Water is at the heart of Wickford, Rhode Island, where you’ll shop to the tune of gulls, take your morning coffee within sight of swans, and find the harbor a constant companion.
By Annie Graves
Feb 05 2018
Blue skies make a perfect day for sailing out of Wickford Harbor.Photo Credit : Julie Bidwell
Wickford Village can seem like an island. Streets uncoil like rope, with sea captains’ houses leaning back from the sidewalks and antique homes clotting the village. There are water views in all directions, even in the slivers between buildings. The name itself feels old, opening a portal. Maybe John Updike, whose distant relative (another John Updike) had a house on Pleasant Street, based The Witches of Eastwick on this shimmering little divot in Narragansett Bay; maybe he didn’t. But it’s easy enough to picture something ancient unfolding in the shadows of so many clapboarded relics of the 18th century.
It’s a safe harbor, buffered by the land, spliced through with a busy Main Street that’s been called “One of America’s 10 Best.” Shade trees line up like spectators at a parade, overhanging rose-brick storefronts. Dogs amble the sidewalks with people in tow, and it’s impossible to stroll without stooping to pet something. Just 25 minutes from the bustle of Providence and Newport, but with a sensibility that still celebrates men like Remington Straight and Jabez Bullock. Their nameplates, fixed on historic houses, remind us that we, too, are merely walkers through history.
Wickford attracts “people whose hobby and love is restoring houses,” says Sue Macy, a Main Street resident, who with her husband, Bill, restored their first Wickford house 42 years ago.
Wickford suggests candlewicks and dim lamplight, pewter dishes and brick ovens. An Updike ancestor, Lodowick Updike, plotted out the town in 1709. Revolutionary War–era houses still stand, wavy glass facing a harbor where sailboats dock in place of tall ships. Daytrippers can sail into town, tie up for a few hours, and sniff out the bones of history, following the tributaries of wobbly little streets as they run, inevitably, back to the sea. For water is at the heart of Wickford, where you’ll cross paths daily with the harbor, shop to the tune of gulls, and take your morning coffee within sight of swans.
Three streets bunch together like a fist at the center of town, before reaching toward water. Main Street leads to Gardner’s Wharf Seafood Market, where stacks of crusted traps wait for work. Brown Street follows the harbor, with access to the Town Dock and restaurants that straddle the view. West Main Street (Scenic 1A) curves past salt marshes. Elsewhere, Pleasant Street ends in a boat launch, and bright kayaks dart like minnows escaping from the Kayak Centre on Phillips Street. Some call it “Nantucket at a fraction of the cost.” Hard to believe that Route 1, lined with shopping plazas, is just minutes away—handy, but out of sight.
With one of the densest collections of 18th-century houses in New England, it’s easy to fall hard for a historic home. Buyers from Connecticut and New York consider Wickford’s waterfront a relative steal, although demand is on the rise, said agent Ginny Gorman of Phillips Post Road Realty in North Kingstown at the time of our visit.
“A Wickford home buyer looking to pick up a deal at $400,000 can be a possibility if the timing is right,” Gorman says. “There’s no fixed range; it’s house-dependent.” That said, she zeroes in on a prime favorite location: “The historic side streets from Bay to Washington, and Pleasant to Esmond Avenue, are all lined with historic homes. I call them my Fabergé egg collection, because the colors of the paints can mesmerize you.”
Walking, in fact (preferably with a dog), seems to be a direct route to Wickford’s social scene. “In a five-minute walk, you meet everyone,” agrees Sue Macy, as we turn onto Bay Street, accompanied by her two friendly dachshunds. And just like that, we bump into Willem and Kathleen van Rijn (he’s the former COO of Greenpeace), who took two years to bring back “Old Yellow,” a chunky 1735 Colonial that’s the oldest house in the village. “There are two defining moments in renovating,” Willem says. “The first is when you ask, ‘What have we done?’ The second is when you say, ‘To hell with the budget.’” These two “fell in love with Wickford because it’s a community.”
Clearly, historic preservation is another fast track to fitting in, bolstered by groups like HistWick and Historic North Kingstown. And the arts get a big boost from the 400-member-strong Wickford Art Association, host of the annual summer Wickford Art Festival, when artwork literally pours onto the streets.
Spyglasses won’t see prettier views. The Beach Rose Café sits on the harbor, its beamy deck perfect for breakfast or lunch. Directly across the street, green umbrellas speckle the deck at Tavern by the Sea, and dogs wait patiently for fumbled pizza. For a special night out, though, don’t forget Thames Street in nearby Newport, or Federal Hill in Providence—almost like a trip to Italy.
Could You Shop Here?
Sunlight bounces off old brick and a string of pretty shops, mostly clustered on Main and Brown streets. For a compact downtown, there’s a lot of variety. In short order, you’ll find a drugstore, dog treats (of course), ’60s nostalgia, kitchen goods, organic mattresses, spiritual answers, garden salvage, antiques, and enough decorating inspiration to complete your new Wickford cottage. There’s no grocery store in town, but locally owned Dave’s Marketplace is minutes away on Route 1.
Getting out on the water is a way of life. Having a boat, any boat, will let you fit in right away. “If not a sailboat, at least a kayak,” says Macy, who gave up the former for the latter. Visiting paddlers can test the waters at The Kayak Centre in the village. The harbor also serves as a backdrop for seasonal events, like Wickford in Bloom, and December’s Festival of Lights. If you’re hankering for a swim, North Kingstown Town Beach is an easy walk from the village center, down Beach Street, where arts, senior, and community centers overlook the water.
Getting Your Bearings
Wickford is a village in the town of North Kingstown, but the addresses are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing. If you’re using a GPS, “55 Brown Street” brings you to the center of Wickford Village.
This feature originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Yankee.