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The Beaches of South County

The Beaches of South County
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Photo Credit: Nat Rea

Whether you seek isolation or bustle, waves or calm ripples, there’s a beach—and a beach town—for everyone in this pocket of the Ocean State.

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.

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