Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More Islands: Rhode, Block, Long and Shelter

OK, Rhode Island isn't really an island . . . but why exactly is it called Rhode Island?  We'll have to leave that for others to answer.  In any event, we headed there on fast ferry #5 from Martha's Vineyard, landing at Quonset Point, and biked about 25 miles along the RI coast to Point Judith.  A little lighthouse amused us en route to Quonset -- exactly which one of the dozens of bridge spans was it guarding?

On that route along the coast we visited Narragansett, at one time a major competitor with Newport for the spendy crowd.  The renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White designed a grand casino for Narragansett in 1886 but alas a fire in 1900 burned most of the wooden casino, leaving only  the granite section that spanned the road along the coast.  We stopped by as we walked back to our B&B from supper and learned the history from two women who were chaperones for the local high school's senior class, which was having a dance in the grand ballroom upstairs.  And while we were taking the shot of the building and shore the next morning, a local fisherman provided a little interest to our right, though his catch turned out to be too small and was tossed back a few moments later.

Real fishermen call Point Judith home, and we saw dozens and dozens of fishing boats like these as we made our way through the port to the Block Island Ferry.  As we left port we could see Block Island in the distance -- it's that pencil smudge on the horizon above the right-hand breakwater.  This was our first single-hulled ferry, complete with a full load of cars and trucks, but Block Island Sound was calm and it was an easy crossing.  You'll notice the ferry coming the other way as we approached Block Island -- it has a pointed bow, as did ours.  All the cars and trucks have to be loaded by backing them in.  Though we didn't get to experience it, the weather can be pretty rough out there.  Puget Sound it's not.

We had a good location on the island, half a mile from town and overlooking two small freshwater ponds perched on a shelf just above the ocean.  We took a path down to the ponds and had a thirty-minute paddle in a kayak, time enough for two circuits of both ponds and a few pictures!  That's the Spring House Hotel just above us, a nice late-19th century seaside hotel that is doing well in the 21st century.  There was a time when it and many other large hotels on Block Island sat empty in the '70s through the 1990s, but they're "in" again and all seem to be holding their own, even given the fairly short season when tourists in any numbers show up on Block Island.

It's a small island, 30 square miles to Nantucket's 48, the same size as Vashon Island near Seattle.  But Nantucket has 10,000 year-round residents to Block Island's 1,000.  Even in summer there are many fewer folks "on the Block," as they put it locally, as its population generally only triples while Nantucket's quintuples.  Which is part of why it appealed to us more than Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard.  Let's show you a few places we liked.  First was Southeast Light, built in 1875 and moved, if you can imagine it, 360 feet back from the cliff that was disappearing beside it in 1993.  And it's a long way down.  Between the height of the land and of the lighthouse, the lens is 261' above water, and the light can be seen from far out at sea.  By the way, that's Montauk Point on Long Island in the distance, our next destination after our two nights on the Block.

Next to the lighthouse was this small radar station with a very unusual mission -- it's tracking birds!  A company called Deepwater Wind RI wants to build several wind turbines offshore, plus lay an underwater power transmission line to the mainland for days when the wind isn't blowing.  The radar is to see if it's feasible given the avian use of the area.  Many of the locals support the plan in the hopes that it will end Block Island's dubious distinction of having the highest electric rates in the country, since all power is currently generated by diesel that must be shipped in, with no connection to the New England power grid.

Once again we were charmed by stone walls along quiet country roads, all the more enjoyable without the heavy panniers on our bike.  We wore small backpacks to carry our walking shoes and locked up the bike near the North Light, seen here across Sachem Pond, and took the Clayhead Trail for some more dramatic cliff views where Block Island is slowly sliding back into the Atlantic.  One trail took us to the shore where we added our own rock tower to others we found there, and admired the surf hitting a small glacial erratic sitting on the beach.

The trail took us two miles down the coast, then we walked back along yet another stone-wall-lined road, with two more side-trails showing us the other side of the island and this lonely beach house sitting at the edge of the dunes.

As noted above, we really enjoyed  Block Island, and would return here before Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard, even given how interesting those two islands are.  We enjoyed the slower pace and the relative lack of monied pretentiousness.  Oh, it's not cheap on the Block -- everything has to be shipped in, and it's a small captive market -- but it still had more of that getaway charm we found a little elusive on the first two islands.

Actually getting away, however, proved to be an issue.  A major storm was brewing to the southwest of us, and our passenger boat, seen the day before in calmer conditions, was single-hulled. Our route was only 10 or 20 degrees from being parallel to the wave troughs and those troughs were several feet deep, so the boat did a bit of pitching and a whole lot of rolling.  Thankfully lunch stayed down and we arrived in Montauk two hours before the rain, just enough time to get to the motel, get showered and changed and dressed in our rain gear, and into a nearby restaurant two blocks away.  This was the same storm that had just created two small tornados and a "mini-burst" in New York City two hours earlier, but when it hit us it was down to being a heavy downpour with crashing lightning, an exciting and somewhat intimidating spectacle from our corner seats in the restaurant.

Long Island is indeed long, about 118 miles, only 23 across at the widest.  With a population of 7.4 million (2 of its 4 counties are Brooklyn and Queens, parts of New York City), it has more people than many much larger islands, such as Ireland or Hokkaido.  It has a sort of fish shape with two tails at the eastern end, each actually the terminal moraine of one of the glacial advances 10-40,000 years ago.  The more southerly tail is Montauk, and the lighthouse there dates to 1796, the oldest in NY and the fourth-oldest active lighthouse in the country.  Jeff's brother used to drive the 100 miles here from his home in Queens to go birdwatching, since it does stick far out into the Atlantic and attracts birds that typically stay well out to sea.  But neither of us had been here before, so it was exciting to see it at last.  We then rode west 25 miles through a remarkably uncrowded, almost desolate area of sand dunes and salt marshes, into East Hampton.  That town did indeed live up to the reputation of The Hamptons.  We did not actually see too many fancy houses, not because they're not there, but rather because they have such immense grounds, thick hedges, large fences and walls or all of the above, that we could only catch momentary glimpses of a few of these Gatsbyesque getaways, and imagine how much bigger the remaining hidden ones were.

Our next night after Montauk was on Shelter Island, another place that Jeff had heard much about but never seen, as it was where his folks spent a brief honeymoon in 1942.  They certainly didn't spend it where we stayed.  It was one of the more disappointing B&Bs we've stayed at, aggravated considerably by having the least comfortable bed we've encountered out of the 60+ we've slept in so far this trip.  The owner did not fuss when we cancelled the planned second night, apparently aware that the bed in our room left too much to be desired.  We loaded up the bike and saw a few places we had planned to see with an unloaded bike, the most interesting of which was this beach where we watched a sailboat regatta in Gardiner's Bay, the water between those two fishtails of Long Island, Montauk Point (visible in the distance on the right) and Orient Point.

We then took one of these very small ferries off Shelter Island and out to Orient Point, past a snowy egret, a great blue heron and other shore birds, and caught the last of our ten ferries from Orient Point to New London.  Down below is a shot of a sister-ferry to the one we were on coming past some of the rocks that challenge navigation leaving Orient Point.

We'll close with a few shots of New London, starting with the entry to the harbor with the big I-95 bridge at the head of the harbor spanning the Thames River, and the cruise ship Crown Princess just leaving port after a morning's port call for passengers to visit nearby Mystic Seaport.  Ah, that brought back memories of those dozens of port calls we made in 2008 and 2009, described in older posts you may have read back then.

Then our ferry pulled into its slip next to downtown New London, a town with a remarkable number of interesting old buildings, including these four called "Whaleoil Row" that were built by whaling ship captains in the 1840s.

The next morning we rode a bike trail over the Thames on the interstate bridge to Groton CT, home of the USS Nautilus.  This was of course the world's first nuclear-powered sub -- in fact the first large-scale use of controlled nuclear power ever -- built nearby in 1954.  It was in active service until 1980, and since 1986 has been on display here.  Its most famous mission was in 1958 when it reached a spot logged as "90 degrees north latitude, longitude indeterminate" -- the North Pole.

It's open for self-guided walking, or should we say crawling and crunching, through the central part of the boat.  Here are views of the mess and of a bunkroom that slept 12.  The sweaters on our closet shelves have more room than these guys had!  And for storage, what you see is what you got.  Claustrophobes need not apply!

Well, we're back on the continent again after two weeks of island-hopping.  Next up are visits to several friends and family in Connecticut and New York.  We'll bring you the photos in our next entry.

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