About 12 miles off Rhode Island's southern coast, Block Island is the smallest state’s answer to nearby bigger and ritzier Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. With 17 miles of beaches that—unlike many of those on its Massachusetts sister islands—are open to everyone, it has been a vacation destination since the 19th century. Despite the number of summer visitors and thanks to the efforts of local conservationists, the island's beauty remains intact (more than 43% of the land is preserved); its 365 freshwater ponds support thousands of species of birds that migrate seasonally along the Atlantic Flyway.
The original inhabitants of the island were Native Americans who called it Manisses, or "isle of the little god." Following a 1614 visit by Dutch explorer Adrian Block, the island was given the name Adrian's Eyelant, and later Block Island. In 1661 it was settled by farmers and fishermen from Massachusetts Bay Colony, who established its second official name, the Town of New Shoreham, when it became part of Rhode Island in 1672.
Block Island, with 950 year-round residents, is a laid-back community. You can dine at any of the island's establishments in shorts and a T-shirt. The busiest season, when the population explodes to about 15,000, is between May and Columbus Day—at other times most restaurants, inns, stores, and visitor services close down. If you plan to stay overnight in summer, make reservations well in advance; for weekends in July and August, March is not too early.