Nearby Block Island offers a far-away feeling

With the looming return of school and cooler weather, Connecticut families are scrambling to get their last tastes of summer. For many, a short trip to Block Island provides the right dose of distance and detachment for an end-of-summer getaway, whether it's for a week, long weekend or just a day.

"(Residents of) the New London area and Connecticut I-95 corridor - those are our best customers," said Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council. "They're definitely our largest geographical section ... One of the things we say is that Block Island is close to home but a world away. You're on vacation, you've gotten away. I think that's a draw for a lot of people, you really feel like you're away."

Hemendra Patel, a decade-long resident of Niantic, agrees. Patel says that living in a beach community can be enjoyable, but that taking advantage of the beach down the street doesn't provide the same feeling of exploration and relaxing as getting away.

"Niantic is a vacation town for other people," said Patel, a first time Block Island visitor, who brought with him family members visiting from the United Kingdom.

Patel said that this year's day trip may lead to a longer trip next summer. Patel said he enjoyed driving around the island and discovering new things, while three young girls from his large family enjoyed rolling down small hills in the grass behind the Southeast Lighthouse.

For many visitors, a Block Island vacation means taking part in the many activities available on the island. The roads that weave over the hilly island are a free-for-all of colorful mopeds, lines of cooler-carrying pedestrians and bicyclists with beach chairs slung over their shoulders. Surfers and boogie boarders dot the ocean waves, while paddleboarders and kayakers occupy the calmer waters of the island's inner ponds.

While some vacationers tend towards the island's active side, others take advantage of the relaxing beaches.

"It's very laid back," said Kathy Szabo of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce. "It's safe. It's a great environment for children to be on the beach. It's just so inviting. People come out with their dogs."

Priscilla Henchman of Milford has been bringing her family to the island's beaches for almost 30 years, and her group has evolved in size over the years. Over a dozen people spread beach chairs, umbrellas and towels around in a circle at the free public beach, which is an easy walk or bike ride from the bustling shopping area around the island's ferry port.

"Block Island's feel is really family-oriented and easy," said Henchman, who said the clean water and nice restaurants also help draw her crew back year after year. She said that the group has a routine that they look forward to that includes a trip to The Oar restaurant to indulge with a frozen mudslide.

Milford residents Ralph and Sharon Vitale were on an overnight visit, leaving their kids at home with their grandmother so they could scout out the island for a potential family vacation next summer. The couple said that although they've lived in Connecticut their whole lives, this was the first time on Block Island.

"It's one of those hidden gems," said Ralph Vitale, who says that, like New York City, Connecticut residents might not realize their good fortune in having such easy access to such a great destination. Sharon Vitale said that she liked it better than some other New England islands like Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket because Block Islands seems more "natural" and family-friendly by comparison.

"I would definitely say that Block Island is smaller than both those places, which we feel is a good thing," said Willi of the tourism council. "Block Island is very laid back. (It's) not as expensive to get here and not as expensive once you are here as well."

The island gets even more affordable later in the summer, making it a great day or weekend trip in late August and early September as the crowds die down, she said.

"The fall is the best time to visit," said Willi. Although September and October remain busy with weddings, she said off-season rates and relaxed minimum night stay at hotels make weekend trips easy and affordable. "The island is less crowded. All the restaurants and businesses are open through September ... and the water is still warm."

J.HOPPER@THEDAY.COM

TWITTER: @JESSHOPPA

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