The Beaches of South County
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.
I hear a different version of the same story at Ramblin’ Rose, a faded, last-rose-of-summer antiques place on Scenic Route 1A in Charlestown. “I’m a fourth-generation dealer,” says owner Rebecca Fargo, who’s been there for seven years, and rents out to five other dealers. Rebecca knows her beaches, and I hope she realizes I can’t keep a secret. “The best one around? Quonnie Beach and Picnic Rock,” she reveals. “Picnic Rock has been a destination since the turn of the last century.”
Although there are public access paths to Quonnie, finding the way there is a bit like looking for treasure without a compass or with a phony pirate’s map. So I take Rebecca at her word and continue meandering on. I’m deep in beach country. Beaches roll on ahead of me, endless waves of them. A few miles east of the area near Picnic Rock, I come to Ninigret Conservation Area, three uninterrupted, undeveloped miles of sand. On the other side of the parking lot is Ninigret Pond, the largest of nine salt ponds in southern Rhode Island, where saltwater mixes with fresh. It’s not only warmer than the ocean—it’s perfect for windsurfers and kids who teeter on its narrow strip of beach.
The land itself unfurls around me; winding side roads beckon. There’s nothing like knowing where you’re going and having no idea where you’re headed. I take a turn off Route 1 onto Route 1A, and just like that I spot The Fantastic Umbrella Factory. It’s an explosion of tie-dye, wind chimes, Buddhas, and Indian scarves. There’s a bamboo grove, ostriches and goats, a zillion tchotchkes, and garden paths that lean and list through overgrown arbors, with buildings scattered here and there like random thoughts.