Travel: Block Island, New England

Yacht anchored near Coast Guard station at Block Island, Rhode Island, shortly after sunrise. Picture: Getty Images
Yacht anchored near Coast Guard station at Block Island, Rhode Island, shortly after sunrise. Picture: Getty Images
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Lisa Young kicks back on a tiny retreat – after a curious immersive performance from actors and crew on her transatlantic flight

In the shape of a lamb chop sitting 12 miles off the Rhode Island shore, tiny Block Island measures just seven miles by three. A little like Brigadoon, it comes alive for the season in June and dies down in October, a place that hardly anyone knows about and a retreat from the world. If you are tired of your family constantly playing on gadgets or being glued to their mobile phones, Block Island is the perfect place to go cold turkey and get back in touch with all things natural.

Icelandair staff and actors sing to passengers on a flight from London to New York via Reykjavik. Picture: AP/Tim Ireland

Icelandair staff and actors sing to passengers on a flight from London to New York via Reykjavik. Picture: AP/Tim Ireland

There’s no ostentation about this tiny patch of land. People don’t show off their wealth; they are subtle and respectful, and a celebrity can go unnoticed, the opposite to the nearby Hamptons on Long Island. One example is actor Christopher Walken, who has a home here and is often seen around town.

After a brief stopover at the Millennium Hotel in New York, the two-hour train journey to Westerly Airport in Rhode Island, followed by a 12-minute flight across Block Island Sound to the island, made for a straightforward journey, unlike the surreal flight I had just experienced crossing the Atlantic Ocean with Icelandair.

To celebrate 80 years in aviation, Icelandair hosted an onboard immersive theatrical performance on my flight from London to New York, via Reykjavik, the first of its kind, involving airports, planes and passengers. The plan is to host performances in the skies to entertain passengers as part of a pioneering service called Icelandair Stopover Pass. Until March 2018, when on a stopover, passengers can transform their boarding pass into a free Icelandair Stopover Pass that grants them access to a range of performances starring Icelandair staff and Icelandic talent, such as a private gig in the front room of a local, exclusive access to a live lounge session in the airport, a seat at the chef’s table in Iceland’s Food and Fun Festival or backstage passes to meet an Icelandic band.

Our non-scripted immersive play was called Ahead Of Time, and was a one-off performance involving actors and crew, based on the history of the family behind Icelandair. The line between who was a passenger and who was acting was very blurred, with disbelief suspended at check-in where actors mingled with passengers and performed songs. During the flight, actors moved around the cabin, and I chatted to 1980s-based James Pyle, a volcanologist, and his journalist wife, Astrid, who was dressed in tweed and giggled a lot. Musicians Richie and Cynthia, a hippy-inspired duo, kept us entertained with a rendition of Love Me Do at 30,000 feet and when passengers became weary, a “real” pilot in 1950s uniform (not the one flying the plane) came to tell us bedtime stories.

I lost all perception of who was real and who was in character. In the end, I gave up being confused and played along, making things up as I went.

It certainly brightened up the dull airport process and the usually tedious hours in the air flew by. Let’s hope Icelandair’s performance went down well with the critics and is repeated.

Back on Block Island, I rose at dawn and took a walk to a beach not far from the quaint tiny cottage I’d been renting for the last few days. As I strolled along a narrow, rolling track between fields every shade of green lined by dry stone walls, past traditional houses with cedar wood tiled roofs and with the calming sea always in sight, a family of deer leapt across my path and a bright red cardinal bird sang loudly from a gnarled tree branch.

Bear in mind that little on the island is cheap because it is all imported from the mainland. So while car rental is available, it’s better to rent a bicycle or scooter. Similarly, grocers in the main town of New Shoreham are expensive, so plan ahead. Activities centre on beaches, fishing and exploring on scooter or bicycle, or following nature trails like Rodman’s Hollow to enjoy the rich migration of birds through Block Island, or wandering around the Southeast Lighthouse at Mohegan Bluffs for a view of America’s only offshore wind farm. Clam hunting requires determination but it’s a popular pastime and worth the effort to slurp on fresh sea food.

If clams are too tricky for you, the Oar restaurant serves sushi, salads and burgers, and a drink called Mud Slide – a local speciality made with Kahlúa, vodka and some form of dairy, enough of which will see you slide from your chair. There are no clubs, but many of the restaurants have bars that stay open late. Yellow Kittens and Club Soda are good haunts, and the family-run boutique, 1661 Inn, serves great breakfasts.

Beaches abound and the best for swimming can be found along the east coast – particularly the State, Scotch and Mansion wide, sandy beaches. More scenic examples are at the Bluffs on the west side, but the sea there is too rough for swimming.

My base on the island was at The Cottage, a two-acre private hilltop property with unspoilt views of the surrounding natural landscape, dry-stone walls and the sea. A 15-minute walk from the beach and Dorie’s and Gracie’s Cove beaches, it was purpose-built in 1947 as a family summer cottage. Now it is owned by Elizabeth Moss, a New York City-based historic preservationist with long-standing family ties to the island, who splits her time between here and Manhattan.

“Block Island forces me to relax,” she says. “People come here because of the beautiful setting and tranquillity. Those looking for fancy shops, parties, or to be entertained by gadgets that need high-speed internet will be disappointed. There’s nothing cutting-edge about the island and the mobile phone connection and internet access isn’t great, but ultimately this will change and we’ll join the modern age. We have to in order to compete in tourism.”

Come the summer season, the island becomes a tourist destination and cars, scooters and bicycles fill the roads, but there are still secluded spots to be found.

Block Island is one of the last boltholes where you can truly escape the technologies of modern living, so let this tiny island soothe and relax you in ways you never knew were possible.

FACT BOX

Icelandair offers passengers the chance of a stopover of up to seven days in Iceland en route to North America. For bookings or customer service contact 020 7874 1000. Return economy class flights to Reykjavik from Glasgow start from £160 including taxes and flights to NYC start from £387. www.icelandair.co.uk/stopover-pass

www.icelandair.co.uk

For The Cottage at 951 Dunn Town Road, West Side Island, contact www.birealty.com. Taxi service: (401) 466 5550.

Amtrak: www.amtrak.com/home. New England Airlines: www.blockislandsairline.com

New York City Pass: www.nycgo.com

Millennium Broadway New York Times Square (www.millenniumhotels.com/en/new-york/millennium-broadway-hotel-new-york)