Travel: Islands - A short ferry ride across the Atlantic

America is not known for island hopping. But aficionados should pencil in the New England coast, says Malcolm Senior

RHODE ISLAND isn't an island. Block Island, dangling 20 miles offshore, most definitely is. But neither its name nor its shape (like a meat chop) hints at the pleasures that await you. Forget the Aegean and the Raratonga: ship off to Block Island.

The island is not big. It's possible to cycle from one end to the other in an hour. It's not over-developed, either: a lovely little cinema and a noisy nightclub at the end of town, and that's about it.

While there are car ferries from Connecticut and Port Judith, on the opposite side of the Narragansett River, the more interesting way to get to Block Island is by the passenger ferry that runs daily from Providence, situated well inland in America's smallest state. For four hours she cruises along the river, stopping off at Newport, before heading out into the Atlantic and docking at Old Harbor.

The other reason for not taking the car ferry is that, as summer gets into its stride (and especially around Independence Day), the locals tend to block-book all the spaces, leaving many tourists stranded. A bike, hired from one of the many stalls around where the ferries dock, is in any case much better for getting round Block Island's beaches.

And the beaches are something else. Coastguard's Beach became my favourite. For two days I had it to myself, along with a handful of families vaguely distinguishable in the heat haze. Here the ocean gently breaks on sand and a few pebbles. On the other side of the island is Mansion Beach - like Coastguard's, reachable only via a dirt track. Big waves break on sand, turning mums, dads and kids alike into spluttering idiots, as the surf knocks them and their various boogie boards, inflatable rings and battered bodies all over the place.

At Sandy Point, you can walk along the beaches to the very tip, as in the last few stony inches of Block Island, and watch, close up, the working of the currents that continue to erode and reshape it.

As in the Isle of Wight, rolling hills make up the centre of Block Island. A ride from Old Harbor, up the hill to the small aerodrome, past wooden houses with sun-steeped verandahs and balconies, to Rodman's Hollow, is a good way to see inland. The Hollow is a huge, forested crater, swarming with birds and criss-crossed with walking trails. From the roadside at the lip of the Hollow, you are at the same height as the many hawks and eagles that soar above the trees looking for prey. Much of the island is hilly, with green fields and stone walls. A trail at Clay Head follows the cliffs around the northern side of the island. Apart from fantastic sea views, the path takes you to small secluded pools surrounded by bushes and wildflowers.

There are a couple of large hotels but most tourists stay in small Victorian inns. These tend to be cosy rather than spacious and often, in the interests of history (and space), the bathroom is down the hall. I stayed in the Gothic Inn, which was as close to a "proper" B&B as I have come across in America. It is run expertly, and with a sense of humour drier than summer hay, by Charlotte Egan; you are left to do your own thing, but still provided with the standard enormous American breakfast that keeps you going all day. The Gothic, like most of the inns on the island, likes its guests to book two or three nights at a time.

Eating on the island is a mixture of the usual burgers and pizzas together with a couple of places that are a bit different. The Mohegan Cafe serves solid food together with its excellent brewed-on-the-premises beers. Eli's Restaurant, a cafe-cum-bistro, serves the best and most diverse dinners, with lots of lovely American wines. For a post-meal coffee and chat, as well as the now obligatory Internet surf, the Java Joint takes some beating. After that, it's the aforementioned noisy night-club or the pleasure of an after-dinner drink, a book, a verandah or hammock and the natural pleasures of a warm summer Block Island night.

Starting blocks

The nearest airports are Boston and New York JFK. Fares from the UK in June and July cost less than pounds 300 from discount agents.

The Interstate Navigation Co (001 401 783 4613) runs car ferries from Point Judith, RI, New London, CT and a daily passenger ferry from Providence and Newport, RI to Old Harbor. There's also a summer only service from Montauk, NY to the island.

Malcolm Senior paid $60 (pounds 38) per night at the Gothic Inn (001 401 466 2918). The Block Island Chamber of Commerce (001 401 466 2982) can suggest other places to stay

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