the gentle congestion of bicycle traffic along Water Street.
From there, we each, in our respective centuries, checked into a lovely inn with wide verandahs, profusions of flowers and salty breezes from the sea, where afternoon tea will most likely be served and a hearty breakfast will greet sleepy late risers.
We will stroll along the waterfront, lunch on a lobster roll or a platter of wine-infused mussels, accompanied by a cup of real Rhode Island chowder, which is neither creamy (New England style) nor red (Manhattan style) but a stew of plump clams and potatoes in a clear, savory broth.
If we’re feeling languid, we might take in the Thursday or Saturday farm market or explore the local galleries. If we’re feeling energetic—and romantic—we might toss a picnic lunch into the basket of our bicycle-built-for-two and head up to Clay Head Cliffs, where we can explore The Maze, a 12-mile network of walking trails.
As I brave nasty thorns to graze on juicy blackberries, I think about The Mrs. Astor, as self-proclaimed society queen Caroline Astor insisted on being called. Did she enjoy popping over in her private schooner, The Ambassadress, to let down her guard before returning to Newport to refine her infamous List of 400? That party invitation list made and crushed social standings within America’s aristocracy during the late 1800s.
From The Block to Newport
Glamorous seaside estates, luxurious yachts and beautiful bays are nothing new to us along the Gulfshore, of course, but one can’t help but admire those summer “cottages” along Newport’s famed Bellevue Avenue. And Newport is the birthplace of the world’s most celebrated sailing races.
Equally alluring to me are the lobster boats disgorging their bounty at Newport’s ancient seaport and several picturesque lighthouses. Also, I recently heard that The Mrs. Astor’s39-room Italianate mansion is back on the block, reduced to just $14 million and change. I decide to take the Block Island-Newport Ferry and check it all out.
How bad can a three-day immersion in lobsters, lighthouses and luxury be? On Day One, I could do lunch at America’s oldest operating tavern, The White Horse, circa 1652; visit Touro Synagogue, circa 1759, the oldest synagogue building in the U.S., and see George Washington’s personal pew at Trinity Church. At 12-Meter Charters on Bowen’s Wharf, I might join the crew for a sail aboard an authentic America’s Cup racer, and end my day dining on lobster at the famous Black Pearl restaurant on Bannister’s Wharf.
On Day Two, I will board a trolley to Bellevue Avenue to gawk at the gorgeous architecture, stunning gardens and lavish excesses of the Gilded Age.
Most people start with The Breakers. Even by Newport’s Gilded Age standards, this 130,000-square-foot, 70-room palace modeled after the grand Italian palazzos of 16th century is the pinnacle of opulence. Built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895, its centerpiece is a 45-foot-ceilinged Great Hall. Only parts of the mansion are on tour, as Vanderbilt family members still summer on the estate.
As I stroll the brick sidewalk past ancient walls and ornate gates, I recognize Rosecliff from the movie The Great Gatsby. Silver heiress Tessie Oelrichs had it designed to replicate the Grand Trianon, the royal retreat at Versailles. Her lavish parties were renowned for their surprise effects, such as the appearance (and disappearance) of magician Harry Houdini.
But my destination is Beechwood, the summer cottage of The Mrs. Astor. It seems I’m expected. I’m met in the foyer and personally escorted through the gilded halls by her daughter, Alice (who later marries a prince), as though I’m an esteemed member of the List of 400.
I learn nothing particularly juicy from her very proper lips, but the servants are quite loose of tongue, whispering scandalous secrets as they lead me along the back corridors, into the kitchen and even into the Queen of Society’s bedroom. Actually, they’re all actors in the Beechwood Theater Company, and the price of admission includes either the Victorian Tour (with a member of the “family”) or the Servant’s Tour.
I save Day Three for the most glamorous walking trail in America. Cliff Walk is a 3.5-mile path meandering along the clifftops between Newport’s grand mansions and the Atlantic Ocean. The surf is so powerful that the wall has to be replaced every few years. From here I get new perspectives on the famous estates and their formal gardens.
The perfect ending to my Newport weekend is a sunset sail around Newport Harbor as the golden light shimmers on the spire of Trinity Church. Some of the world’s prettiest sailboats and most glamorous mega-yachts are settling in for the night. Most lobstermen have long called it a day, but one small boat straggles in, its occupants still wearing their colorful waders.
Around the bend is the gracious Rose Island Lighthouse, perched on a rock at the “flower” end of a long- stemmed rose-shaped island. When we return to harbor, twin strands of white lights twinkle on the beautiful Newport Bridge.
As I leave my luxurious nest at LaFarge Perry House, innkeeper Midge Knerr sends me off with two of her famous macaroons. I think I might save them to share with a friend, but, well, if you knew Midge’s macaroons, you’d understand why there’s soon nothing left but a dusting of powdered sugar outlining my satisfied smile.
I’ve been around The Block, enjoyed—however briefly—a place on The Mrs. Astor’s List of 400, feasted on clams and lobsters, and sailed like Ted Turner on a 12-meter America’s Cup racer. Life, as they say, is a beach.
For Lighthouse Lovers
Erosion once almost toppled the 2,000-ton, 67-foot tall Victorian Gothic structure into the ocean. So the people of Block Island simply moved it 200 feet backward.
Point Judith Lighthouse
A treacherous ledge and constant fog made this spit of land in Narragansett Bay a ship’s graveyard. Despite its somber job, the Point Judith Light is one of Rhode Island’s prettiest lighthouses. Point Judith is the launch point for the Block Island High Speed Ferry.
Plum Beach Light
Before they cleaned it up, this feisty little cast iron sparkplug-style lighthouse visible from the Jamestown Newport Ferry once was covered in 52 tons of bird guano. It survived the devastating hurricane of 1938 with its keepers lashed to the lantern’s clockwork.
Rose Island Lighthouse
The picturesque Rose Island Lighthouse anchors a 19-acre bird sanctuary. Day visitors are welcome via the Jamestown Newport Ferry. The lighthouse offers one of America’s only authentic lighthouse keeper vacation experiences.
1661 Inn (Block Island)
Named for the year Block Island was settled, this very elegant Victorian inn strikes an artful pose on a grassy hillside overlooking the ocean. Its extravagant champagne buffet breakfasts are an island tradition. www.blockislandresorts.com.
Hotel Manisses (Block Island)
1661’s sister inn, Hotel Manisses has 17 rooms, each named for an early Block Island shipwreck. In the evenings, guests and locals mingle in the Upstairs Parlor for theatrically prepared flaming coffees. www.blockislandresorts.com.
The Chanler at Cliff Walk (Newport)
The 20-room Chanler at Cliff Walk, circa 1873, was originally the summer “cottage” of congressman John Winthrop Chanler and his wife Margaret Astor Ward.
LaFarge Perry House (Newport)
Famed Newport chef-turned-innkeeper Midge Knerr runs her elegant five-room inn like a private residence of the privileged class. From gourmet breakfasts to exquisite fabrics and fine period décor, everything about this inn radiates warmth and good taste. www.lafargeperry.com.