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The Beaches of South County

The Beaches of South County
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It begins with the sea: spitting white foam out of bottle-green water, crashing and then curling like a fist around a spyglass. The horizon is a fine blue line, and rough gray clouds scud overhead.

I’m high in these clouds on the terrace at Ocean House, an ark of a hotel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. It’s an exquisite spit of land in the southwest corner of the state, jutting out like a seagull’s beak between Little Narragansett Bay to the northwest and Block Island Sound to the southeast. With my crow’s-nest view I can see both bodies of water–one brooding (the Bay), the other newborn (the Sound).

Below me is as pretty a beach as you’ll ever see: East Beach (not to be confused with South County’s other East Beach, farther along the coast, in Charlestown). And now a patch of silvery light shimmers in the distance. Boats with their tiny billowing sails skim the pitted, suddenly-slate-blue water. The mood is mercurial–light, dark, light.

Today I’m pursuing the arcing curve of a beach that stretches to the horizon, somewhere I can get lost in the beat of water and the warmth of grainy sand in this tiny state that asserts itself like a terrier, claiming the entire ocean in its moniker.

“South County is a state of mind,” says a woman I meet. “People are ferocious about it.” Among other things, South County seems to include a ferocious amount of real estate, starting halfway down the state in East Greenwich, snaking south to Narragansett, swinging around Point Judith all the way west to the villages of Westerly, and up again on the other side to Coventry–plus everything in between, depending on whom you talk to.

But I’m mostly interested in southernmost South County, where the land ends and the water begins, a less complicated endeavor. Its beaches unfurl left to right, an easy drive end to end, from Watch Hill to Point Judith, with dreamy names like Blue Shutters and Moonstone; indigenous names like Misquamicut and Weekapaug; rugged names like Charlestown Breachway and Salty Brine: beaches laid out like shells along the water’s edge.

Early in the morning on East Beach, the light pours in fast and furious, and it’s a short walk to the water down Everett Avenue, to the left of Ocean House. The roadside is thick with vines and tiny wild roses; the warm scent of salt and heat hangs in the air.

Down where the salmon-pink sand is ruffled by cool water, the waves are slamming into three young men tossing a football in the shadow of grand old summer homes, fading gray like driftwood. A cluster of white cabana tents seems dropped here from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. And in that spirit, lunch under an umbrella on the seaside terrace at Ocean House is a step back in time. The original hotel, which opened in 1868, defined Watch Hill for decades; even recently as its luster declined, local kids came for blueberry pancakes with their grandfathers. This astounding replica–built by local financier Charles M. Royce and opened in 2010, with bits and pieces of the old hotel inserted carefully to the tune of $147 million–sets a high bar for elegance, with expansive views of the sea. Kick back on the dining terrace, gaze at the beach, drink in the view to Montauk, and get a taste of Fitzgerald’s Roaring ’20s life.

Strolling over to Watch Hill’s miniscule downtown, it’s a fun mix of upscale shopping and boardwalk kitsch; you can spin on one of the oldest carousels in the country, with its herd of delicate flying horses, or sample what one native promised is the “best ice cream on the face of the planet” at St. Clair Annex.

But the real treasure on this side of town is Napatree Point Conservation Area, spoken of softly as an insider’s favorite. One of the most beautiful and least crowded beach spots in Rhode Island, it’s 1.5 miles of curving coastline, with skinny paths leading off through dune grass, luring hikers and birdwatchers. History buffs, too: The ruins of Fort Mansfield date to the early 1900s, all that’s left of a fortification that once protected Long Island Sound and New York City.

Under the afternoon sun, I drive 3.5 miles east to Misquamicut Beach (with state and town sections) and find still another world, with children trailing beach towels like heroes’ capes as they run after the gulls. A pod of toddlers in bright swimsuits crawl through heaps of fluorescent-green seaweed; farther down the beach, a little girl in lime-green shorts staggers under an armload of the stuff, the tips of her blonde hair damp with salt and spray.

Here I find Lenny from Norwich, Connecticut, a treasure seeker with some miles on him. Lenny comes to this beach regularly, sweeping his metal detector back and forth across the sand, tireless as the waves. “When you drop something in the sand, it’s gone,” he says, and it sounds like some deeper truth. “You dig for it, you think it’s right there, and it just sinks deeper and deeper.” Last year he dug up a $2,000 ring. If you lose something precious at Misquamicut, put out the word and look for Lenny.

That night, on Westerly’s far southern outskirts, at the Shelter Harbor Inn, a breezy 19th-century converted farmhouse, it’s a different kind of water experience, not without its own charm. From the rooftop hot tub, there’s a view of Block Island over the treetops. And although the inn’s not on the beach, the morning walk to the end of Wagner Road (you’ll find Bach and Verdi, as well–it was a former musicians’ colony) dead-ends in a peaceful view over Shelter Harbor.

Best of all, a short ride (or shuttle) away, the inn has private beach rights to a breathtakingly broad two-mile stunner, part of the larger Weekapaug Beach. A high hedge of beach roses points the way to the water’s edge. Apart from a few large shingled houses off to the right, the land is empty, all grass and sky. “Prettiest beach in the state,” says a tanned, athletic blond who’s packing up to leave.

Updated Monday, June 20th, 2011

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