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Rhode Island's Secret Coast

Boats at the Newport Harbor in Rhode Island.

Photo: Emiliano Granado

Each one of the million of us who live in little old Rhode Island has our own cherished idea of what makes this place enchanting. For me, it is the coastline that has always cast a spell. Rhode Island’s shore is by turns rocky and forbidding, with towering red granite cliffs tumbling wildly into the crashing Atlantic surf, or placid and lulling, the cattails of the marshes whispering softly in the gentle breezes of sheltered inlets.

What Rhode Island lacks in landmass it more than makes up for in shoreline: 400 miles of it, to be precise. I have spent decades exploring it, but no matter how often I mosey along Route 1, something always catches me by surprise, leaving me thrilled, stunned, or mystified. I turn inland, only to find myself eager to get back to the sea as soon as possible.

It is easy to completely skip Rhode Island’s coast; if you take the fast route from New York City to Providence on I-95, you cut right through the state. That’s fine: we’ve got quite enough going on without more cars clogging up Route 1, thank you very much. But you’ll miss out on all the wonderfully eccentric, elegant, and kitschy attractions scattered along the shore. There’s a sort of time travel at work as you pass through parts of the coastline that have remained unchanged for centuries, parts that feel like a throwback to the 1930’s, and still others that arrived yesterday—and feel like tomorrow.

I started vacationing in Rhode Island more than 25 years ago. As a child I had visited old family friends in Little Compton, but then forgot about the place; just like the gentle fogs that drift across its meadows and ponds, time covered over my memories. But when I returned as an adult, arriving on the East Coast after several years of living in Texas, I had an instantaneous sense of recognition—the sound of the surf; the smell of mowed grass under a hot sun; the feel of morning fog on my skin; the intense cold of the silky salt water. Little Compton is one of those rare childhood places that doesn’t look smaller when you return. It looms larger than memory.

I nestled in, first in a series of rentals and then, finally, in my own home, perched at the edge of a marsh pond, just behind a barrier beach. The pond is an important watering hole on the migratory path of the thousands of birds who wouldn’t dream of taking a shortcut and missing the spectacular red cliffs, glowing in the sunset, for which the state was named (Roode Eylant in Dutch, or red island).

Sakonnet, the area in Little Compton where I live, is on a peninsula, the end of the road. Little Compton is one of the last towns on the border of Rhode Island; I like to tell my children that I’m going to the beach to swim to Massachusetts, which is where you end up if you freestyle your way east.

It used to be, a mere five years ago, that there wasn’t much to draw the casual visitor to Sakonnet. You had to get on a closely held list to rent a house, and to commit to at least a month. The beach club and golf club are private, with impossibly long waiting lists for memberships. Once you start making friends, which takes a long time, you realize that everyone is related. The area is lively in summer, quiet and isolated in winter. Some might say bleak. I do. But that can be romantic.

Summer society is changing. Sakonnet rentals can now be had for a week. The public beach, a beautiful, sandy stretch, is impossibly crowded by midday on sunny weekends. There’s also a fancy new hotel in Little Compton. It has been controversial; we don’t like even a whiff of pretension, and the Stone House opened with a veritable bouquet of attitudes—valet parking; hovering and anxious waiters; four different kinds of salt on the table; a menu that was dedicated, with much flowery language, to the farmers and foragers of the area. However, that’s calmed down, and so have the room rates. You can easily visit for a few days, wander down to a lovely, quiet sliver of beach tucked between the rocks, eat delicious food in the restaurant, and even get spa treatments (gasp!).

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