Whether you seek isolation or bustle, waves or calm ripples, there’s a beach—and a beach town—for everyone in South County, Rhode Island.
It begins with the sea: spitting white foam out of bottle-green water, crashing and then curling like a fist around a spyglass. The horizon is a fine blue line, and rough gray clouds scud overhead.
I’m high in these clouds on the terrace at Ocean House, an ark of a hotel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. It’s an exquisite spit of land in the southwest corner of the state, jutting out like a seagull’s beak between Little Narragansett Bay to the northwest and Block Island Sound to the southeast. With my crow’s-nest view I can see both bodies of water—one brooding (the Bay), the other newborn (the Sound).
Below me is as pretty a beach as you’ll ever see: East Beach (not to be confused with South County’s other East Beach, farther along the coast, in Charlestown). And now a patch of silvery light shimmers in the distance. Boats with their tiny billowing sails skim the pitted, suddenly-slate-blue water. The mood is mercurial—light, dark, light.
Today I’m pursuing the arcing curve of a beach that stretches to the horizon, somewhere I can get lost in the beat of water and the warmth of grainy sand in this tiny state that asserts itself like a terrier, claiming the entire ocean in its moniker.
“South County is a state of mind,” says a woman I meet. “People are ferocious about it.” Among other things, South County seems to include a ferocious amount of real estate, starting halfway down the state in East Greenwich, snaking south to Narragansett, swinging around Point Judith all the way west to the villages of Westerly, and up again on the other side to Coventry—plus everything in between, depending on whom you talk to.
But I’m mostly interested in southernmost South County, where the land ends and the water begins, a less complicated endeavor. Its beaches unfurl left to right, an easy drive end to end, from Watch Hill to Point Judith, with dreamy names like Blue Shutters and Moonstone; indigenous names like Misquamicut and Weekapaug; rugged names like Charlestown Breachway and Salty Brine: beaches laid out like shells along the water’s edge.
Early in the morning on East Beach, the light pours in fast and furious, and it’s a short walk to the water down Everett Avenue, to the left of Ocean House. The roadside is thick with vines and tiny wild roses; the warm scent of salt and heat hangs in the air.
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.
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).
Just a bit farther along Boon Street and back over to Ocean Road is Narragansett Town Beach, where surfers bob in waves now tipped with specks of pink as the sun begins to set. I’ll walk down later to hear a bit of surf, curl my toes in the sand, feel the spray, and smell the salt.
Tomorrow, heading north toward home along Narragansett Bay, I’ll go through Wickford (a village of North Kingstown), with its elegant harbor, colorful kayakers, and lively shops. Maybe stop for a bite at Tavern by the Sea, overlooking the cove. Even the towns that aren’t directly on the south coast’s open ocean celebrate their access to the sea.
I’m tired and refreshed—good tired. The sea has renewed me; I’ve made some memories and found my own secret spots, folded into the sand dunes of South County. It’s a beginning. One day the nostalgia will begin to stir.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since most waterfront property in Rhode Island is privately owned those seeking to reach the shore without trespassing must rely on the many public access paths that dot the coast. A fine review of the many beaches and public access paths can be found in the publication “Public Access to the Rhode Island Coast.” The online version can be found at Access Guide