Rhode Island's Secret Coast
Published: July 2011
By Dominique Browning
T+L wends through the small towns, quiet beaches, historic sites, and stylish hotels that make up Rhode Island’s secret coast.
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!).
I begin my tour of the coast by heading away from the water and into town. The main road, Route 77, takes me past grazing cows, meadows tumbling into the Sakonnet River and countless old swamp maples. Little Compton had a long reputation as an artists’ colony in the middle of the last century. I still see bands of plein air painters every summer, stationed in cow pastures overlooking the river, or on the beach, trying to capture waves crashing against boulders. On the walls of the unassuming Little Compton library hangs a surprising trove of paintings by the incomparable Molly Luce, who painted scenes all over Sakonnet from the 1930’s on and was once called “the American Breughel” by a New York art critic.
Any visit to Little Compton Commons should include a lobster roll at Commons Lunch and a trip to the ancient graveyard, where someone is always taking a rubbing off a fine headstone. I also love the feel of the historic Wilbor House, part of which dates from 1690; it is filled with historical furnishings. When I wander through its rooms, I am overcome by a sense of the quality of 17th-century daily life under those low ceilings, the milky light coming in through small panes of glass, embers glowing in the hearth well into the cool summer nights.
Just 10 minutes up the road lies the historic town of Tiverton Four Corners, which has been around nearly as long as Plymouth Colony. Painters continue to be drawn to the lambent light here, even if affordable real estate is harder to find. But the tradition of unpretentious galleries thrives, and a small cluster of shops, among the best in the state, feature charming artisanal work.
I have become a bit of a weaving nut. (Does it go with a love of granola?) There’s something about rich texture, odd colors, and the knowledge that every string of warp and weft was knotted into place by an artist’s hand. Amy Lund creates gorgeous, nubbly woolen blankets and throws, and smart linen tea towels, place mats, and napkins on huge looms right in her shop. Down the street, Tiffany Peay makes exquisite, delicately wrought gold jewelry with pearls and gemstones, perfect for catching the soft evening light at the beach, while the potters at Roseberry-Winn Pottery produce low-relief patterned vases, tiles, and lamps in soft jewel tones. And designer Anne Page at Nankeen makes unusual and handsome hand-printed indigo cotton bags and fabrics—everything is blue and white, and feels just right by the sea.
There’s also wonderful pastry at Provender and cheese and all the fixings for a picnic across the street at Milk & Honey Bazaar. Gray’s Ice Cream is one of the few independent ice cream makers left in a state that used to be full of dairies; it has been operating since 1922. I have a fond memory of standing in a long summer line with my small sons, watching the cows chew their cud out back, explaining to them where milk comes from, and watching the horror on their faces as they made the connection to their ice cream cones. It didn’t stop them, though.
Next stop is Aquidneck Island; no one can claim to have explored the coast without a stay in Newport. In high summer, the city is jammed with visitors to the justifiably famous mansions, the “summer cottages” of the nouveaux riches at the turn of the 19th century. If, like Henry James, you find such extravagant heaps “grotesque,” you can make short work of Newport.
But you’d be making a mistake. Who can resist a visit to Marble House, where Alva Vanderbilt appeared as the Empress of China at a lavish costume party in her (real) gold ballroom?
My favorite of the mansions, and probably the least well-known among them, is Kingscote, a wooden Gothic Revival completed in 1841. It has an extensive collection of early Rhode Island furniture. The Elms, completed in 1901, is interesting for its wine cellar, coal tunnel, and servants’ quarters. The back quarters are always fascinating in large houses, because of questions that spring to mind: How did they ever take care of a place this size? Who did the cooking? The ironing of all those starched napkins?
Beyond the mansions, there’s the handsome Touro Synagogue, the oldest house of Jewish worship in America, which broke ground in 1759. (Jews and Quakers were among the earliest settlers in the religiously tolerant colony.) Some claim that its elegant lines influenced Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The Palladian-style Redwood Library & Athenaeum, with a priceless collection of rare books and early American paintings, is the oldest lending library in continuous service in the United States. Henry James was a frequent visitor, no doubt taking respite from the frenzied gaiety of the cottage crowd.
I cross over Narragansett Bay, the second largest estuary on the East Coast, to head into Jamestown, a sailor’s dream if there ever were one. No one would mistake Jamestown for a shopper’s paradise, but I linger in the Conanicut Marine shop; like hardware stores, marine supply shops have infinite appeal, particularly if you do not own a sailboat and are in no danger of doing so. The windows are covered with pictures of yachts for sale; there is an excellent selection of boat shoes and sun hats, and I’m sure the creative DIY types find infinite uses for the colorful ropes and floats. Jamestown has managed to avoid the cuteness that mars Newport—perhaps because, for many years, there was no bridge connecting it to the island. Sadly, though, a plague of McMansions has befallen every coastal town. Old-timers simply avert their eyes, muttering about who needs so much space, what about the heating bills, and do residents phone each other to make plans to meet in the kitchen?
Several years ago, farmers in Rhode Island were having trouble selling their wool; they joined together, along with the farmers at Watson, a 265-acre working farmstead just outside town, to produce blankets made entirely from local—and undyed—fleece. They call their business Rhody Warm. (If you notice a wool theme here, I must gently remind you we spend much of winter huddled under blankets here.) Watson Farm sells the blankets, woven in a new pattern every year, as well as thick, beautiful, undyed yarns in soft gray and taupe tones.
Leaving Jamestown by the bridge, I catch funky Route 1A to drive along the coast to the town of Narragansett. Here, again, I must avert my eyes; enormous and ugly condo and shopping complexes are crowded around the Narragansett Pier area. I admire what’s left of the Stanford White–designed Towers Casino from 1883; most of it burned down in 1900, but the big stone towers and an arch were saved. And I drive on. There are intriguing glimpses of older mansions from a more genteel age, their lawns spilling down to the sea.
Things get livelier in Galilee; it is crowded and kitschy and fun. There’s Iggy’s Doughboys & Chowder House, serving a great fish-and-chips, and all manner of clam shacks. (If you can, read John Casey’s superb novel Spartina before you make this road trip. It gives a vivid picture of how dangerous life was for working fishermen around Point Judith, and how fiercely determined they were to hold on to their old ways.)
Then I keep hugging the coast, taking all roads off Route 1, including 1A and the Matunuck School House Road. This is the only way to stumble upon some of the weirder manifestations of little old Rhode Island’s famousness, including the Worm Ladies of Charleston, who have occasional open houses to teach people how to create a worm bin and make worm tea for fertilizer.
In all the years I have made this drive, it wasn’t until last summer that I finally found the famous (and at one time, infamous) hippie hangout the Umbrella Factory Gardens, tucked in a bit east of Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. The Umbrella Factory is a series of shops set in a 19th-century farmyard, but with a decidedly 1960’s feel. I have to confess to a soft spot for this head shop, crammed with silver earrings, vintage clothing, Indian bedspreads, and the best collection of vintage eyeglasses I have ever seen. The weirder the better, as far as I’m concerned. The garden shop features an astonishing assortment of plants, including, drum roll, please, patchouli, which is a tender thing, but I managed to coax mine through the fall, and enjoyed rubbing its fragrant leaves and having Proustian moments that involved beaded headbands and fringed boots.
And skinny-dipping. A little further on is Moonstone Beach, which my sister, who escaped Brown as often as she could, told me was a nude beach favored by students. Today the long, sandy stretch is accompanied by signs reminding visitors that this is a family friendly beach where there is to be no nudity. Still, it’s worth the walk.
Onward to Watch Hill, the last coastal town in Rhode Island before crossing the state border into Connecticut. This grande dame of a village once vied with Newport as the toniest resort in the state, but its turn-of-the-20th-century shingled “cottages” were much less pretentious. Indeed, when I started visiting Watch Hill with my then-two-year-old son, it was a rambling, fraying, lost place; the large old houses were considered white elephants, hard to maintain, constantly battered by ocean wind and salt water.
We used to stay in the ramshackle Ocean House, built in 1868, with its huge stone hearth and communal dining room. The place always felt thrillingly, frighteningly as if it were about to slide into the ocean. We would head down toward the beach to ride the colorful wooden creatures of the Flying Horse Carousel. The wind caught their real tails and manes and we suspected we might soon spin off into the air. Residents claim that the carousel, built in 1879, is the oldest in the country.
But that was in the mid 1980’s, before the go-go years of the last boom economy. In the nineties, a new generation of money began to renovate the old houses. The Ocean House was rescued by Chuck Royce, a Wall Street financier with a passion for architecture. He spent an astonishing $146 million over five years to tear down the building and rebuild it, replicating the old exterior and its sunny color. Inside, there is little left of the old place, except for the handsome stone hearth—and the stunning views over a long, dramatic, sandy beach and the open ocean.
Where the old hotel had 159 guest rooms, the new one has 49. Each room is large and the bathrooms are spalike, with Edwardian-style fixtures. Art from the local Lily Pad Gallery (for sale) lines the hallways. There’s a seriously long indoor pool and a spa that features seasonal ingredients, such as pumpkins in the fall and strawberries in the spring, in its scrubs and oils. At the restaurant, Seasons, all the produce is fresh and locally harvested whenever possible, and the bread alone is worth the price of admission. You have to be an investment banker to afford to stay here—or to buy one of the lovely residences on offer. But, hey, that’s probably in keeping with the original spirit of the place.
Leaving Seasons one night, it struck me, as only someone staggering away from a deliciously indulgent meal can be struck, gazing out over the starlight twinkling in the ragged surf, that coastal Rhode Island is a delicious, old-fashioned ice cream sandwich of a place. On either end are the rich, luxurious bits. The fun stuff is in the middle, and you have to catch it fast before it disappears—only to be replaced by something quite similar, in another delicious flavor. But at its heart, and in spite of the encroachment of real estate developers, the true coastal experience, the one that leaves a trace on the soul, hasn’t actually changed that much in 200 years. Its riches remain quietly hidden among coves and crannies, tucked in under the scrubby pines and behind the dunes, available to anyone curious enough to slow down and find them.
Eat and Drink
Art Café Be grateful that there are still people who believe that there’s nothing better than the combination of espresso, homemade pastries, and squashed, comfy sofas. 7 South of Commons Rd., Little Compton; no phone; coffee for two $6.
Black Pearl Classic seafood spot in the heart of the city. Bannister’s Wharf, Newport; 401/846-5264; dinner for two $45.
Coastal Roasters Bracing espresso, roasted on site. 1791 Main Rd., Tiverton; 401/624-2343; coffee for two $6.
Commons Lunch 48 Commons Way, Little Compton; 401/635-4388; lunch for two $32.
Evelyn’s Drive-In Great fried clams. 2335 Main Rd., Tiverton; 401/624-3100; lunch for two $50.
Gray’s Ice Cream 16 East Rd., Tiverton; 401/624-4500; ice cream for two $8.
Iggy’s Doughboys & Chowder House 1157 Point Judith Rd., Narragansett; 401/783-5608; dinner for two $30.
Matunuck Oyster Bar Take a seat under an umbrella for local shellfish and views over the small marsh pond. 629 Succotash Rd., East Matunuck; 401/783-4202; dinner for two $60.
Milk & Honey Bazaar 3838 Main Rd., Tiverton; 401/624-1974; lunch for two $25.
Provender 3883 Main Rd., Tiverton; 401/624-8084; lunch for two $27.
Sakonnet Vineyards Stop here for a light lunch at picnic tables under the trees; try the America’s Cup White. 162 W. Main Rd., Little Compton; 401/635-8486; lunch for two $25; tours free.
Seasons 1 Bluff Ave., Watch Hill; 401/315-5599; dinner for two $120.
Amy C. Lund, Handweaver Studio & Gallery 3964 Main Rd., Tiverton; 401/816-0000.
Conanicut Marine Services Shop 20 Narragansett Ave., Jamestown; 401/423-7158.
Cottage at Four Corners Designer Nancy Hemenway’s store is the go-to spot for housewares. 3847 Main Rd., Tiverton; 401/625-5814.
Gallery 4 Sells clean-lined furniture from China and Vietnam as well as colorful shoes and shawls from Turkey. 3848 Main Rd., Tiverton; 401/816-0999.
Mills Creek Lovely handcrafted goods for wardrobe and table. 4436 Old Post Rd., Charlestown; 401/364-9399.
Roseberry-Winn Pottery 3842 Main Rd., Tiverton; 401/816-0010.
Sakonnet Purls The place to find thousands of yarns in every color. 3988 Main Rd., Tiverton; 401/624-9902.
Tiffany Peay Jewelry 3851 Main Rd., Tiverton; 888/808-0201; tiffanypeay.com.
Umbrella Factory Gardens 4820 Old Post Rd., Charlestown; 401/364-9166.
See and Do
Blithewold Mansion It’s worth the trip just to see the 32 acres of beautiful gardens. 101 Ferry Rd., Bristol; 401/253-2707; admission $10.
Brownell Library 44 Commons, Little Compton; 401/635-8562.
The Elms 367 Bellevue Ave., Newport; 401/847-1000; newportmansions.org; admission $14.50.
Green Animals Topiary Garden Delightful garden featuring a camel, giraffe, bear, and more; all started in 1880. 380 Cory’s Lane, Portsmouth; 401/847-1000; admission $14.50.
Kingscote 253 Bellevue Ave., Newport; 401/847-1000; newportmansions.org.
Marble House 596 Bellevue Ave., Newport; 401/847-1000; newportmansions.org.
Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge Great for spotting cranes, osprey, hawks, gulls, and more. 50 Bend Rd., Charlestown; 401/364-9124; fws.gov/ninigret.
Redwood Library & Athenaeum 50 Bellevue Ave., Newport; 401/847-0292.
Touro Synagogue 85 Touro St., Newport.; 401/847-4794.
United Congregational Church Gracious old church whose steeple can be seen from the sea. 1 Commons Way, Little Compton; 401/635-8472.
Watson Farm 455 North Rd., Jamestown; 401/423-0005.
Wilbor House 548 W. Main Rd., Little Compton; 401/635-4035.
Worm Ladies of Charlestown 161 E. Beach Rd., Charlestown; 401/322-7675.