The Beaches of South County
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.
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.