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The Beaches of South County

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.

Then there’s Esther M. Harris. Esther is a collector, with a half-million eyeglasses, from Dior and Jean Patou to Ray-Bans, aviators, and rhinestones, packed into her tiny Vintage Eyewear shop. “I was a lifesaving chef,” she informs me: someone who knows all about allergies and comes up with menus. But now, with her eyes on eyewear, Esther offers visionary couture that embraces seemingly every designer on the planet. She’s even got the original originals—a pair of sterling specs from the 1770s for $2,500.

“Rhode Island is like the Hamptons in the ’50s,” she opines. Perhaps, but she’s right about this: The Fantastic Umbrella Factory is a great option “for people who don’t do the beach. And it’s also what people do on rainy days.” You heard it from Esther.

I enter Charlestown Breachway in a misty rain. Boats move purposefully back and forth between Ninigret Pond and the Atlantic. Rocks are lined with fishermen because that’s the order of business here: catching fish, talking fish, outsmarting fish. Bring your self-contained RV and you can stay for up to seven days at one of 75 sites in the state park here. “But it’s not only fishermen who come here,” says park manager Gary Barker. “Some are just people who like the beach.”

In fact, from this point on, beachgoers and fishing folk often appear side by side. Whether at Narrangansett’s Camp Cronin Fishing Area, where boulders snake out into the water, or at stony Point Judith, where they cast over the bones of old ships to the honk of an 1850s lighthouse, or along Ocean Road, I’m surrounded by men and the occasional woman pitting their skills against scup and especially striped bass.

Leaving Point Judith on the way north along Narragansett’s shores, I stop at expansive Scarborough State Beach, where generations of sand seekers have piled up memories on a mile-long stretch, measured jetty to jetty. It’s backed up by parking lots, pavilions, and picnic spots, with a stretched-out Atlantic City feel.

“Summer weekends you can’t see sand,” boasts a young lifeguard, pushing back his orange cap. That makes Scarborough the place to see and be seen, plus a good spot to bring the kids, who’ll find plenty of playmates skittering along the water’s edge like sandpipers.

Beach glass from Scarborough goes into a paper cup with all the other bits of debris I’ve collected, memories mingling together in a jumble of sea glass, broken shells, and flecks of dried pink seaweed. Tonight they sit on the mantel in my room at The Richards B&B, which is within walking distance of the main town beach in Narragansett.

Technically this place is called “Druidsdream,” and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1884 by Joseph Peace Hazard, the local Bill Gates of that time and place. “I named the lot ‘Druidsdream,'” he once wrote, “and intend to have that name inscribed upon the stone caps of the front door of this house.”

Inscribed it is, in granite, but the dream carries through in Nancy Richards’ gardens and the property’s hidden paths. Arborvitae and ‘Wolf Eyes’ dogwood, and surely the elementals, gather here for midsummer nights’ dreams. Enchantment lingers with an evening stroll down one of the Richardses’ garden paths, through a wet tunnel of green, across Ocean Road to a world of boulders on the water, some flat, some sculpted, dotted with fishermen and boys, casting into a rough sea.

This crazy mix of beaches and sand and stone is enough to lull the most overwrought 21st-century sensibility. There’s nothing left to do now but stroll to Crazy Burger, where giant umbrellas, twinkling lights, latticework, and a heavy, humid breeze convince me that I’m somewhere in the tropics (albeit somewhere the waitress says The Food Network has recently discovered).

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Monday, June 20th, 2011

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