The alarm went off at 6 a.m. An island was waiting.
The journey began on two wheels through deserted downtown streets.
Martin Torresquintero (pictured astride his mountain bike), New Haven city government’s official outdoor adventure coordinator, led the way. He runs a little-known service of the city’s park department: To help New Haveners, especially those who don’t have cars, explore the world through athletic expeditions.
The trip began at State Street Station, downtown’s lesser-used train station, which opened in 2002 between Chapel and Court streets to connect commuters to shoreline towns.
As we pedaled downtown at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, the lanes were free from weekday honking. There was hardly a car in sight.
Torresquintero stood at the top of the station steps wearing a hot neon green windbreaker. As we waited for riders to assemble, he handed out maps, which he had photocopied, in color. On the pavement, he laid out a sequence of snacks: Individually wrapped servings of Cheez-Its, Cliff Bars, mini-Milky Ways, Nature Valley Oats and Honey granola bars, sugary “fruit snacks” shaped like tiny fruits, and Kirkland “Real Sliced Fruit” made of dried apples, bananas and strawberries.
One of each snack per person, Torresquintero announced.
He led the group over the pedestrian walkway, down the stairs to the eastbound Shoreline East track. The 7 a.m. train was pretty empty. The train crew members flipped up two rows of seats to make ample room for our bikes, which they let on board at no extra cost.
On the train, conductors collected the fare: $9 per person. (There’s no ticket booth at State Street Station, so you pay on the train, cash only.) Torresquintero also collected a modest fee: $10 for each New Havener on the trip. That gets you a full day of Torresquintero tour-guiding, free maps, a fountain of technical knowledge about bikes, and, of course, the snacks.
Our group turned out to be pretty small, just a half-dozen riders, so Torresquintero lifted the per-person cap on snacks and began doling out more granola bars. He said he had announced the trip on the parks department website, on its Facebook page, and through Trailblazer and Elm City Cycling announcement boards. He also sent emails to the Independent and the Register and to all city employees.
As the train rolled past lush marshland, with glimpses of the Long Island Sound, our guide brimmed with enthusiasm for the day’s adventure. Torresquintero, who’s 48, originally from Colombia, confessed he keeps seven bicycles at his home in Fair Haven on the Quinnipiac River, and one at the parks department office on Edgewood Avenue. On Saturday he brought along an old Trek 970 mountain bike, which he didn’t mind scuffing up in the sand.
Though not many people know about them, Torresquintero runs these trips quite frequently. Some are close by: He takes people kayaking in the Mill River and at Lighthouse Point. Others are farther afield: In winter, he drives a bus up to Mount Southington to take people to ski. Upcoming bicycle trips include: Oct. 5 on the Airline Trail; Nov. 2 on the Farmington River Trail; and Nov. 16 in Essex and Old Saybrook. He said the goal is to make outdoor excursions accessible for New Haveners, especially those who don’t have cars. The city even rents out bikes and helmets to those who don’t have them.
After one hour, the train stopped at the end of the line, New London. The train lets off in the heart of downtown, which—unlike in New Haven—is right next to the harbor’s edge.
We rolled off the train platform, across a parking lot, and got right in line for the next mode of transit: An 8:30 a.m. high-speed catamaran called the Jessica W. Tickets cost $65 round-trip, including a fee for bikes.
We sat on the top deck and watched the mainland recede. Torresquintero checked his phone for the weather update: Clear skies ahead, with a light breeze from the northeast.
On the ferry, the mood was jubilant. A couple of newlyweds brought a boombox that was sewn into a bright green beer cooler. They turned it on and danced to The Stones.
After an hour and a quarter, the ride ended.
At 9:45, just two-and-a-three-quarters hours after we left State Street, we arrived at our destination: Block Island!
Torresquintero (pictured) turned on a blinking taillight, donned a bright green helmet with rearview mirror, and led a tour around the island, which measures just 10 square miles.
The first stop, a modern brick lighthouse, revealed the first sweeping views of the Atlantic. Block Island, which is part of the great state of Rhode Island, sits 13 miles off the coast. At the scenic viewpoint, we ran into two women wearing New Haven Ski Club bicycle jerseys. They turned out to be from West Haven. Torresquintero offered them some of our extra snacks.
Shortly after the grand tour began, we realized that one of the bikes had very deflated tires. Torresquintero jumped into action with a handheld pump and a CO cartridge. Rui Vitorino, an avid cyclist who works part-time for the outdoor adventure program, measured the pressure with his gauge. They resuscitated the tires in no time.
Next stop: Bluffs Beach, reachable by a grand staircase of 144 steps. The newlyweds from the ferry greeted us at the top, toasting all visitors with a foamy Corona.
The steps revealed a wide beach with real Atlantic waves, the kind you only get when you escape from the shelter of the Long Island Sound. A few people braved the water.
Torresquintero scampered quickly back up the 144 steps, which seemed to multiply on the upclimb. We cruised past shoreline views, into an inner loop of farmland. The sky became blue. We pulled over at a farm stand, which was selling pumpkins and tomatoes on an honor system.
The newlyweds appeared again on a moped, with their beer-cooler-boombox balanced on the back. They asked Torresquintero for directions. He cheerfully got out his map.
The 10-mile tour stopped at Payne’s Donuts, where Torresquintero recommended a regional treat, Del’s frozen lemonade. From there, the group split up: Torresquintero continued a rigorous biking loop up to a labyrinth and another lighthouse. I hit the beach with a few friends for a final summer swim.
Torresquintero bid farewell and pointed the way to a quiet stretch of sand out of the reach of mopeds and tour buses.
No one was there.
The water was delightful.
Torresquintero led a group back to New Haven on the 4:55 p.m. ferry, which connected quite smoothly to the 6:35 p.m. train home to New Haven, arriving on State Street at 7:35.
We lingered on the island for the night, returning on the 10:05 a.m. ferry. On the weekends, Shoreline East runs only seven trains per day back to New Haven from New London. So we had a few hours to wander through The Whaling City before making the connection.
That was plenty of time for a sunny stroll through historic Starr Street, where gospel tunes spilled out from the Apostolic Cathedral of Hope, past former factory homes rescued from demolition in the 1970s; up a hill to the state courthouse, which was moved to higher ground after Benedict Arnold ditched the American Revolution and led the Brits to raid and burn New London in 1781.
Plenty of time to browse The Telegraph record shop and the Monte Cristo book shop—which just opened at 38 Green St., in defiance of modern times. Bookshop owner Chris Jones said before he opened up in July, New London hadn’t had a bookstore for 30 years.
Shortly after 2 p.m., we found our way to the “riverside track” at New London Union Station.
Bold red letters on the train assured us we were heading the right way: Home to New Haven, bikes on board.