Island hopping may not be a term that readily comes to mind when you’re in Newport, Rhode Island. But Newport itself is on an island—Aquidneck—and Narragansett Bay is home to some 40 islands and islets. Whether you’re looking for a quiet oasis on the hook or a bustling harbor, something close aboard or a little more of a stretch, an island-hopping mindset will open up all kinds of possibilities for late summer boating in this part of the Northeast. Here are a few destinations to steer toward.
The most obvious first island hop from Newport is directly across East Passage to Conanicut Island, or Jamestown. The second-largest island in Narragansett Bay at just under 9.5 square miles, Conanicut has a long Native American and colonial history. Today, most people know it as the island they drive across on Route 138, with bridges connecting it to North Kingstown to the west and Newport to the east.
The whole island is the town of Jamestown, which is how locals refer to it. Whether you want to just hang out at anchor for an afternoon of swimming, wander around town and find a nice place to eat, visit some of the historic sites and parks, or find a beautiful overnight anchorage, all options are easily accessible. “Compared to Newport, it’s pretty quiet,” says Carol Newman Cronin, a sailor and author who has lived on Jamestown for 24 years. “We get some big yachts tying up, but it’s not like Newport. It’s easy to spend a nice day noodling around town.”
The town of Jamestown doesn’t own any moorings, says Harbormaster Mark Campbell, but three marinas on the east side provide transient moorings and launch service to visiting boaters: Jamestown Boat Yard, Clark Boat Yard & Marine Works, and
Conanicut Marine Services, the latter right downtown. From here, it’s a short walk to an ice cream shop, liquor store, hardware and grocery stores, and multiple restaurants, galleries and shops. Campbell says there’s really no convenient anchorage on the east side close to town, although the town does maintain several touch-and-go docks there. Cronin also notes that the east side can be pretty choppy.
On the much quieter west side—where the sunsets and darker night sky alone are worth the trip—Dutch Harbor, lying between the uninhabited, state-owned Dutch Island and Jamestown, provides a lovely overnight anchorage. A town-maintained touch-and-go dock is available for dinghy landings up to 30 minutes, although Campbell says on busy weekends that time gets cut much shorter. If you’d rather pick up a mooring, Dutch Harbor Boat Yard offers transient moorings and launch service. You can grab a bite at The Shack, or walk about a mile to downtown on the east side.
Campbell says there’s been talk for years of making Dutch Island a state park. For now, it’s tick-infested and impenetrable, but locals frequently anchor off its northwest side where a small spit of beach extends, and it’s legal to land as long as you stay below the high-water mark. Arguably the most popular day-trip spot is Mackerel Cove, a deep prong of water near the island’s south end, where the Mackerel Cove public beach is located. “It’s an open bay to the southwest, but it’s surprisingly good anchoring, even on a seabreeze day,” Cronin says. “So a lot of locals will go there and raft up—even though right now you’re not supposed to raft. It can get really crowded on summer weekends and kind of loud.”
Another local hangout is Potter Cove on the east side, just north of the Route 138 bridge to Newport. “That’s a nice lunch spot; just come in and drop the hook and go for a swim,” Cronin says. “And the water is warmer there than Mackerel Cove, which is open to the ocean.”
Just about 3 nautical miles north of Newport lies the southern tip of Prudence Island, and despite its proximity to the hustle and bustle, this is another world entirely. It puts out very little in the way of a welcome mat for the average boater, but if you’re fairly self-sufficient and up for a bit of adventure, some intriguing history, stunning beaches and miles of hiking through exceptional landscapes and ecosystems, Prudence should not be missed.
“The original name of the island was Chibachuweset, which means ‘a place apart,’ because it was, and it still is, fortunately,” says Shawen Williams, a member of the Prudence Conservancy board of directors whose great-grandfather in the 1870s helped develop a summer enclave called Prudence Park on the island’s western side. Today, many of the island’s approximately 75 year-round residents live there. Accessible only by ferry, nearly 80 percent of Prudence Island is now protected open space.
The third-largest island in Narragansett Bay, 9 miles long and 2 miles across at its widest, Prudence Island looks remarkably like a sperm whale whose massive head faces south toward Newport and whose tail flukes—comprised of the tip of Prudence and the off-lying Patience Island—rise across the bay from Bristol.
Along with nearby Patience, Hope and Dyer islands, Prudence is among the 4,453 acres of land and water that comprise the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Reserve—a research hub whose goal is the long-term protection of the Bay’s coastal and estuarine ecosystems. The reserve’s headquarters is on Prudence’s southern end, where visitors can tour the welcome center—although all of the reserve’s facilities remained closed due to Covid-19 as of early July. It’s also the only place where there’s a public bathroom.
There are no public or transient moorings around Prudence, nor are there any restaurants, marinas or facilities for visiting boaters. There are two small touch-and-go docks, says Portsmouth Harbormaster Bruce J. Celico. One is at Sandy Point, just south of the ferry dock at Homestead, which can fit a boat about 30 feet, but he cautions it’s “extremely difficult” to access at low tide; this is also the primary dock for police and fire response boats. However, if you can put ashore here, it’s a walk across the street to the museum maintained by the Prudence Island Historical & Preservation Society.
The second landing is known as the Rossi dock in Potter Cove on the island’s northeast section. Arguably the most popular spot for visiting boaters, Potter Cove is a lovely place to drop the hook for the day or an overnight and dinghy ashore. From here you can walk to the Rossi Farm and purchase fresh produce, meat and cheese. Boaters also anchor in the area between Patience and Prudence near Coggeshall and Sheep Pen coves, and just north of Prudence Park on the western side, where a nearly mile-long arc of sandy beach is a popular place for a swim.
Most of the island’s roads are dirt, and volunteers maintain nearly 15 miles of trails. Williams says the conservancy’s Facebook page provides constant trail status updates. As on most of the Bay’s islands, ticks and bugs are prevalent, so arm yourself. And although Covid-19 has put a damper on many annual events, there’s nearly always something happening here, from the Prudence Improvement Association’s Friday Night Bingo to the Prudence Island Beer Fest.
If you are island hopping beyond Narragansett Bay, the next obvious place to stop is Block Island, whose northern tip lies about 21 nautical miles south of Newport. From there, you choose whether to head to Old Harbor on the east side (where the ferry lands) or to the west side on Block Island Sound, where the Great Salt Pond offers much more room and services for visiting boat owners.
In summer, Block Island gets intensely crowded (the Salt Pond dinghy dock at New Harbor Boat Basin can be bumper-boat mayhem), but after Labor Day, things slow down, the crowds thin out and Block Island’s astonishing natural beauty takes on a particular light that is hard to replicate anywhere else.
One of the reasons this island is so popular among boaters is because it offers so much to do in a compact geography. Most galleries, shops and businesses are concentrated at Old Harbor, but a bike or scooter rental will quickly whisk you anywhere you want to go. Whether you’re in the mood for a Gatsby-esque cocktail on the expansive porch of a grand old hotel, or a mudslide and killer sunset from The Oar on the Great Salt Pond, there is an establishment to suit every taste. Likewise, it’s easy to drop the hook in the anchorage in the Great Salt Pond, enjoy one of the fresh pastries delivered each morning by boat from Aldo’s Bakery, and then dinghy over to one of the
island’s beaches (there are 21 miles of them).
Block Island is particularly special for boaters who enjoy birding, walking, biking and hiking. More than 40 percent of the island is preserved as open space in perpetuity, allowing for long views of meadows shimmering in the seabreeze, bordered by old stone farm walls. Twenty-eight miles of walking trails and greenways entwine throughout the island, and whether it’s the stunning cliffs of Clay Head Trail or the deep folds of Rodman’s Hollow, nature is wonderfully accessible here. As an Atlantic flyway stopover for multitudes of migrating songbirds, Block Island is internationally known as a birding hotspot, especially the 134-acre National Wildlife Refuge at its northern tip.
Another reason to slow down here is Eben Horton’s Glass Float Project. Since 2012, the Wakefield, Rhode Island, glass artist has been hiding 550 glass floats around the island every year. “I wanted to create a public art project that would bring people to the island and help them get out into the open spaces,” he says. The game is to find one and register it, but Horton says he doesn’t know how many have been found because some people don’t register them. “We do hide some very, very well.”
As of June 1, boaters visiting from states without shelter-in-place requirements were free to come onto the island, although Harbormaster Kate McConville still recommended that they check with local marinas first for any specific restrictions. Since the island gets crowded, it’s worthwhile to check for Covid-19 updates. In New Harbor (better known as the Great Salt Pond), the town maintains 90 moorings for transient boaters via VHF Channel 12. Three marinas also provide transient slips and services: Champlins Marina, Payne’s Dock and New Harbor Boat Basin.
Heading east from Newport across Rhode Island Sound brings you to the other big, obvious island—Martha’s Vineyard. For most boaters, the mention of this island immediately conjures up Edgartown or Vineyard Haven, with all of their megayacht kitsch and associated seeing-and-being-seen. But much closer to Newport—about 27 nautical miles, near the island’s western tip—lies Menemsha Harbor, where life is all about stunning sunsets, easygoing people and seafood so fresh it could’ve just been swimming.
Here, “crickers”—as locals of Menemsha Creek are called—know how rare of a gem this place is, and they are pleased to share with visitors who tie up and step out on Dutcher Dock to find themselves in the thick of a pocket-size New England fishing town that is working to keep that authenticity genuine.
“We’re a small, friendly, family-oriented harbor, and we put most of our focus on our commercial fishing fleet,” says Harbormaster Ryan Rossi. “We try to preserve our commercial fishing fleet as much as we can. There’s a lot of people who have been coming back to Menemsha for 20, 30 years, and they love it. This is definitely the quiet side of the island. You come and relax here, and you don’t worry about the traffic and the people.”
The harbor provides 17 transient slips for visiting boaters and a 120-foot dock for boats up to 55 feet, as well as a second fixed pier that can take up to three yachts of 80 feet. Just inside the harbor are two moorings usually reserved for sailboats; typically three boats raft on each mooring, but Covid-19 restrictions have reduced that to one mooring, one boat.
Outside and east of the jetties at the harbor entrance, right in front of the expansive Menemsha public beach, are eight moorings for boats up to 55 feet. These are well-sheltered from the dominant summer southerlies, but in any other wind direction they can be uncomfortable. Likewise, to the west of the jetty, boats can anchor in Menemsha Bight, but the same wind considerations apply. There’s no launch, but a dinghy dock behind the transient dock is available to mooring patrons.
Inquisitive visitors in shallower-draft boats can meander into Menemsha Pond, where there are multiple shellfish farms in operation and only limited daytime anchoring is allowed. But what people
really come here for are sunsets and seafood. Fancy restaurants are elsewhere, although The Galley serves good takeout from burgers and dogs to grilled swordfish sandwiches and homemade frappes (also known as milkshakes in other parts of the world). On Dutcher Dock you’ll find two excellent fish markets—Larsen’s and Menemsha Fish Market—where you can order the freshest seafood, either to cook onboard or for take-out while you watch the sunset. (Note, Menemsha is a dry town, so BYOB.)
With an endless view across the broad western expanse of Vineyard Sound, there are few finer places to watch the sun fall dramatically into the sea. And, while you do so, consider a snippet of the local ethos recently chalked onto the board outside the Menemsha Texaco. “Be kind, have patience, buy candy, it brings joy.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue.