South County, Rhode Island | A Tale of Two Inns
New England has a long history of grand mountain and coastal hotel-havens for those desperate to escape the summer heat in the years before air conditioning, and for the handful that continue to welcome guests today (give or take a few minor-to-major renovations over the years), a visit can be not only a relaxing escape, but a fascinating peek into the past. I recently visited the town of Westerly in Rhode Island’s South County as the guest of sister-properties the Weekapaug Inn in Weekapaug and Ocean House in Watch Hill (both villages in Westerly), and was delighted to see two such historic properties thriving in a beautiful coastal New England setting.
But first, you might be wondering… “Just where is South County?” One of the Fodor’s guidebooks on Southern New England (the Yankee offices are overflowing with all manner and era of New England guide books) says “The area extending from Jamestown west to the Connecticut border and north to West Greenwich from the coast is helpfully referred to by Rhode Islanders as South County. Confused? Don’t worry. Just be grateful that practically any road within this mythical county leads to gloriously open spaces and pleasingly eccentric towns.”
And even in the off season, they’re right. First on my itinerary was the Weekapaug Inn.
Originally built in 1899, the Inn was a South County family favorite, owned and operated by the Buffum family for 108 years as a summer hotel. During that time it grew with multiple additions (and one memorable rebuild after the great Hurricane of 1938), earning a legion of loyal fans that returned year after year. Unfortunately, the reduced income from a short season of operation and the growing need for expensive renovations forced the family to close the Inn in 2007, but 3 years later, Weekapaug resident Lang Wheeler joined forces with nearby Watch Hill resident Chuck Royce to restore the Inn.
Renovations began with an emphasis on preserving the 1939 historic footprint and spirit of the building, while reconfiguring the space for modern “low-key luxury” convenience and comfort. It re-opened in October, 2012 with 27 guest rooms (fashioned from the inn’s original 67), plus 4 suites.
Calling their style “barefoot elegance,” the Weekapaug is both comfortable and casual, with a marked emphasis on “unplugging” and enjoying your stay the way the Inn’s original guests would have, with good food, outdoor activities, socializing with other guests, and relaxation. The rooms have intercoms rather than telephones, and unless you request one, your room will come without a TV, but stocked instead with snacks and binoculars for bird watching.
No two rooms are alike in either layout or furnishings, so I can’t say for sure if the other rooms had a fabulous clawfoot tub, but I was glad mine did! Another fun perk at the Weekapaug is the “guest pantry,” which was just a few steps down the hall from my room. Stocked 24/7 with complimentary sweet and salty snacks, plus a fridge full of water and soft drinks and a gourmet coffee machine, the pantry is convenient, but also encourages guests to say hello while grabbing a snack, establishing a friendly face that will be remembered later at dinner or heading to the beach.
Behind the inn is a salt pond, and even a dusting of snow–the scene was lovely. A local crew of Canada geese were also taking it in, and despite the gentle shooing of staff naturalist Mark Bullinger, they continued to mosey back as soon as his back was turned. Clever geese…
In the summer, Quonochontaug Pond behind the inn sparkles. Here’s an image of what you’d see today in the warmer months.
During my visit, however, the cold March wind made a short walk to the nearby Weekapaug Beach even speedier, but despite the chill, the beach was worth seeing. In the summer the short path is bordered with wild roses and the unblemished view is one that many credit with being among the best beach views in the state.
Inside, the inn continues its “unplug” offerings with rooms designed for sitting and chatting or reading, tables for chess, puzzles, and board games, plus shelves of books in the TV room off the bar/lounge area. Yes, there is a TV room, but by encouraging guests to share in their TV time, like watching a baseball game together, you’re still getting some of that good person-to-person interaction. In the warmer months, the list of activities naturally doubles to include paddleboarding, kayaking, fishing, weekly clambakes, and nature adventures.
As a history buff, I was also delighted when innkeeper Antonia Korosec pulled down an over-sized guest register from a shelf in the lobby and turned to a page from 1926. There, on August 11, a Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt (also known as Eleanor) from Hyde Park, NY registered for a visit along with “two boys.”
After a terrific dinner and a hot bath (never pass up a good tub!) I crawled into bed. As someone who frequently falls asleep with the television on I was tempted to reach for the remote, but picked up a book instead. It turns out that a good book, super soft linens, and a stash of in-room malted milk balls can compensate for a lack of late night TV.
The next morning after breakfast (complimentary with any stay), it was off to Ocean House, the inn’s sister property just a 10 minute drive away, and a Yankee Magazine “Best of New England” winner for “Best Victorian Makeover” in 2011.
One of the region’s most recognizable architectural landmarks, the original Ocean House was built in 1868 and became one of the top luxury coastal hotels of its time, offering generations of well-to-do families a place to summer in style. By the early 21st century, however, the hotel was both outdated and increasingly dangerous as strict building code and safety updates challenged the limits of the more than 130-year old structure, and it closed (seemingly for good) in 2003. Then, once again, Watch Hill resident Chuck Royce stepped in and bought the property, preventing the land from being developed into private homes, but unlike the Weekapaug Inn, the building’s original structure could not be saved. Determined to do the next best thing, Royce opted for a complete re-build with painstaking and meticulous attention to historic detail so the end result would look nearly identical to the beloved yellow original.
The cold weather kept our group from heading down to the beach, where the rear-view of the property is magnificent in the summer, so I’ll share an in-season image from Ocean House so you can get the full effect:
The re-built, all-season Ocean House has 49 rooms and 15 suites, and also offers a spa, indoor lap pool, fitness center, multiple dining options, golf, squash, croquet, and much more. For these reasons, plus its excellent and attentive staff, the Ocean House is the only Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond Hotel in Rhode Island, but equally impressive is the way the hotel has managed to hang onto its original aesthetic. Viewed from the outside, all of the resort’s 247 windows remain in their original positions, despite the massive interior updates. No easy feat!
Inside the hotel, art and history are everywhere–from the framed art on nearly every wall (some are permanent, others are part of temporary or seasonal exhibits) to the model boats to the glossy books–within arms reach of nearly every comfortable chair–celebrating the history of Watch Hill. More than 5,000 historic pieces were carefully preserved during the rebuilding process and re-introduced back into the design, like the stone fireplace in the main lobby. Before the demolition, each stone was carefully removed and numbered so the fireplace could be rebuilt exactly as it had been, and after the first attempt wasn’t quite right, they started over and did it again until it was perfect.
But of course, you first have to get past the views, which were stunning from nearly every window. Just like Weekapaug Beach, the water at Ocean Hill (a mostly private beach) was a beautiful shade of tropical blue-green unlike the Massachusetts and New Hampshire Atlantic I’m used to.
After being shown to a spacious room (where yet another tub, this one even deeper, awaited) I settled in before checking out OH!, the hotel’s award-winning spa, and the list of activities taking place that day. Many, like the fitness classes, casual food demonstrations and tastings, and guided tours of the property come with your room rate.
In Seasons, the hotel’s main restaurant, a large open kitchen also serves as a classroom for Food Forager Janice McEachen. We joined her at the “chefs’ counter” for a Farm + Vine class cheese tasting, including a great summary of each cheese and where it comes from. A passionate Rhode Islander and foodie, Janice knew her stuff and was a lot of fun to listen to.
After the cheese tasting, we made our way to the hotel’s members-only Club Room for the weekly Spirits 101 class. If you asked me to picture an exclusive luxury hotel club room, this is pretty much exactly what I would imagine.
At the bar, the knowledgeable and entertaining Head Bartender Dean Gardiner dedicated our class to vodka, including wee sips of a few different kinds to show how different the taste and “jolt” can vary from brand to brand. After the lesson he prepared one of his favorite signature vodka cocktails for us — the Cu Cu Martini, a refreshing combination of vodka, lime juice, simple syrup, and muddled cucumber.
After another delicious dinner (the service at Ocean House is impeccable), hot bath (again with more of those malted milk balls), and the kind of deep sleep only a good hotel bed can deliver, it was time to head back home to New Hampshire and leave the good life behind.
Driving through the village of Watch Hill on my way home, past the shops and carousel that come alive each summer, I already know I want to make a return trip to South County later on in the year so I can also experience the smaller charms of ice cream cones and summer sunsets on the beach. And if I want to escalate my visit to include an elegant dinner or pampered overnight, I know I won’t have to look any further than Westerly.